Khamzat Chimaev may never become champion: Examining the shift in the undefeated Chechen-born fighter's career

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Khamzat Chimaev may very well fail to fulfill his perceived potential. [Image courtesy: @UFCEurope via X]

Khamzat Chimaev is one of the biggest names in the UFC. At one point, he was regarded as the perfect choice to fill the vacuum left by Khabib Nurmagomedov followed by the latter's retirement. That is to say, 'Borz' had a superficial resemblance to Nurmagomedov.

They are both from the Caucasus, devout Muslims, and strong grapplers who have never tasted defeat in MMA. Thus, many drew parallels between the two men, and Chimaev was regarded as an uncrowned UFC champion, with some even claiming that he would become the promotion's first three-division titleholder.

However, it has now been four years since Chimaev's UFC debut, and he is no champion. He hasn't fought for a title once, while Alex Pereira has debuted and captured two titles in the time since 'Borz's' debut. Now, with him out of his UFC Saudi Arabia bout with Robert Whittaker, he may never touch UFC gold.


The decline in Khamzat Chimaev's activity

At one point, Khamzat Chimaev was at the helm of one of the most active runs anyone could hope for from a UFC fighter. He made his promotional debut on July 16, 2020. There was an initial spark of intrigue due to his undefeated record and Chechen background, but that blazed into a firestorm with his performance.

He ran through John Philips in a middleweight bout, submitting him with a brabo choke. Then, in a stunning move that earned him even more attention, Chimaev made the quickest turnaround in modern UFC history, as just 10 days later, he faced and TKO'd Rhys McKee within three minutes.

However, his activity didn't stop there. Two months later, he flattened MMA veteran Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds. Just like that, he had scored three finishes in 2020, and in a manner that no one else ever has. It made for quite the debut year. In 2021, he continued his superhuman run of form.

He faced the tough and reliable Li Jingliang, manhandling and submitting him within three minutes, doing so in front of UFC CEO Dana White, who sat cage-side and with whom Chimaev conversed. To longtime MMA fans, this was reminiscent of Khabib Nurmagomedov telling Michael Johnson to give up while beating him.

Everyone was certain he would become a champion at welterweight and middleweight, and possibly even light heavyweight. However, his activity dove off a cliff in some respects, and for various reasons, like his difficulties obtaining a United States VISA due to his ties to Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov.

He managed to fight twice in 2022, but only fought once in 2023 and hasn't fought at all in 2024, despite being six months into the year. At 30 years old, he is no longer the young 20-something prospect many thought would have been a champion by now. His time is running out, and less activity won't help his case.


Khamzat Chimaev's struggles with top-level competition

Khamzat Chimaev was once distinguished not just by his undefeated record, but by the fact that he had finished everyone he had ever faced. His dominance knew no bounds, and he was expected to be similarly unstoppable against higher-level competition. After all, Khabib Nurmagomedov was, so why not him?

At UFC 273, he took on the biggest test of his career up to that point, facing former welterweight title challenger Gilbert Burns. Despite a strong start to the fight, including a takedown and knockdown of the Brazilian, 'Borz' grew reckless and began to fade badly down the stretch.

Before long, he found himself in a dog-fight with Burns, their contest devolving into a bloody, sloppy brawl that saw Chimaev rocked several times. Ultimately, he won a unanimous decision that was questioned by some. It was not a performance befitting a future champion, and the UFC knew this.

It's why the promotion tried to book him to face Nate Diaz, a tailor-made opponent, at UFC 279 to reestablish Chimaev's image as a dominant force. However, even that failed, though not because Diaz beat Chimaev. Instead, Chimaev failed to make weight, registering seven and a half pounds over the welterweight limit.

For this, he was demoted from the main event slot and made to fight Kevin Holland in the co-headliner. While he submitted his foe with relative ease in round one, Holland is not elite opposition, whom over a win says nothing about whether the victor can become champion.

Chimaev's ability to look good against high-level foes became an even bigger question after he faced Kamaru Usman at UFC 294. 'The Nigerian Nightmare' had replaced Paulo Costa, who had undergone a recent elbow surgery. Given that the welterweight titleholder stepped in on just 10 days, his chances looked bleak.

Round one of their fight went Chimaev's way, with the unbeaten Chechen outwrestling and outmuscling Usman with shocking ease. Unfortunately, he tired quickly, looking sloppy in the striking exchanges in rounds two and three. Despite being the one with full camp training, Chimaev tired, while Usman seemed fitter.

To be less conditioned than an opponent coming in on 10 days notice was damning. In the end, Chimaev won via majority decision, but many were dismissive of his win, with some feeling that Usman had done enough to earn the judges' decision.

Thus, Chimaev had, again, failed to impress against top-level opposition, leading to more questions about his own mettle as an elite fighter. If he, an experienced middleweight, struggled and gassed out against a former welterweight in Usman, who had just 10 days to prepare, is he really a future champion?


Khamzat Chimaev isn't reliable

One of the most unfortunate truths about Khamzat Chimaev is that he's been plagued by a myriad of issues. He has already missed weight by a staggering amount, which left the UFC with so little confidence in his welterweight prospects that he's been forced to stay at middleweight.

There are also persistent rumors that his open flirtation with heavily-sanctioned Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov has led to difficulties securing a United States VISA, which many believe to be the reason for his head-scratching inactivity and alleged inability to fight on American soil since 2022.

More than that, however, he seems to be battling with ongoing health issues. Chimaev, while still talented, doesn't seem to be the same beast he was prior to testing positive to COVID-19. It pulled him from a bout with Leon Edwards in 2020, and left him so ill that he considered retirement.

Ahead of his UFC 294 fight with Kamaru Usman, 'Borz' contracted a mystery illness, with the unbeaten Chechen sharing, then deleting, pictures of himself with a swollen face and blotchy skin. Now, he has withdrawn from UFC Saudi Arabia matchup with former middleweight champion Robert Whittaker.

The reason? Another illness, with some reports suggesting that it is a severe bout of food poisoning. Whether this is indeed the case, he simply isn't reliable anymore. With all these barriers, it will be a monumental effort for him to even fight consistently, let alone become a champion.

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Edited by Tejas Rathi
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