UFC contender or pretender: Can Jamahal Hill be a champion? What about Khamzat Chimaev?

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They’re two of probably the most thrilling phrases in blended martial arts: Recent blood.

Like in any sport, it is commonplace for a similar handful of names to dominate the highest of a division in MMA. The very best are the very best, and normally they’re the very best for a good period of time. It is tough for a brand new title to interrupt into the highest 15 of a UFC weight class. Tougher nonetheless to interrupt into the highest 10. Title combat? Solely the very best of the easiest make it.

However when it occurs — when somebody does handle to shake issues up and switch a division on its head — it is thrilling. The UFC’s upcoming schedule is dominated by a crop of potential new title contenders, and most are scheduled to headline a UFC occasion for the primary time.

Who’re those to control, and the way far will they go? ESPN consulted with a panel of specialists — Michael Chiesa, present UFC welterweight; Alan Jouban, ESPN analyst and retired UFC welterweight; and Sayif Saud, head coach of Fortis MMA — to create a scouting report and outlook on this new class of contenders.


Jamahal Hill (9-1, 1 NC), mild heavyweight

Hill has proven a ton of promise, nevertheless it’s too early in his profession to confidently predict the place he’ll land. There wasn’t an excessive amount of consideration on Hill’s one loss, a submission in opposition to Paul Craig, as Craig’s guard is notoriously tough. However there are nonetheless as many questions as there are solutions round Hill’s ceiling.

“Once you’re underneath 10 fights in your profession, there’s a lot s— you have not seen but,” Jouban mentioned. “You in all probability have not seen an All-American wrestler or a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. His first 5 opponents, he in all probability simply smoked on smaller reveals. So, there are areas he hasn’t been examined in.”

Regardless of his lack of expertise, Hill’s mindset is seen as an attribute. He is a assured 30-year-old contender. Chiesa fought on the identical evening as Hill in 2020, and mentioned he has a “calmness” to him on combat evening. Saud famous his excessive diploma of self-belief.

One concern transferring ahead could possibly be Hill’s dimension. He doesn’t lower a excessive quantity of weight to make 205 kilos, which may supply challenges as he strikes up the ranks.

“His ceiling at mild heavyweight will probably be dictated by his dimension,” Chiesa mentioned. “He is positively obtained abilities, pure energy, he is actually good with distance administration — however I feel it is simply going to get to some extent the place he’ll run into a man like Magomed Ankalaev, who’s each bit the sunshine heavyweight, and dimension may come into play. I feel he’ll get previous the top-10 spot, however it will be attention-grabbing to see if he can overcome that dimension drawback past that.”


Magomed Ankalaev (16-1), mild heavyweight

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UFC mild heavyweight Magomed Ankalaev goes the gap with Klidson Abreu and wins by way of unanimous choice.

As a possible title contender, Ankalaev faces a number of intangible hurdles, certainly one of which is that his preventing fashion leans closely on persistence. That is not the form of mild heavyweight the UFC goes to quick monitor right into a pay-per-view-selling scenario. However skills-wise, Ankalaev is the true deal.

He’s defensively sound, maintains an clever shot choice, a peaceful demeanor — or, as Saud described him, “a cool character in there.”

He is additionally an environment friendly grappler, with the flexibility to not solely take his opponents down however management them as soon as they’re there. All the pieces Ankalaev does is environment friendly, from his standup to his offensive grappling. That persistence, nevertheless, could possibly be a priority as nicely. Not solely as a result of it does not lend itself to motion (Ankalaev has gone to choice in his final two fights), but additionally as a result of it could possibly be an space to use as Ankalaev strikes up.

“Endurance can typically be a curse,” Chiesa mentioned. “What occurs if there is a man in entrance of him who does not wish to lead the dance? Ankalaev goes to have to guide when that occurs, which I am certain he has no drawback doing in opposition to lower-caliber competitors, however what about the very best? I feel this man will combat for a title sometime, although. It is written within the stars for him.


Universally, Aspinall is seen as one of many high future contenders in any division. The 28-year-old heavyweight out of Salford, England, has misplaced solely twice — and, as Jouban factors out, one loss was resulting from disqualification and the opposite was a heel hook. “He is by no means actually been soundly beat, is the purpose I am getting at,” Jouban mentioned.

The UFC is eager on Aspinall, because it booked him to headline its return to London subsequent month. So far as what’s to love about him, the panel agreed — it is just about every part. He is bodily blessed with a mix of velocity and energy. His weight is round 240 kilos, quite than the 265-pound heavyweight restrict. Agility. Elusiveness. And a floor recreation to go along with it.

