With Khabib Nurmagomedov retired and Nate Diaz’s stock on the decline, Conor McGregor needs his next nemesis to step forward.
Khamzat Chimaev might just fit the bill to perfection.
The Russian-born Swede has been trading barbs online with McGregor throughout this year – more on that later – and recently warned him to hide when both men enter the UFC’s bubble on Fight Island next month.
Khamzat Chimaev could be Conor McGregor’s next rival now that Khabib has retired
McGregor called Chimaev ‘rat lip’ on social media and the pair have been trading barbs
Chimaev has enjoyed a breakout year in 2020, winning his first three fights in the UFC in the space of three months, including a 11-day turnaround – the shortest in the organisation’s history.
He still only has nine contests to his name but the hype train has well and truly left the station.
UFC president Dana White is on the bandwagon too, saying: ‘The guy is special, I’ve been in this game my whole life and I’ve never seen anything like him. He’s special, he’s different, I’ve never been in a position where I’m like, “who is next?”.
‘It’s fun and I like it. I think if you’re a fight fan, a guy like this is one that you love to watch and follow and hate. This 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, “you think I’m a wrestler, wait til you see my hands”, holy s***.
‘It’s one thing to say you want a turnaround fight but not like he did, I’ve never experienced anything like it.’
Chimaev was utterly dominant in his fights this year and made a name for himself
Chimaev left Chechnya having wrestled from a young age and continued training in Sweden
That kind of backing from a man who has seen it all over the years makes both ardent and casual fans stand up and take notice.
He talked the talk but backed it up with almost embarrassingly one-sided performances. Against Rhys McKee, Chimaev landed 40-0 in significant strikes and 68-0 in total strikes.
Afterwards he said: ‘I can smash everybody. How many fighters in the welterweight division? I can smash all of them.’
So Chimaev has been making waves and headlines this year but it was in 2018, when hardly anyone knew his name, that his problems with McGregor started.
The 26-year-old revealed an astonishing story earlier this year, saying he flew to Ireland to beat up the ‘Notorious’ in the build-up to the now infamous UFC 229 title showdown with Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Chimaev stole the show on Fight Island in his UFC debut victory over John Phillips
Since deleted, McGregor commented on a UFC video of Chimaev and called him ‘rat lip’
Khabib and Chimaev are on good terms and share a manager in Ali Abdelaziz but it was McGregor’s jibe about a fellow Cechen that provoked him.
‘At that time, I was fighting as an amateur on a pro record of 1-0 when that happened,’ he told Russian reporter Adam Zubayraev.
‘At that time, nobody knew who I was. He was also talking about another guy who’s also Chechen. I don’t remember his name, but he told us he knocked him out in a sparring session.
‘My mind was blowing up at the moment, but I’m living here very close to him. I was thinking that I would catch him in the streets or at the gym and beat him up. This is what he deserved.’
But he was stopped by police after his flight landed and refused entry into the country.
McGregor could find that Chimaev becomes his major rival after Khabib’s retirement
Dana White is incredibly high on Chimaev and says he’s the best prospect he’s seen
‘First, they stopped me a while, and then slightly they told me to go,’ he went on.
‘Then I was going out. When I was going out from the airport, they stopped me again. That time, there were guys literally in uniform. … Yes, there were (special forces), and they told me, “You cannot go anywhere.”‘
If the tale is true, it is exactly the kind of narrative the UFC and fans love. Any whiff of fakery or manufactured rivalry is easily sniffed out but everything about Chimaev makes him seem genuine.
He started wrestling in Chechyna at the age of five and was regarded as a prodigious talent before moving to Sweden aged 17 where he went on to become a national champion.
Ali Abdelaziz and Conor McGregor traded jibes before Chimaev waded into the dispute
Chimaev only made his amateur MMA debut in 2017 before turning pro after three wins. Having compiled a 6-0 record, the UFC came calling and his rapid rise has continued.
It wasn’t until earlier this year that the grudge with McGregor was aired publicly for the first time.
The former featherweight and lightweight champion commented ‘rat lip’ under a post from the UFC referring to Chimaev who then called McGregor a chicken.
He later asked Dana White to give him a fight with the Dubliner as ‘dessert’.
And most recently he pledged to manager Abdelaziz that he would ‘smash’ McGregor for him.
So the UFC’s security team will be on alert to keep McGregor and Chimaev away from each other at all times on Fight Island in January.
The 26-year-old is a star on the rise after two dominant displays at UFC Fight Island
Khamzat Chimaev claims he flew to Ireland to beat up Conor McGregor but was turned home
Chimaev’s irritation extended to Twitter as he proposed fighting McGregor as his ‘dessert’
McGregor is preparing for his rematch at lightweight against Dustin Poirier while Chimaev meets Leon Edwards just three days beforehand.
This will be greatest test to date for the rising star. Edwards is ranked No 4 in the welterweight division and has won his last eight fights.
‘Rocky’ provides a massive step up and is out to play spoiler, claiming the UFC are desperate for their new golden boy to win.
The 29-year-old told MMA fighting: ‘The UFC loves him (Chimaev). Dana (White) loves him. They all think he can’t be beat.
‘When I go out there and take him out, I can’t wait to see what they can say next to give me my title shot. I’d be on a nine-fight win-streak.
‘I know the UFC’s probably banking, Dana anyway, I know he’s praying that this kid wins, but I’ll be way too much for him in there, I’m telling you.’
The welterweight, who fights out of Sweden, says he made a brief trip to Ireland in 2018
If Chimaev wins, however, it will put him one step closer to a fight with McGregor.
The narrative began with that rogue flight to Ireland back in 2018 and it would be a remarkable end to the story if they were to meet in the octagon.
Khabib feels he put the rivalry with McGregor to bed when he submitted him in the fourth-round of the most lucrative bout in UFC history.
All the pre-fight venom spilled over in the brawl that followed but the Russian has no interest in a rematch at the moment and is retired after the emotional victory over Justin Gaethje in October.
The connection between himself and Chimaev is ideal for McGregor to cultivate a new foe.
The Chechen-born fighter, 26, used a chicken emoji in response to a comment by McGregor
Chimaev may be inexperienced but what he’s shown suggests he can rise to the top
But McGregor may be wary of biting off more than he can chew. If Chimaev keeps winning in such impressive style, the difference in weight could be too much.
Despite the fact that he fought Donald Cerrone at welterweight and also locked horns with Nate Diaz at 170-pounds, McGregor has always looked a more natural lightweight.
Chimaev can mix it at middleweight so the Irishman would be giving away the size and probably strength advantage.
But money and rivalry makes the UFC tick. There is still some way to go and a number of dominos have to fall into place for it to happen.
McGregor is preparing to take on Dustin Poirier on Fight Island on January 23
Both men need to keep winning for a start and there is a still a massive question mark over the inexperienced Chimaev, no matter how impressive he’s been thus far.
However, in the back of Dana White’s mind, the cogs will be whirring and dollar signs starting to appear.
McGregor understands better than anyone how important it is to have a nemesis in the MMA world. Chimaev could be the perfect man to take up Khabib’s mantle.