The breakout star of the inaugural UFC Fight Island in Abu Dhabi, Khamzat Chimaev was almost instantly a record breaker and soon a veritable social media star. Then his career, and his health, stalled.
Having raced to 3-0 in the UFC in the space of two tornado months, with wins at welterweight and middleweight swelling his professional mixed martial record to 9-0, the Chechen-born athlete was dismantling opponents.
Until Covid-19 broke him down.
At one point, while age only 26, Chimaev reportedly thought he would die. Unable to shake the virus’ lingering effects, as his return to the octagon was cancelled and cancelled again, he seemed to decide on retirement.
Thankfully now, Chimaev is fully recovered and back in Abu Dhabi to compete for the first time in 13 months. And he’s chomping at the bit. Seemingly literally.
“I'm going to eat him up, like I do always,” Chimaev told media on Wednesday in the capital, three days out from his clash against No 11-ranked welterweight Li Jingliang at UFC 267. “Nine fights, nine finishes.
“My game is going, 'Kill, take his heart.' Nothing more."
Chimaev’s comeback represents one of the principal subplots on a fight night at Etihad Arena that features two title bouts. Before those, Islam Makhachev meets Dan Hooker a must-see lightweight encounter.
If the hype for the Sweden-based Chimaev is sky-high - his Instagram account is well beyond 2 million followers - it feels warranted. In July last year, he submitted the experienced John Phillips in the second round on promotional debut at du Forum. He then made history for the quickest turnaround between wins when he dominated newcomer Rhys McKee, at the same venue, 10 days later.
On his big Las Vegas bow, in September, Chimaev crumpled veteran Gerald Meerschaert in 17 seconds. Across three bouts, spanning only 66 days, the UFC’s latest sensation had landed 196 significant strikes. He absorbed two.
But Covid struck, and struck hard. Bookings with Leon Edwards got repeatedly shelved.
Yet here he is again, with his killer lines and distinctive drawl and fierce glaze. And, at times, his almost comical insouciance.
"Actually, no,” Chimaev said when asked if he knew much about his upcoming opponent (Li is a real threat, last time out recording a standout knockout of Santiago Ponzinibbio in Abu Dhabi). “I didn't know this guy was in the UFC at all.
“When I hear his name, I'm like, 'What?' I can't [say] his name. I see his highlights, his highlight against Neil Magny, and he lost that fight. I don't like to watch my opponents. I'm more focused on what I'm going to do.
“Like last time, I’ll go in, smash this guy. If you focus on what he does, he's going to do something. But if you focus on what you're going to do, you do everything."
Still, Li constitutes the only ranked competitor Chimaev will have fought thus far in his fledgling UFC career. So, in theory, he forms his most difficult challenge to date.
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"I don't think so, brother,” Chimaev said with a shrug. “Always people going to talk someone is better. But I'm going to go and take his head.”
Chimaev, who said surprisingly that he has not yet been vaccinated against Covid - “I have to do that when I go back to Sweden. If it's a good thing to be healthy, why not." – is concentrated at present on welterweight, he said.
He is keen, also, to get back to churning out win after win, irrespective of the time between them.
“It’s up to UFC,” he said. “I'm a warrior, I come here, kill everyone. I want to show who I am. I want to beat all the top guys and become champion.”
Chimaev, 27, said he did have “big respect” to Li for taking the fight, but that he expected another fearsome display on Saturday would once more have rivals running scared.
“I hope so,” he said. “But I don't think these guys want to fight me after this fight. We'll see what happens after this fight.”
It appeared, though, that he was finally glad to be back in the spotlight.
"This good, brother," he said. "It's nice, amazing to be here in the UFC and fight. I enjoy it more than everything. Speak with you, other people, it's nice.
“It was hard, always been hard. I've only been fighting four or five years in MMA. I was watching before, and that was also hard. I want to fight always in the UFC. And now I'm here, I fight this Saturday, and I'm hungry. More hungry than I've been. I have been without my meat for more than a year.”
Fans at Etihad Arena, not to mention bonus-cheque-writing UFC president Dana White, could be in for another treat, Chimaev said.
"Just tell them, brother, 'Kill, eat him up, get some meat, and maybe 50Gs',” he concluded. “We'll see."