Bleacher Report 2021 MMA Awards: Rising Star to Watch

Tom Taylor@@TomTayMMAContributor IIDecember 28, 2021

ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 30: Khamzat Chimaev of Sweden prepares to fight Li Jingliang of China in a welterweight fight during the UFC 267 event at Etihad Arena on October 30, 2021 in Yas Island, Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Chris Unger/Getty Images

Every long-term MMA fan knows to be wary of hype. History has shown us that for every fighter who lives up to their early hype—stars like Conor McGregor and Israel Adesanya are good examples—there are dozens who don't, such as Erick Silva, Sage Northcutt, Paige VanZant and Houston Alexander.

Yet heading into 2022, there is one fighter who seems to have even the most cynical of fans and pundits drinking the Kool-Aid: Khamzat Chimaev (10-0).

Chimaev, 27, made his UFC debut in July 2020, defeating John Phillips by second-round submission at middleweight. The Chechnya-born Swede returned to the Octagon 10 days later, defeating Rhys McKee by first-round TKO in a short-notice welterweight fight. His third fight came less than two months thereafter, when he flattened Gerald Meerschaert in just 17 seconds, once again at middleweight. 

After that jaw-dropping display of skill and killer instinct, Chimaev was the most hyped fighter in all of MMA. Bleacher Report named him the rising star to watch for 2020. UFC President Dana White oozed superlatives at the mere mention of the undefeated Swede's name.  

"The guy is special," White told the press after Chimaev knocked out Meerschaert. "I've been in this game my whole life. I've never seen anything like him. He's special, he's different." 

"I think when you're a fight fan, a guy like this is the type of guy that you love to watch and follow and hate and whatever it might be. This guy is one of the most special fighters I've ever seen, if not the most special guy that I've ever come across. And he kept telling me leading up to this fight, ‘You think I'm a wrestler. Wait until you see my hands.' Holy s--t, he wasn't lying."

Chimaev fought just once in 2021, which gave us some pause as we considered naming him Bleacher Report's rising star to watch for a second consecutive year. Yet his inactivity was hardly his fault, as he was sidelined by a long and complicated case of COVID-19.

His illness was so severe that he even briefly considered retirement—and contemplated much darker possibilities.   

"I jumped in grappling sparring, did three rounds," Chimaev told ESPN's Brett Okamoto in April. "[I] feel bad in my chest, I said, 'Coach, I go out.' I go home and start to [cough] blood. I was never scared about my life. I'm scared about what my mom is going to do after I die. My mom, my brothers—I was thinking, 'What are they gonna do after I die?' I start with this MMA s--t because of my family. I want to make some good life with them."

Chimaev made one hell of a statement in his lone fight of the year, though, thrashing Li Jingliang—a ranked welterweight contender—to an effortless-looking first-round submission victory. With that performance, he's now earned four UFC wins across two weight classes in just 12:54—and he's only been hit one time in that stretch.

Chimaev's ridiculous dominance has earned him the No. 11 spot in the UFC's welterweight rankings. From that enviable vantage point, he's called out a host of top fighters, from Nate Diaz to two-time title challenger Colby Covington to the reigning welterweight champion Kamaru Usman.

White told Okamoto that Chimaev is not in line for a title shot just yet, but he has also made it clear that he's willing to give the unbeaten welterweight special treatment. The kind of treatment not even the massively popular Sean O'Malley is afforded.

"You guys wanna throw [O'Malley] to the wolves," White told Barstool Sports' Robbie Fox. "You don't move somebody that fast [into big fights] unless they're Khamzat Chimaev. Khamzat is a guy you'll feel comfortable moving that fast."

There's no two ways about it. At the end of 2021, there's still no fighter in MMA whose stock is rising faster than Chimaev's, and no fighter on as many must-watch lists as he is. Calling anybody else the rising star to watch for the year, then, would be unjustifiable.