UFC 279 is one of few cards in the modern era to be headlined by a non-title bout. This is a rare occurrence, the last being Colby Covington vs. Jorge Masvidal.
In order for a championship to be not on the line, the UFC must have intense trust in the headliner’s star power, and while Nate Diaz goes without saying, Khamzat Chimaev is something special with how quick and bright his star has burned in the past few years. Not only is Chimaev an entertaining and captivating character, but the way that he has risen in his fights is something to behold, he is both dominant and goes to war, and the successes he has accomplished along the way are unprecedented.
As UFC 279 grows nearer, it’s time to once again take a deep dive into Khamzat Chimaev and ask what makes him so good?
Fighters, more than any other athletes, seem to be cultivated from adversity. Chimaev’s original opponent, Nate Diaz, is famous for explaining his introduction to fighting as going to the gym because it meant one of the guys there would get him a burrito, and otherwise, he wouldn’t be able to eat that day. Jose Aldo and Charles Oliveira became champions by using MMA to leave poverty and the Brazilian Favelas. Yet, Khamzat Chimaev’s story rivals any and all of these.
Chimaev was born in Chechnya, Russia, in 1994 during the war. He described his childhood as “a hard time without food” and cited his religion and a small village as his home. Despite being born into hardship, he channeled that fear and subsequent aggression into combat sports, starting wrestling by age five. Russia is the most dominant nation in wrestling in the world, and the Soviet Union still holds the record for the most Olympic medals in the sports history.
Chimaev thrived in that sport in that area of the world as a youth, winning a bronze at the Junior Russian National Championships before, he and his mother immigrated to Sweden to meet his brother when he was 18. Once relocated, Chimaev then went on to three Swedish National Championships, the last without giving up a single point.
The technical skills
His roots in wrestling stem very far back into his childhood, and those skills are largely what makes him the fighter he is today. The variety in takedowns that Chimaev offers is a challenge for anyone opposite him. He shoots extremely low and commits to attacking the legs, but also just as often shoots with the intent of rising and meeting the sprawl and getting to double underhooks. From here, he attacks outside trips or even tries to elevate his opponent completely. Once he completes the takedown, his control is something special, he is a master at figure-fouring the legs. Often he will look to secure just one which allows his opponent to attempt an escape and give up the back, which is how he so seamlessly transitions
Yet, as a mixed martial artist, Chimaev may have adapted to other skills better than any wrestler turned fighter in the UFC. His submissions are slick, especially his D’arce, which he has used to finish opponents three times. His punching power is also evident with one-shot KO ability, and although his striking sticks largely to the fundamentals, it is fight and sharp. His best punches come up the center, and he likes to either trap his opponents against the fence and land or get them to clash with him and run onto his punches. If there is one flaw that was clear in his most recent bout, it’s that over time, the rigidity of his head movement comes out, but largely he is as fluid a striker as any elite wrestler who adopted the secondary skill set.
Talent, drive, fighting instinct
There have been countless MMA fighters throughout the life of the sport with incredible talent. We have seen fighters who seem to enter the matrix, and yet the vast majority of these natural talents do not also have the grit to entertain a long career, consistently battle adversity or go to the epitome of war in the octagon. We have also seen those fighters who lack natural talent but persevere and work harder than anyone else in the room and break out on top. We have seen those who are the most talented or the most driven in the training room, but they look like they were born for battle when they have to rise to the occasion.
The special thing about Khamzat Chimaev is that he somehow showcases all three. He won a Bronze medal at the Russian Junior Nationals. He then bested himself by winning two golds at the Swedish Nationals before going further and earning a third, a weight class up without dropping a point. He then earned a 3-0 perfect amateur MMA record. Then he went 6-0 as a pro before entering the UFC, getting then to 11-0 while breaking records in striking differentials and quickest turnaround. The most impressive thing is that despite all the success and lack of adversity, he never got complacent, he improved with every performance, and while the accomplishments grew in number, the quality he executed them with did also.
Finally, in his most recent fight, he met Gilbert Burns, the #2 welterweight in the world. Going into the fight, Chimaev’s performances were flawless, he had never lost a round, and he had finished everybody he had fought. While no one questioned his skills, how he reacted to any potential adversity was simply unknown, and Burns finally provided fans with an answer. In three full rounds the two went back and forth, both being close to getting finished multiple times. While it was not the clean victory we had come to expect from the Chechnyan, it was now clear that he could come out of the other end of a blood and guts war just as confidently.
What makes Chimaev so good?
Chimaev was born into adversity in life, which forced him to direct his talent and energy into martial arts almost from birth. That culminated in a vicious run in combat sports from child to young adulthood, and while success kept coming, his drive never waned. Chimaev is a rare combination of immense natural talent and a hunger for improvement and victory that seems to never be quenched, and if stories from the training room are to be believed, he is the most intense fighter you can find there. With all that talent and drive, the only thing left is to make the most of it at the moment, and we have seen him earn UFC victories cold and collected through dominating performances and by enduring a dog fight at the highest level in the division.
The next test will be against Kevin Holland, under the brightest lights, with likely the most eyes on a UFC event in the entire year. It’s once again time for Chimaev to rise to another challenge and up his own accomplishments even more.