While it may not be an ideal situation given his own big welterweight clash next week, Belal Muhammed believes Khamzat Chimaev could, indeed, walk straight into a UFC title shot at 170 pounds if victorious over Gilbert Burns this weekend.
Chimaev (10-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) made it clear that he believes a victory at UFC 273 should earn him a shot at reigning champion Kamaru Usman, altering the promotion's current plans to give Leon Edwards a crack at the title, and Muhammad doesn't find the idea all that difficult to fathom. With the hype around Chimaev reminding Muhammad of the push Conor McGregor received on his rise to superstardom, he says a quick path to the top might be inevitable.
"It's frustrating, but it's like, I understand the game, and I understand what's going to sell, and the UFC goes with the hype," Muhammad said. "Obviously, they want to get something pushed quick because you never know what's going to happen because if Leon ends up beating Usman, then they've got to do that rematch, and then that puts Khamzat on the sideline again, and obviously, he's so high right now. He has the McGregor-esque attitude about him that they want to get him the spotlight right away.
"They want to get him to pay-per-views because Leon Edwards, he was at UFC London and nobody even cheered for him. Nobody even knows who he is, and dude doesn't push himself, so it's like, you can't blame the UFC for that because this, in the end, it's the entertainment business. Obviously it's the fight business, but it's also entertainment."
Some might argue that Chimaev isn't worthy of a shot after just five UFC appearances, even if the fifth is a big win over Burns. After all, he currently sits at No. 11 in the UFC's official welterweight rankings, while No. 5 Muhammad (20-3 MMA, 11-2 UFC) and No. 4 Vicente Luque (21-7-1 MMA, 14-3 UFC) meet in a rematch at next week's UFC on ESPN 34 event.
But Muhammad is well aware that rankings aren't the only thing that matters when it comes to picking title challengers. Chimaev ticks a lot of boxes, including his marketability for the promotion's partners in Abu Dhabi, among others, and a personality that reminds many of soon-to-be-inducted UFC Hall of Famer Khabib Nurmagomedov.
"They're looking for that next star with stars like McGregor sucking, and there's no other really big name," Muhammad said. "Jon Jones is sitting out, so you really need that next one. If Khamzat goes out there, dominates a Gilbert Burns, it only makes sense that 'All right, this guy is undefeated. He's got all these finishes. He's Russian. He has that Khabib vibe.'
"They'd want that new star for Abu Dhabi-type thing, so I could see it, and like I said, it's not going to bother me because for me, it's like I had to to work for everything I got. Nothing was ever given to me, so I know that me thinking, 'Now that I'm No. 5 now, it's going to be easier to get a title shot,' I don't think it is. I'm thinking now I have to go to five, four, three, two, and then maybe fight one and then get the title shot, and if I have to do that, I'll do that."
Of course, Burns can quickly change all of the talk with a victory on Saturday night. While oddsmakers have him installed as a very significant underdog, his grappling prowess, heavy hands and extensive experience would seem to all be factors that could help him secure an upset.
Muhammad also sees that as a very real possibility.
"People are just looking past Gilbert, so I'm like, 'Bro, are you guys serious?'" Muhammad said. "He even rocked Usman. He has a big overhand right, big power in his hands, and he's not afraid to stand in there with you – and even if you take him down, we've seen (Demian) Maia on his back. We've seen Maia mounting him, and he got out of it and escaped out of it, so for me, I don't think it's going to come down to wrestling or grappling. I think instead it's going to come down to cardio."
Of Chimaev's four UFC wins, three have come in the opening round, while his promotional debut ended 72 ticks into the second frame. Muhammad believes the unknown of his ability to perform in the latter stages of a contest could provide a real opening for "Durinho," should he pace himself properly.
"I think if Gilbert just weathers that storm in the first round, gets to the second and third round and we see what Khamzat really has because he comes out like a rocket in that first round, and I think that with all the hype behind him, he's going to want to try to get that first-round finish," Muhammad said. "He knows that there's a lot of pressure on that, a lot of people watching, a lot of eyes on it, so I think that he's going to come out really hard, and if Gilbert gets in that ego mode where, 'All right, you're going to hit me, I'm going to hit you right back,' he could get caught because Khamzat is a lot longer.
"Khamzat is a lot bigger, but I think if it gets into the second and third round, I think that Gilbert could actually win if it gets into the later rounds. I think it just comes out to how Gilbert comes out in the first. If he comes out in the first smart, circle a little bit, weather the storm, see what Khamzat is going to come with, you know, feel his power a little bit – don't throw it right back. Go to the second or third, you can come out on top."
This story first published at SI.com.