Khamzat Chimaev shows his heart in Fight of the Year front-runner as UFC enters the Chimaev Era

·Combat columnist
·6 min read

Khamzat Chimaev may never be the pound-for-pound best fighter in the world. He may never even be a UFC champion. Neither, obviously, is out of the question, but even if he doesn’t reach either goal, it won’t matter a bit.

This guy has star written all over him and with his performance Saturday in a breathtaking battle with Gilbert Burns at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, on the main card of UFC 273, he took another big step toward the top of the heap.

Since Russia invaded Ukraine on Feb. 24, there hasn’t been much love for Russia or Russians. At every UFC event since the war began, the mention of the word Russia when a fighter was introduced led to a loud, lusty chorus of boos.

When Chimaev, who was born in Chechnya, Russia, made his way to the Octagon for the fight with Burns, the arena erupted. The fans roared their approval of everything he did.

It didn’t hurt that the fight was awarded Fight of the Night and is a front-runner for Fight of the Year. When UFC president Dana White was announcing the post-fight bonus winners, he smirked when he got to Fight of the Night.

“If you guys don’t know what the Fight of the Night is, you probably shouldn’t be here,” he said with a grin.

There are a lot of fighters in the UFC who are exciting, who win Fight of the Night or Performance of the Night bonuses on a regular basis who aren’t nearly as popular as Chimaev already has become. And his popularity is going to only grow.

On Monday of fight week, White told Yahoo Sports, the pay-per-view was trending as if it were a Conor McGregor fight. McGregor is the biggest draw in MMA and his PPVs regularly sell well over 1 million.

ESPN owns the rights to the pay-per-views and doesn’t like the numbers to be disclosed, so White steadfastly refused during the week to give an estimate. Be assured, though, that it’s going to do a significant number.

“We had two title fights on top of the card and he was getting the most attention of anyone,” White said.

One of the major reasons why was demonstrated not 15 seconds into the fight. The bell rang and Chimaev raced at Burns, fired a right hand and went for a takedown. He fights at a frenzied pace from start to finish.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - APRIL 09: Khamzat Chimaev of Russia punches Gilbert Burns of Brazil in the welterweight bout during the UFC 273 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 09, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - APRIL 09: Khamzat Chimaev of Russia punches Gilbert Burns of Brazil in the welterweight bout during the UFC 273 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 09, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

But it’s the audacity he has to be willing to fight someone like Burns. Chimaev debuted in the UFC in 2020 and won two fights in 10 days and got his third victory in two months when he knocked out middleweight Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds.

He has a swagger that few in combat sports history had. Muhammad Ali had it, more than anyone in any sport. Mike Tyson had it, too. McGregor, Ronda Rousey and Chuck Liddell had it in MMA.

He doesn’t care what weight class he fights in. He doesn’t care where his opponent is ranked. He just wants to fight as often as he can.

Who knows where he’d be now had he not caught COVID-19 in late 2020. It was so bad, he announced his retirement at one point.

It slowed the momentum ever so slightly, but when he returned in October, he fought Li Jingliang and jump-started it again by grabbing Jingliang at the opening bell, carrying him over to where White was seated and engaging in a conversation with White while proceeding to batter Jingliang.

He introduced a new word into our lexicon — smesh — and pretty much smeshed everyone he’d faced until he met Burns.

Burns, though, was a different character. He was No. 2 in the welterweight rankings for a reason, a seasoned, polished guy with great jiu-jitsu skills and an amazing all-around game.

He didn’t allow Chimaev to drill him at the bell, nor to carry him around the ring like a sack of potatoes. He dropped Chimaev twice in the second round and landed a series of good shots.

The fight hung in the balance after two. Chimaev clearly won the first and Burns clearly took the second.

When the third began, no one needed to tell Chimaev what he needed to do, though his coaches let him have it for his performance in the middle round.

When the bell sounded, he blitzed Burns like T.J. Watt going after a scared quarterback and won the fight on sheer guts and determination.

JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - APRIL 09: Khamzat Chimaev of Russia reacts after defeating Gilbert Burns of Brazil in the welterweight bout during the UFC 273 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 09, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)
JACKSONVILLE, FLORIDA - APRIL 09: Khamzat Chimaev of Russia reacts after defeating Gilbert Burns of Brazil in the welterweight bout during the UFC 273 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 09, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images)

Afterward, he was asked if how hard Burns fought had changed his opinion about the difficulty of winning at the elite level in the UFC. Before the fight, he’d boasted about how easily he’d smesh Burns and how he considered himself the champion.

Burns put up a ferocious battle and it was noted how tough the opponents are in the top five at the championship level.

“I don’t care. You think I’m not tough?” he said. “I showed my heart. I’m tougher than everyone. I’ll smesh them all.”

He’s got big-time power and high-level wrestling, so he is going to be a problem for whomever he may face in whatever division he may fight in.

But he’s going to sell because he’s one of those rare fighters that people flock to and want to see and hear from. There are a lot of reasons for his popularity, but they all add up to make the whole much greater than the sum of its parts.

He’s the guy where two plus two equals 10.

He could become a freelancer, fighting at middleweight and welterweight, cherry-picking the best and most attractive bouts.

He’s likely to fight No. 1 Colby Covington next, and he’ll probably lose somewhere along the way because in MMA, virtually everyone does. It’s how the sport is and why it’s so popular.

Winning is important for Chimaev, but it’s only part of the package.

Be prepared for the Chimaev Era, because you’re going to see him everywhere over the next five or so years.

He may well be the face of the UFC before he’s done.