Bleacher Report 2020 MMA Awards: Rising Star to Watch

Lyle Fitzsimmons@@fitzbitzFeatured ColumnistDecember 29, 2020

Chris Unger/Getty Images

In a lousy year for everyone else, the UFC did just fine by comparison.

Though Dana White and Co. would surely have preferred fans in the stands, it's difficult to deny the mixed martial arts conglomerate gained ground on the rest of the sports world with week after week of seamless empty-house shows after its two-month hiatus during a pandemic-ravaged spring.

In fact, eight pay-per-view cards and another 25 Fight Night events were produced from May 9 forward at three separate sites, including the Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla., the company's own Apex facility in Las Vegas and the much-ballyhooed "Fight Island" venue at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi.

And while many of the promotion's top names—Conor McGregor, Jon Jones, Amanda Nunes and Khabib Nurmagomedov among them—were active and successful in 2020, they didn't steal the yearlong show.

Indeed, where there's 10 months worth of competitive smoke, there's bound to be fire.

Conveniently enough, that's just the way Khamzat Chimaev likes it.

Video Play Button
Videos you might like

And that's one of the reasons he's B/R's "Rising Star to Watch" of 2020. Truth told, though the year also included up-and-coming studs like Kevin Holland, Joaquin Buckley and Jiri Prochazka, it really wasn't close. 

Now 26, the brash Chechen had exclusively worked the international side of the street in the first two years of his career, fighting six times in five countries while recording four KOs and two submissions.

But the rise began in earnest in mid-July on Fight Island, where Chimaev encountered 31-fight middleweight John Phillips—dubbed the "Welsh Wrecking Machine"—in his UFC debut. Rather than playing it safe against a seasoned foe, he got a takedown within 10 seconds, ran up a ridiculous 78-1 striking edge through the first round and finished things off via D'Arce choke barely more than a minute into the second.

He darted to the fence to chat up White in the aftermath and laid the groundwork in a post-fight interview for a chirpy, aggressive persona that's become his calling card heading into the new year.

"I'm gonna be champion here," Chimaev told Paul Felder on the ESPN broadcast. "Gimme a guy, I'm gonna smash him. I listened to my coach, he said 'Take him down and smash him.' I did that. It's the same thing (as other promotions). They're people. Like me. But I work harder."

Felder was an instant believer, saying "If he wasn't on your radar before, he should be now."

As it turned out, though, Chimaev's upward flight was just beginning.

He was back just 10 days later to pound welterweight Rhys McKee into a first-round pulp, establishing a new standard for the quickest turnaround between UFC victories and subsequently getting love from White for social media callouts of guys like Nate Diaz, Jorge Masvidal and McGregor.

And in his Las Vegas debut in September, it was a 17-second catchweight layout of Gerald Meerschaert.

Two-time UFC champ Dominick Cruz was on praise duty for ESPN for that one.

"This kid," Cruz said, "is the future of whatever division he chooses to be in."

Three fights. Three wins. Three Performance of the Night bonuses for the now 15th-ranked welterweight. And coming up in January, a Fight Night headliner with Leon Edwards, who's No. 3 at 170 pounds.

"This kid is one fight away from being a massive superstar," White said on the Jim Rome Show (h/t MixedMartialArts.com). "If he can beat Leon Edwards he's going to be a massive superstar in the UFC. I would say he's a super-confident Khabib. He wants to fight anybody, doesn't care. He'll move up one weight class, two weight classes.

"When you're a fight fan you love guys like that. Or you want to see a guy like that lose so it's good in every way, shape and form."

Good enough for us.