It’s very much a play on his old WWE nickname, but for as long as he was involved in mixed martial arts, Bock Lesnar was very much the “Next Big Thing.” After a while, he was simply “the big thing.” The biggest attraction the sport had ever seen. Then, seemingly overnight (not really, given his extensive health issues, but it sure felt that way), he was gone.
In the aftermath of Lesnar’s exit from the sport in 2011, save for that ill-fated UFC 200 return, the search was on for a new “next big thing.” That’s how combat sports work: in the absence of seasons and home teams with supporters essentially born into the fandom, the combat world needs to constantly produce new names, fighters that will somehow outdo the stars of the past.
The “next big thing” arrived in 2013, in the form of Conor McGregor. The brash Irishman entered the UFC as a Cage Warriors double champ, winning his debut against Marcus Brimage by TKO. It was the string of fights that followed, however, that pushed McGregor to stardom. That, and a gift for gab few in the sport have ever possessed.
A decision win over future Hall of Famer Max Holloway. Finishes of Diego Brandao, Dustin Poirier, and Denis Siver. The Brandao fight, McGregor’s third, came at home in Dublin, Ireland, instantly becoming the biggest Fight Pass card in the promotion’s history to that point.
What made McGregor truly special, however, was the way he seemed to will fights into existence. He’d talk about finishes, and see them happen. Talk about fighting for titles, and it would come to pass. A lot of that, of course, can be credited to the fighter’s willingness to take on all comers. When Jose Aldo pulled out of UFC 189, McGregor stayed put, defeating Chad Mendes for interim gold. In his next fight, he would put away Jose Aldo in 13 seconds to claim the undisputed title.
This isn’t meant to be a McGregor history lesson, however. You already know the story, know he went on to claim a second belt at lightweight, after a detour to welterweight for a pair of fights with Nate Diaz, then took time off to pursue a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather Jr. That was the most lucrative fight in McGregor’s career, and the second biggest Pay-Per-View boxing match in history, behind only Mayweather vs. Pacquaio.
Khamzat Chimaev, the latest Next Big Thing
That, however, is where Khamzat Chimaev comes in. While McGregor was working on boxing matches and whiskey, Khabib Nurmagomedov was the smashing machine in the UFC, but shunned the idea of moving weight classes for a second title. A dominant fighter in every sense of the word, Khabib was a wet blanket as far as fight promotion, except when McGregor was able to get under his skin.
In Khamzat Chimaev, the UFC appears to have found a happy middle ground. “Borz” from day one has stalked two divisions. Like McGregor, he had a quick rise right out of the gate; were it not for a serious bout with COVID-19, he might have already been fighting for a title.
The double champ angle is key: while he didn’t enter the UFC a double champ the way McGregor did, he appears better suited to winning a belt at middleweight than welterweight, but even at welterweight, he poses arguably the biggest threat to champ Kamaru Usman. For the first time in recent years, no one is rolling their eyes at the thought of someone dominating two divisions separated by a full 15 pounds.
Like McGregor, he’s prone to quick finishes, also like McGregor, he exudes confidence. And Chimaev seems able to will fights into existence, much the way McGregor did. He might even have a future in boxing — he’s already threatened to smash both Paul brothers in a single night.
Chmiaev might be using the Khabib playbook at times, even borrowing the “number one bullsh*t” catchphrase — but in terms of his rise in the sport, he’s more like McGregor than many think. Even his gift for gab is improving. Maybe hanging around Darren Till has helped.
At the end of the day, it all comes down to winning. Khamzat Chimaev has the “it” factor, which is another way of saying, fans are captivated by him even if they don’t know why. He simply needs to keep winning for the title fights, crossover experiments, and big paydays to come.
In a little under two weeks’ time, Chimaev is set to face Gilbert Burns. The fight is expected to be his toughest test to date. But he already has decorated supporters who see him as the real deal. Count featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski among them.
“People that don’t really know the sport are expecting him to win but people that really do know the sport are probably – ‘Yeah Burns on the ground, you know world champion’. They’ll be surprised if Chimaev goes out there and just mauls him, and I feel like that’s what gonna happen,” Volkanovski told James Lynch recently. “I feel like that is where Chimaev is at right now. I think he is actually gonna go out there and show some dominant performance which is gonna be pretty incredible against someone like Burns.”
Chimaev even has a bit of that wild side that McGregor infamously possesses. Look no further than Michael Bisping’s tale of terror after riding in a car with Chimaev and Till, with Khamzat intentionally dodging traffic.
Has the UFC’s next big thing finally arrived? We should know soon enough. 2022 will be a critical year for Chimaev’s fighting career. If he defeats Burns and has a McGregor-Mendes sort of moment, albeit without a title on the line, a shot at gold could very well be next — at which point, you may see this comparison made more often.