UFC 267: Will Chimaev Regain Mystique or Will Jingliang Spoil His Return

Khamzat Chimaev knocks out Gerald Meerschaert, UFC Vegas 11
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - SEPTEMBER 19: (R-L) Khamzat Chimaev of Chechnya punches Gerald Meerschaert in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at UFC APEX on September 19, 2020 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

UFC welterweight Khamzat Chimaev is fighting for the first time since his breakout year, but Li Jingliang looks spoil his big return at UFC 267.

From a promotional standpoint, Khamzat Chimaev’s introduction was as close to perfect as one could have been asked for.  To the western audience, he had the mystique of coming seemingly out of nowhere.  When he arrived, it was in about as brilliant a fashion as could have been scripted as he won fights in two different weight classes just days apart and was virtually untouched in both.  If that wasn’t enough, his encore in the United States was even more impressive as he stopped durable veteran Gerald Meerschaert with a single shot in 17 seconds.  The UFC put their promotional power behind him like they have few others, granting him a shot at top-ranked contender Leon Edwards in what was expected to be a title eliminator.

Just as quickly as he arrived, “Borz” also seemed to disappear.  A severe bout with covid withdrew him from two scheduled fights with Edwards.  Further struggles with his health led to questions about whether or not he would fight again.  It reached the point that even Chimaev was so disheartened by his condition that in a moment of distress he announced his retirement from competition on social media.  Now over a year from his last bout, questions of whether Chimaev can return to the spectacular form that made him a star in the first place loom over Saturday’s contest.

China’s Li Jingliang has long been considered one of the dark horses of the welterweight division.  A part of the UFC since 2014, “The Leech” has a respectable 9-4 record in the Octagon that has seen him become one of the division’s most consistent performers.  That said, he has twice suffered setbacks in his opportunities to make the proverbial leap up the rankings: in 2018 against Jake Matthews and last year in a high profile bout with Neil Manny.

While he has yet to secure a signature high profile victory, that is not to say he has not taken on respected competition.  In 2019 he snapped the seven fight win-streak of fellow perennial contender Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos and in 2020 he spoiled the return of intimidating powerhouse Santiago Ponzinibbio.  The latter bout was amongst Jingliang’s best performances as he delivered an electrifying first round knockout to remind the division that he remains a threat to anyone in the top ten.

The key for Jingliang will be to fight in close range as much as possible across the fifteen minute bout.  The taller and longer Chimaev does his best work when he can use his reach or change levels to get the fight to the mat.  “The Leech” will need to avoid exchanges in the center of the Octagon with Chimaev in order to open up his own offense and do the early damage necessary to get ahead.  For Chimaev, keeping Jingliang at the end of his strikes or onto his back will be his best route to another statistically sound victory.

The upper echelon of the welterweight division is expected to open up for the winner.  While Chimaev may have more options depending on how impressive he wins, a top five opponent is likely going to be on the table for Jingliang as well should he prevail.  While the attention may be on the return of a breakout star going into Saturday, the career breakthrough for a perennial contender would also serve to add an exciting new player into the mix going in 2022.