Saturday was a special night in the Rini household. Given the abnormal start time I was able to sit down at 8pm to enjoy the PPV portion of UFC 294 on the sofa alongside my wife.
At the start of our relationship she witnessed the end of an era of champions, Georges St. PIerre and Anderson Silva chief among them. She didn’t get too invested in fighters themselves unless they possessed some combination of greatness and charisma. In that way, she was my window into the casual mind, more interested on nights when Robbie Lawler, Israel Adesanya, Joanna Jędrzejczyk, Dustin Poirier, and Max Holloway fought. It was genuinely helpful for me to see outside the hardcore MMA bubble perspective.
So on Saturday night we sat down together for the first time since moving to Denmark in March 2022, and I was genuinely curious what she would think of Khamzat Chimaev.
The real star of UFC 294: Khamzat Chimaev
In a way, more of this card was riding on Khamzat Chimaev than the main event. While Islam Makhachev and Alexander Volkanovski belong in the pantheon of all time greats, Khamzat Chimaev represents something more compelling: money.
Khamzat Chimaev as a star has the potential to move units, make sales, and pump up TKO’s stock price. He burst onto the scene during the COVID era, racking up stoppage wins while absorbing zero damage and talking a blue streak on the mic. In those early days I saw him as a bizarre mashup of Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, possessing the appearance and skills of the former, and the brash ‘anyone, anywhere, anytime’ attitude of the latter’s early days in the UFC.
As Chimaev has reached the upper echelon of opponents, he has found himself tested by stronger chins, deeper skill sets, and perhaps a greater drive to win than he’d faced previously in his career. In both his fights versus Gilbert Burns and Kamaru Usman, we saw his opponents firing heavy artillery in the final rounds which has left many fans questioning Chimaev’s cardio and long term potential.
But none of that mattered to my casual fan of a wife because after winning his fight at UFC 294 Khamzat Chimaev gave a post-fight interview that reshaped his persona. It was surprisingly earnest, devoid of trash talk, and rooted in his newfound fatherhood.
I have to admit that when I became a father myself, a new level of emotional depth was unlocked. Things that never before made me feel uncomfortable or even happy could now move me to tears. Movies or news stories where children are separated or reunited with their families now had an express lane to my heart.
At least in the English portion of his speech, Khamzat Chimaev seemed to intimate a more magnanimous perspective toward his future opponents and the world at large. There was a sincerity to Chimaev’s speech that struck a chord in my wife. She put down her phone and said “I like him.” Now came the hard part.
While my wife can consign her MMA consumption to the in-cage action, I’ve got to walk a fine line between telling her these people’s stories and basically ruining the whole endeavor by telling her… these people’s stories. My job is to dig a bit deeper than the fights, to be aware of what Karim Zidan says about Khamzat Chimaev and his relationship with Ramzan Kadyrov. Then I’ve got ot address my own curiosity about what Chimaev said during the non-English part of his post-fight speech, and what we find out isn’t as full of love for mankind as the first half.
How much should we tell casual fans?
There’s a part of me that just has to laugh at the sport of MMA. The UFC pays fighters as little as possible to keep them “hungry” which is a funny way of saying “compliant.” This lack of financial security causes fighters to seek questionable financial opportunities, like visiting Ramzan Kadyrov in Chechnya, which is currently under sanctions by the United States government.
When she became a fan of Khamzat Chimaev, what was I to do in that moment? Do I flip the rock over, show her every creepy crawly secret about the fighter who just won her over? Do we go down a rabbit hole of alleged human rights accusations?
I couldn’t do it. I wanted to enjoy a night of fights, and that speaks to my time as a fan of MMA. For all the columns and cartoons, and the time I spend wringing my hands over fighter pay and promotional shenanigans, I’m watching because I love MMA. It’s a bitter pill to swallow but sometimes I miss being just a fan of MMA, and sitting next to someone who only sees MMA as a sport gave me a minute to pretend that’s all it was again.
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