For mixed martial arts prospect Muhammad Mokaev, comparisons with UFC champion Khabib Nurmagomedov have been inevitable.
Both come from the Russian republic of Dagestan and often wear its traditional papakha headpiece. They have similar fighting styles and are both unbeaten.
But Mokaev’s skills were honed in the north west of England rather than the wrestling hotbed of Dagestan after he was “sneaked in” to the UK as a 12-year-old refugee.
Eight years on, he has Bahraini royalty in his corner and the MMA world at his feet. A two-time amateur world champion, he will make his professional debut in Sweden on Saturday.
“I want to be the youngest UFC champion ever,” he tells BBC Sport. “I want to show kids you can come from nothing and still be number one.
“Khabib’s a great role model to the next generation. But I want to be the first Muhammad Mokaev, not the second Khabib.
“I want to create my own history.”
Mokaev, who is based in Salford, is celebrating his 20th birthday on Thursday. Already he has some story.
‘My life started again from zero’
Shortly after his mother died, “political issues” forced Mokaev and his father Murad to flee Russia in July 2012.
Mokaev does not remember everything about their journey but knows they arrived by ferry, hidden inside a car. They had no money and just a bag of clothes.
After 28 days at a refugee centre in Liverpool, they were allocated a home in Wigan. Mokaev, a Muslim who did not speak a word of English, joined a Church of England school.
“My life started again from zero,” he says. “There are always tests in life; it depends how you’re going to react. If I had money when I came to the UK and all my family together, I think I’d be a different guy now.”
They got by on £36 a week in benefits, but after seeing his son mixing with “the wrong crowd”, Murad said he would give him £20 if he went to Wigan Youth Zone every day – and it was there he was reintroduced to wrestling.
He had tried it in Dagestan but only started enjoying it at Wigan and Leigh Wrestling Club. He was soon winning junior tournaments, becoming British champion in wrestling, and European champion in Brazilian jiu-jitsu.
In 2015 he had his first amateur MMA fight and, while still a Wigan schoolboy, was followed on Instagram by His Highness Sheikh Khalid bin Hamad al Khalifa – the fifth son of the King of Bahrain.
Sheikh Khalid was on the lookout for future MMA stars. Already a keen equestrian rider and triathlete, he launched the KHK MMA team – initially featuring Nurmagomedov – in 2015, then his own MMA promotion – the Brave Combat Federation – in 2016.
He told Mokaev to contact him if he needed anything. Mokaev didn’t want to ask, but “every time I won a tournament I’d send him a picture and we’d speak for hours on FaceTime”.
Mokaev moved to Salford, close to the British wrestling academy. Most days he trained there and with MMA coach Dean Garnett in Liverpool. He cleaned mats at the academy and offices in Manchester to make ends meet.
“I didn’t want to sit on the couch, getting benefits because I’m a refugee,” he says. “I wanted to make my father proud, to do something special, so I trained morning and night. I had to grind.”
Eventually, Mokaev needed help. In 2018, his travel documents weren’t accepted on arrival in Bahrain for the IMMAF World Championships. After waiting 32 hours to be deported, it was time to call the sheikh.
“I landed on the holy day so I didn’t want to disturb him until Saturday morning,” Mokaev says. “Within minutes people arrived to get me through the airport and to a five-star hotel.”
Mokaev, who now represents England but is yet to get a passport, won the junior bantamweight title in front of Nurmagomedov, who later told him to “keep it going”.
The 2019 event was also in Bahrain but this time Mokaev was stopped at Manchester airport and missed his flight. No matter – the next day the sheikh flew him out from London on his private Boeing to start a four-week training camp at his house.
“It’s beautiful,” says Mokaev. “There’s a massive gym, with 60 people. They cook for you, wash your kit, there’s even a Starbucks with free drinks.”
Sheikh Khalid carried Mokaev’s spit bucket as he defended his world title last November, shouting instructions from his corner before holding aloft an English flag.
“He kept telling me to wrestle – that’s my strength,” says Mokaev. “He’s a very humble guy, we can talk to each other openly.
“He’s surrounded by people that ask for things all the time; I wanted to stand out by not asking. Then your relationship becomes different, and now we’re good friends.”
Mokaev had two more wins in March before ending his amateur career with a 23-0 record to turn professional with Brave. But finding his first opponent has been difficult.
“Guys simply don’t want to fight him,” said Brave president Mohammed Shahid, before Northern Ireland’s Glenn McVeigh agreed to face him on Saturday.
Mokaev says he had more lucrative offers from rival promotions Bellator and One, plus UFC interest, but “my relationship with the sheikh is not about money”.
Sheikh Khalid accepts the UFC is “the dream” so has agreed a rolling contract, allowing Mokaev to leave Brave when he’s ready.
Time is on his side. Jon Jones became the youngest UFC champion in 2011, when at 23 years and 242 days he claimed the light-heavyweight title he still holds today.
Breaking that record is Mokaev’s goal, and to help him remember, he occasionally returns to where his new life began, distributing food at the refugee centre.
“When I see the kids – their clothes, their food – I see myself eight years ago,” he says. “It reminds me to stay motivated, to not stop, to go all the way.”