“He matches up with anybody,” Chiesa mentioned. “Francis Ngannou and Ciryl Gane, you wish to speak about a distinction in fashion? However Tom can bridge these types. He can combat energy with Ngannou, or he is usually a methodical, technical, hybrid kind like Gane.”

Together with the bodily presents, Aspinall has proven smarts contained in the Octagon. He is intelligent find a end as a substitute of merely emptying the gasoline tank when an opponent is harm. He is ready, adjusts on the fly and he is unpredictable.

“An instance of this man’s combat IQ was the Andrei Arlovski combat,” Saud mentioned. “He doubles Andrei and takes him down, rear-naked chokes him out of nowhere. They ask him after if he deliberate on doing that and he goes, ‘No, I simply noticed it there.’ He finds other ways to win. Very clever fighter. He is positively a high 5 for me.


The very first thing that stands out about Lemos is her dimension. The 34-year-old Brazilian has fought a number of fights on the 135-pound bantamweight restrict, making her one of many extra bodily imposing girls at strawweight. Her 35-second knockout win over Montserrat Ruiz two fights in the past is a reminder that her energy is outstanding.

“She’s the form of woman who can knock you out or sit you down with one punch,” Jouban mentioned. “And she will be able to do it with each arms. She’s an intimidating Brazilian striker, like a Thiago Santos, however while you get to the highest finish, you want the defensive wrestling, and we’ll see if she has that. However she’s a handful for anybody.”

Lemos is already 5-1 within the UFC, which isn’t any small feat contemplating the depth at 115 kilos. And all three panelists noticed her win over Hill as a major one.

“She’s gotten over the veteran’s hump, I name it,” Chiesa mentioned. “I can not overemphasize that sufficient. I failed getting over that a number of occasions, and it went from a hump to a mountain. After I say she’s already previous that, the one agency factor left from there to recover from is title competition. She’s tremendous assured now. She has potential to crack the highest 5.


Khamzat Chimaev (10-0), welterweight/middleweight

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In the course of the first spherical, Khamzat Chimaev picks up Li Jingliang off the mat, carries him towards the fence and chats it up with Dana White.

Chimaev isn’t just probably the most intriguing future contender within the sport proper now. He is arguably one of the crucial intriguing future contenders ever.

There should not many examples in MMA historical past that examine to Chimaev when it comes to expectation and hype in a brief period of time. Born in Chechnya and now coaching in Sweden, Chimaev could possibly be one win away from difficult Kamaru Usman for the welterweight title after which transferring instantly up for a 185-pound title combat.

“He has the X think about beating guys the best way he has, taking no harm and doing it in two divisions,” Jouban mentioned. “If this combat in opposition to Gilbert Burns occurs, we all know the extent of grappler Burns is. If he goes on the market and beats Burns handedly, that’s gonna inform us so much. And Israel Adesanya is gonna be shaking in his boots pondering, ‘Holy s—, this man is operating via elite grapplers.‘ That may be an actual warning to the middleweight and welterweight [divisions]. I feel each divisions will probably be taking a look at that combat very intently.”

Nobody believes the hype greater than Chimaev himself, which Saud sees as one other weapon.

“You actually have to take a look at a fighter’s self-belief,” Saud mentioned. “Take a look at Conor McGregor. Nobody can take a look at Conor now and say he is unbeatable, unbreakable … however no person can take away the magnificent, historic run he went on. And a variety of that was simply self-belief, identical to Anderson Silva. You nearly develop into untouchable, and Conor reached that. He did. That is a confidence that may take you very far, and Khamzat has that confidence. You may see it, and it is actual.”

Chimaev is a dominant wrestler and arguably probably the most bodily welterweight within the division. He additionally confirmed one-punch knockout energy in his win over Gerald Meerschaert, though the remainder of his standup stays considerably of a thriller. His athleticism jumps off the display screen.

The one concern round Chimaev’s ceiling would possibly revolve round who he would want to beat to succeed in the highest.

“He is getting a title combat for certain,” Chiesa mentioned. “The issue is that proper now, 170 and 185 kilos have two of probably the most dominant champs we have ever seen in Kamaru Usman and Israel Adesanya. I do not know the way he’d do in opposition to Usman. It is robust for me. Can he do it? Sure. He is obtained the dimensions, velocity, energy, good camp, full bundle. However I can not simply come out and say that is the man who beats Usman but. I am going to say he’ll develop into a champion sometime, however I do not know if it is in opposition to Usman.

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