MMA

UFC 294: Khamzat Chimaev’s hype train has slowed, but could roar back with win vs. Kamaru Usman

UFC 294: Khamzat Chimaev's hype train has slowed, but could roar back with win vs. Kamaru Usman

Khamzat Chimaev can get the hype train rolling again with a win Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 294 over ex-welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Precious few MMA fans had ever heard of Khamzat Chimaev when he made his walk to the Octagon for his UFC debut on July 15, 2020, on what was then being called "Fight Island" in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. He had built a 6-0 record with six finishes on the regional circuit, but he was on no one's list of MMA's hottest prospects as he prepared to fight John Phillips in a middleweight bout.

And, even after a dominant win that night, a second-round submission via D'Arce choke, there wasn't a ton of buzz about him. But in a span of 67 days — the time from his first fight in the UFC to his third — he not only established himself as a likely champion and a superior prospect but also as one of the most popular fighters in the UFC.

He improved his overall MMA record to 9-0 and his UFC mark to 3-0 by finishing Phillips by D'Arce on July 15, 2020; by knocking out Rhys McKee at 3:09 of the first on July 25, 2020; and then by stopping Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds of the first round on Sept. 19, 2020.

In those three fights, he won once by submission and twice by KO, landed 87 of 120 significant strikes, absorbed one significant strike, in three attempts, and was 3-of-4 on takedown defense.

There was a mania about him that was unlike any after three bouts, save perhaps for Conor McGregor and Brock Lesnar.

The mania has died significantly, as it usually does, though it's not much about the way that Chimaev has fought. He won his next three fights, two by submission and one by decision, and has clearly established himself as championship timber. UFC CEO Dana White told Yahoo Sports that the winner of the bout between Chimaev and Kamaru Usman on Saturday in Abu Dhabi in the co-main event of UFC 294 will face middleweight champion Sean Strickland next for the title.

Chimaev, who previously trained with Strickland in Las Vegas, was not jumping for joy over White's announcement. And he didn't see Strickland as much of a threat, even though Strickland's coming off a dominant victory over Israel Adesanya.

"I mean, I've taken him down, I've held him down, I've choked him and I've punched him," Chimaev said of Strickland. "I've done all those things so I don't see something special about him. Basically, he's a fighter's fighter. He's a good fighter. If you look at him, he's like an American cowboy from the movies. That's the kind of guy he is. We've done our work in the gym together and if they offer him to me, if I can fight him for the belt, that's what I'll do. I want to make the money and get the belt, but I have nothing against him.

"I think if you compare us skill-levels wise, I'm levels above him. I'm in a whole different stratosphere from him. But he's a good guy and a good fighter."

Gilbert Burns and Khamzat Chimaev went toe-to-toe in a slugfest at UFC 273 on April 9, 2022, in Jacksonville, Florida. Chimaev won by unanimous decision. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

The hype train that surrounded Chimaev has slowed substantially. Part of it is because he hasn't fought as frequently so he hasn't been in the public eye as much. He went 407 days after Fight 3 in the UFC until Fight 4. It was 162 days from Fight 4 to Fight 5 and 155 days from Fight 5 until Fight 6. He submitted Kevin Holland in the first round of UFC 279 in September 2022, so it will be 407 days between fights when he faces Usman on Saturday.

That's not, though, the sole reason why the hype train has slowed. He was clearly the victor in his bout with Gilbert Burns on April 9, 2022, at UFC 273, winning a unanimous decision. He wasn't nearly as dominant as he had been, and he didn't even perform as well against Burns as Usman had. Usman stopped Burns in the third round on Feb. 12, 2021, at UFC 258.

Burns landed more significant strikes (119-108) and at a higher percentage (59% to 48%) against Chimaev. Burns was 0-for-5 on takedown attempts against Chimaev, who was 2-for-3 against Burns. But when Burns fought Usman, it wasn't nearly as even. Usman outlanded Burns in significant strikes, 83-45, and connected at a much higher percentage, 61% to 41%.

Usman told Yahoo Sports that Chimaev's thinking probably changed after his bout with Burns.

"Gilbert is a bad dude," Usman said. "But I think Khamzat realized after that fight he wasn't going to run over everyone like he had been."

No one should think less of Chimaev, though. In his win over Holland at UFC 279, he pulled off a rare feat when he won a fight without even landing a significant strike. He was 1-for-2 in total strikes thrown, though Holland, one of the game's finest strikers, didn't attempt even one strike.

Chimaev took him down twice, accumulated 1:56 of control time and submitted Holland in 2:13. There aren't many fighters who are either capable of winning a bout without landing a significant strike or accumulating 87.2 percent of control time in it.

It sets him apart because he's so versatile, so freakishly strong and so confident.

If Chimaev gets past Usman, especially in dominant fashion, then the early hype surrounding him was completely justified.

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