Khamzat Chimaev on a title warpath akin to Conor McGregor's

LAS VEGAS — Khamzat Chimaev is almost like a lottery ticket the UFC found on the sidewalk that turned out to be a winner. He came to the promotion unknown and unheralded, though whispers of his gym exploits were legion.

But Dana White & Co. had no legitimate reason to believe when Chimaev stepped into the cage for the first time that they had a potential superstar on their hands.

In his own way, though, Chimaev’s early days in the UFC turned out a lot like Conor McGregor’s did in 2013. McGregor, of course, was on public assistance in Ireland when he accepted his first fight with the UFC. He charmed the media before his bout and then blew everyone away with his ability in dismissing Marcus Brimage on April 6, 2013.

Chimaev made his debut with zero buzz on a Fight Night card on July 16, 2020, when he met John Phillips in a middleweight bout. He obliterated Phillips, using his wrestling to rag doll him around the cage until he submitted him with a D’Arce choke in the second. It was a jaw-dropping show of dominance.

Ten days later, he was back, and UFC president Dana White was urging caution. He was matched with welterweight Rhys McKee, and White told anyone who would listen that McKee was the real deal and wouldn’t be easy.

Chimaev went out and tore McKee apart, making it look easier than he did against Phillips, and stopped him with strikes a bit over three minutes into the first round.

Then, he basically one-punched Gerald Meerschaert in a middleweight bout on Sept. 19, 2020, knocking him out in 17 seconds.

The talent, clearly, was there, and even White, slow to praise up-and-comers, was impressed. And though Chimaev hasn’t fought since after getting COVID-19, White remains convinced Chimaev has the ability to one day wear a UFC belt.

Whether he will, though, remains an open question in White’s eyes.

“I think he could fight and do well in either weight class,” White said. “There is so much that determines whether someone can become a world champion. Obviously, you have to have the talent and Khamzat absolutely has the talent to become a champ. The question is once you start to become famous and you start to make millions of dollars, can you keep it all together? That’s the hard part for a lot of people and that remains to be seen.”

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 28: Khamzat Chimaev of Chechnya walks on stage during the UFC 267 press conference at Etihad Arena on October 28, 2021 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Khamzat Chimaev of Chechnya walks on stage during the UFC 267 news conference at Etihad Arena on Oct. 28, 2021, in Abu Dhabi. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

The UFC’s belief in Chimaev was evident earlier this year when it attempted to book him against Leon Edwards, the No. 3-ranked welterweight. Chimaev’s health wouldn’t let him take the bout, but the fact the UFC thought that highly of him with just three UFC bouts says much about how it feels about his talent.

He’ll finally return after a 13-month hiatus on Saturday at Etihad Arena on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi when he meets Li Jingliang — a +425 underdog at BetMGM — in a welterweight bout.

Chimaev — the -600 favorite — said simply, “I’m hungry,” as he discussed his layoff.

That hunger was evident in his fighting style, as he’s like a ravenous wolf on the hunt.

He’s still a neophyte in the UFC, and perhaps he’s speaking out of ignorance, but his confidence is so complete that even when he’s speaking in a matter-of-fact way, it comes off as trash talking.

Two of his three UFC fights have been at middleweight, but Jingliang is a welterweight. When Chimaev was asked whether he considers himself a welterweight now, he sort of shrugged, but his words spoke volumes.

“I gave my word to my coach that we’ll focus on 170 now,” Chimaev said. “We’ll take the belt and then after that, jump up and smash somebody there.”

It’s rare to see someone with the deep-seated belief in himself that Chimaev possesses. He wants to fight regularly and hopes to get another big bout like the one with Edwards after Jingliang.

But he knows everything isn’t in his control.

“I hope so, but I don’t think those guys will want to fight with me after this fight,” Chimaev said of the elite welterweights. “They’ll start to complain: ‘He didn’t fight nobody good yet,’ things like that. We’ll see what happens.”

That’s the fun part: seeing what happens with Chimaev. Because this is a guy who does something that draws you out of your seat every time. If he can continue that as he moves up the ranks, the comparisons with McGregor will only mount.