A problem which occurs when an individual athlete dominates their sport is that if they do not continue to annihilate their opposition, they begin to look rather average. Khamzat Chimaev is no stranger to this dilemma.
After Chimaev’s first four UFC fights, many began to believe he would be capable of exercising an unparalleled level of domination within the sport. After all, he had a combined fight time of only four hundred and seventy-four seconds and had absorbed just one significant strike, whilst landing one hundred and twelve of his own.Embed from Getty Images
Khamzat Chimaev looked as close to invincible as any fighter has ever looked inside the Octagon.
However, when he faced off with Gilbert Burns in April of last year, he encountered adversity for the first time in his professional career. Chimaev was left bloody and visibly fatigued at the end of the bout. However, his relentless forward pressure, two takedowns and a knockdown, led to him deservedly winning a unanimous decision.
Criticism followed this victory. But I think MMA fans were too quick to overlook Chimaev’s opponent, Gilbert Burns.Embed from Getty Images
Burns was the elite of the elite. He is a former World BJJ champion, a discipline he has adapted seamlessly into MMA having won five UFC bouts by submission. Furthermore, before facing Chimaev, Burns only had one loss at one hundred and seventy pounds- that was against then-champion Kamaru Usman (more on him later).
Against an opponent this highly credentialed, any win is worthy of praise. Nonetheless, negative narratives surrounding Khamzat became prevalent. Suggestions that he lacked endurance, that he would struggle against opponents who also specialised in grappling and that he would panic when he couldn’t secure a first-round finish were all commonplace.
Let me reiterate, these narratives were spawned after a win.
Despite losing, it was Gilbert Burns who received most of the plaudits post-fight. On the other hand, Khamzat Chimaev’s performance faced criticism, despite grinding out a deserved victory.
Fast forward eighteen months and the zeitgeist feels oddly familiar.
Once again, Chimaev finds himself having deservedly won a fight yet his performance is being scrutinised by both fans and pundits. Similar to the Gilbert Burns fight, this stems from the victory coming by way of decision and not via a finish. And once again I think Chimaev’s opponent is being overlooked, mainly due to taking the fight on short notice, leading to Khamzat’s performance being unfairly criticised too.
This time out Chimaev got the better of former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. Usman has won fifteen times in the UFC and possesses one of the most well-rounded MMA skill sets in the sport’s history. He is viewed by most as the consensus second-greatest fighter in the welterweight division’s history behind only Georges- St- Pierre.Embed from Getty Images
Khamzat Chimaev did not care about this.
Chimaev man-handled Usman for the first five minutes of the fight, then proceeded to go toe-to-toe with him in striking exchanges in round two before taking Usman down again in the final round securing a decision.Embed from Getty Images
So why is everyone suggesting that Khamzat Chimaev’s performance was somehow lacklustre?
The adage of someone ‘suffering from success’ comes to mind.
MMA fighters are particularly susceptible to this. MMA is a sport where victory does not always equate to a sublime performance. Often the subjectivity of judges’ scorecards and the underwhelming reality of ‘boring’ fights can lead fans to criticize a victory more so than a loss. Just ask Paddy Pimblett about his win over Jarred Gordon last December…
Because of this, I believe that MMA fans are failing to appreciate that Khamzat Chimaev is performing at a level as high as any fighter in the history of the sport.
He has just beaten an opponent who only fifteen months ago was ranked by the UFC as the pound-for-pound best fighter on the planet. He had only been taken down once in seventeen UFC fights before fighting Chimaev.Embed from Getty Images
Khamzat took him down four times in fifteen minutes. Furthermore, over half of Chimaev’s professional MMA victories have come in the UFC, with an additional victory outside of the world’s premier promotion coming against a fighter who is now on the UFC’s books.
He has therefore been fighting the best fighters in the world for the majority of his career. Nobody can claim he has a ‘padded record’, a criticism once thrown at Khabib Nurmagomedov, a fighter Chimaev is often compared to due to their similar fighting style.Embed from Getty Images
It is statistics like these which highlight Chimaev’s ability. Subjectively, his performance against Kamaru Usman highlighted to me that he possesses a level of mastery, particularly in the grappling side of the sport, unlike anything we may have seen before.
Therefore, instead of casting doubt over Chimaev’s performance at UFC 294, we should instead appreciate we are seeing the rise of what appears to be a future UFC champion. Instead of criticising his most recent victory, we should focus on the result, more so than the performance.Embed from Getty Images
If we take it at face value, it was a victory against a former champion. A former champion who reigned by defending takedowns and utilising high-level grappling. A former champion who was ultimately outclassed at his own game by Khamzat Chimaev.
If Chimaev can work on sustaining his offensive potency in rounds two, three and ultimately four and five, alongside refining his striking, I struggle to see an opponent beating him at one hundred and eighty-five pounds in the near future.