About 20 seconds after the start of his fight against Gerald Meerschaert, Khamzat Chimaev was already partying.
It took just 17 seconds for Chimaev to take out the veteran American, completing a record-breaking streak of three straight UFC wins over a remarkable 66 days, winning the Performance of the Night award each time.
His wins over John Phillips and Rhys McKee were just 10, another record in modern sports history. Next was the highly rated Briton Leon Edwards.
But then “Borz” tested positive for the coronavirus. 11 months later, after three postponements, coughing up blood, premature retirement and a controversy at the weigh-in, the Swede of Russian origin is ready to fight again.
He will face Li Jingliang at UFC 267 on Saturday with his unbeaten record on the line. Will fans see the same fighter who burst onto the scene take the sport by storm? Below, Sportsmail assesses his chances of beating the Chinese 18-6 in Abu Dhabi.
UFC’s Khamzat Chimaev puts unbeaten record on stake in Abu Dhabi this weekend
Chimaev to face Li Jingliang (left) at UFC 267 on Saturday in his first fight in over a year
How did he get here?
Although Chimaev didn’t start training relatively late in MMA, at the age of 23 he started wrestling at the age of five in Chechnya, Russia.
After emigrating to Sweden with his mother at 19, he took a job in a small poultry factory in Kalmar and occasionally worked in security.
Majdi Shammas, who has a martial arts center in the capital Stockholm, remembers the first time he met Shimaev.
He told ESPN: “I went down and saw two guys jumped on one. I said, ‘Whoa, whoa! What’s going on here?’ I separated them, and the one who was alone, I did not know him.
“When I looked into his eyes, I could see that he just wanted to rip other people’s heads off. He knew I was the gym owner and I said, “Well, who are you? And he said, “I’m a wrestler and I want to be a professional MMA fighter.” And it was Khamzat.
The Russian-born star knocked out Gerald Meerschaert after just 17 seconds in September 2020
After seeing his initial promise, Shammas claims that he kept Chimaev in the gym so much that he did not return home for two years.
He continued his wrestling career – which currently sits at 22-0 – winning three gold medals between 2015 and 2018 at the national championships, during which time he also won his only three amateur fights.
His first professional fight lasted five seconds, before winning at Fight Club Rush 3 and four under the Brave Combat Federation banner. The upward trajectory was clear.
Burst on stage
His first foray into the UFC was a bit of a fortuitous one, replacing Dusko Todorovic to take on Welsh fighter Phillips in the short term, winning by submission in just over a minute and winning Performance of the Night. Not just winning, but beating.
Remarkably, 10 days later he knocked out Northern Irishman McKee, setting the record for the fastest successive UFC wins in modern sports history.
His next and most recent fight, against Meerschaert, was a masterclass on clinical cruelty. The American has had 47 fights, and none of them have been finished so quickly. He had broken the previous record of 105 consecutive days of consecutive victories in three fights.
From the bell, Chimaev was on the front foot, landing a fierce kick to put pressure on his opponent, before landing a brutal right hook. One and it’s done. None of his nine fights went the distance. Six finished in the first round.
He had already beaten John Phillips and Rhys McKee (bottom) in 10 days before moving past Meerschaert to clinch a three-game winning streak in 66 days, a UFC record.
In his first two fights in the UFC, Chimaev edged his opponents with a ridiculous 192 two-way shots
The 27-year-old has been considered one of the most promising in all of the sport, with his rise appearing unprecedented and stratospheric.
BT Sport, MMA Fighting and CombatPress Breakthrough Fighter of the Year, Nordic MMA Male Fighter of the Year, MMA Junkie Knockout of the Month and Newcomer of the Year and UFC Honors Debut of the Year.
A tantalizing clash with Edwards, set to be one of Dana White’s “favorite fights” of the year, was next.
Problems with the coronavirus
But tragedy struck. With a bout scheduled against Edwards for December 2020, both fighters have tested positive and he has been postponed.
The alarm bells rang when Chimaev subsequently had to withdraw from the postponed date of January 20, and then from the clash of March 13. The virus didn’t just wipe it out for a few weeks, it ravaged it.
But after suffering severely from contracting coronavirus, Chimaev withdrew from the sport, leading UFC chief Dana White (right) to say Chimaev was just emotional and would fight in new
His representative Ali Abdelaziz told ESPN: “Khamzat had coronavirus and when he returned to the gym his lungs did not recover 100%. He needs time for his lungs to recover, and right now it’s all about taking the time.
Shammas said: “When he had COVID… he came back too early, he was so stressed out about going back to fight Leon. I remember his friends calling me one evening at 1 a.m. to tell me he was having trouble breathing.
“I called an ambulance and they took him to the hospital. He thought he was going to die. It was really bad. I was worried. To be honest, I was very worried.
Chimaev himself told RT Sport: “At first I was doing fine, then they told me I could start cardio training and I felt sick again. I went to the bathroom and I started coughing up blood, it kinda messed up my mind.
“Honestly, that scared me… Cancer?” Like, “I’ve been sick for so long – why doesn’t it go away?” Different thoughts crossed my mind, and I was alone in Las Vegas, struggling to overcome it all.
He was so shaken up that he announced that he had withdrawn from the sport altogether, before being persuaded to return by prominent figures including White.
Regaining full health and regaining sufficient condition to enter the ring are very different perspectives.
The 27-year-old gained weight on the second attempt, with controversy over whether he was holding the towel
This summer, Shimaev’s highly anticipated comeback was finally back.
Li ‘The Leech’ Jingliang presents a delicate but not impossible challenge, with a reasonable 18-6 record, including three Performance of the Night awards in his last four fights, sandwiched by a unanimous loss to Neil Magny .
The 33-year-old, ranked 11th, also fights at welterweight, two rungs below Chimaev’s usual weight class, allowing the Swede to return to action against a slightly less punishing hitter than he did. he is not used to it.
Again, Chimaev does not tend to be touched …
Khabib Nurmagomedov’s protégé Islam Makhachev also faces Dan Hooker, ahead of the main event: a light heavyweight championship fight between Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira.
Worries about weight gain
Chimaev’s weight issues, however, underscore widespread concerns about whether he will be ready to fight.
He was the last fighter to leave the UFC hotel, climbed the scales a few minutes before the weigh-in window closed, undressed. but was half a pound above the limit, at 171.5 – and it hit the towel (fighters sometimes grab the towel protecting their modesty to reduce the weight of their arms on the scale).
Chimaev had an hour to lose the half pound. 45 minutes later he was walking again but was clearly trying to lean on the towel to reduce his weight. He came back 166.
UFC weigh-in coordinator Heidi Dean had obvious questions. How to lose five pounds in 45 minutes? It had to be reweighed. This time he was forced to raise his hands above his head and left 171 dead. By the skin of his teeth, Chimaev did it.
So what will we see Shimaev?
There is a school of thought that Chimaev has not fought anyone yet. His three previous UFC opponents have 10-13 records and are barely world beaters.
But at the same time, you had to start somewhere. Chimaev continues his journey against Li, and while the defeat is a real setback, the victory will be a step away from the horrors of Covid-19 he suffered and back on the path to the top of the sport.
Chimaev posted an Instagram photo featuring a preview of Bulldog Fight Night 9, where he faces off against fellow Swedish and UFC sixth middleweight Jack Hermansson in a freestyle wrestling clash on November 19.
It wasn’t until three weeks after Li’s fight, and he obviously thinks he can do both.
Shammas considers him “the chosen one”. Saturday will go a long way in determining that.