Against All Scorecards: Shavkat Rakhmonov’s Rise to Contendership

How 2023 was the breakout year for UFC fighter, Shavkat Rakhmonov, as he went from dark horse to fan favorite and one fight away from a title shot.

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By Carmen Gomez-Villalva

With his most recent win at UFC 296, undefeated mixed martial artist Shavkat Rakhmonov has cemented his position as the next big threat to Leon Edwards’s growing welterweight legacy. Rakhmonov, known as the “Nomad,” amassed a record of 12 wins and no losses in M-1 Global, a Russian regional promotion that scouts out talent to send to the UFC. Rakhmonov would win the M-1 Welterweight Championship in his 11th professional fight and defend it one time before signing with the UFC in 2020.

In his first two years after the promotion, Rakhmonov finished off all four of his opponents within two rounds, leading him to enter 2023 ranked number 10 in the welterweight division. But this year, he faced a new test, coming against “Handz of Steel,” Geoff Neal. The fight became a candidate for Fight of the Year, exceeding the expectations of hardcore fans and casuals alike. The two would take turns battering the other with piston left hands and brutal uppercuts, with Rakhmonov narrowly edging out Neal in the first two rounds. But by the third, “Nomad” began to lose some steam and got stumbled by an overhand right from Neal. At that moment, it seemed as though Rakhmonov could lose his 100 percent finish rate or possibly his undefeated record.

But Rakhmonov was not about to lose it all from one punch. Like a marauder, he returned fire and swarmed Neal later in the round, pressed him up against the fence, took his back, and finished the fight with a standing rear naked choke. In that fight, he showed the resilience necessary to be a champion. 

Rakhmonov’s fans knew he possessed the skills, but the world was now taking notice. “I believe [he is] ready. It was just a matter of letting the American people and letting the world know,” UFC commentator Joe Rogan said in Rakhmonov’s octagon interview.

Rakhmonov would not squander his newfound attention when he returned nine months later against former welterweight title challenger, Stephen Thompson. Though it was meant to be an easy takedown on a pure striker, Rakhmonov failed six of his attempted takedowns. He was also looking lethargic on the feet, incapable of mounting any offense against the elusive karate black belt. But once Rakhmonov secured a double leg, Thompson’s fate was sealed. He immobilized Thompson, rained down punches and elbows, and snatched up Thompson’s neck for his second rear naked choke of the year. That being said, fans were left unimpressed with his performance, having expected Rakhmonov to bulldoze right through him.

But any concern was stymied by Rakhmonov’s post-fight interview, where he revealed that he suffered a torn ligament to his ankle six weeks out of his bout. “Whatever injury [I have], you know I’m going to fight to my last blood, until the last sip of blood, because I have to get a win,” Rakhmonov said.

Rakhmonov has put the entire welterweight division and UFC fan base on notice with these past two performances. The year 2023 was merely his introduction into the limelight, because prior to his fight with Neal, Rakhmonov had never fought in front of a crowd. He has never spoken English in an interview and yet captivates the fans with his dominance in the octagon. To have a 100 percent finish rate with six fights in the UFC is a feat not shared with his contemporaries nor all-time greats such as Jon Jones or Georges St. Pierre, who fought in considerably less competitive eras. When he inevitably does receive a title shot, Rakhmonov is prepared to take it. He has everything to be a welterweight champion: a well-rounded game, dominance, and heart. Edwards will undoubtedly be a fighter unlike anyone Rakhmonov has ever faced, but Edwards has yet to defend against a surging and hungry contender like the “Nomad.”