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Mamed Khalidov: The UFC’s One That Got Away

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Image via Instagram/mamed_khalidov

Absolute Championship Berkut (ACB) had their first event in England on Saturday, with ACB 54: Supersonic acting as its landmark show and the famed Manchester Arena playing host. With ACB already garnering more attention than M-1 ever did in the West, the promotion has enjoyed some impressive early success considering it was founded in 2014 and has risen from relative obscurity in Grozny, the capital city of Chechnya, Russia.

Grozny also happens to be the humble beginnings of another major figure within the European MMA scene—Mamed Khalidov, who served as the main attraction for ACB’s inaugural show on English soil, taking on England’s own Luke Barnatt.

Ranked as the world’s #13 middleweight according to impartial ranking system Fight Matrix, Khalidov was riding a 12-fight win streak ahead of his first fight away from his adopted home country of Poland in six years and his first away from the KSW promotion which had built his star so successfully in that time. It proved a shrewd business move for the ACB hierarchy as England’s sizeable Polish community came out in their droves to support their naturalised hero.

Barnatt entered the cage while enjoying the momentum which inherently comes with a four-fight winning streak which followed a somewhat unfortunate release from the UFC roster in 2015. With the Englishman winning the Venator FC middleweight title earlier last year, this fight was a genuine top draw all-European middleweight contest with Khalidov—KSW’s king at 185lbs—Barnatt’s dance partner for the night.

Incredible by Mamed Khalidov! Wasted no time to claim victory in the main event of #ACB54!

— ACB fighting league (@acb_league) March 11, 2017

The fight starts and any semblance of competitiveness quickly evaporates as Khalidov lands a cracking overhand right to the dome of his lanky opponent. Once the ensuing onslaught left Barnatt in a crumpled mess down on the canvas, referee Herb Dean’s hand was forced in calling off the fight in little over 20 seconds. Despite the local lad being on the losing side, the Manchester Arena goes mad in celebration for Khalidov—the 36-year-old now riding a 13-fight winning streak, with 11 of those victories coming inside the distance.

With a record of 33-4-2, Khalidov’s rise to prominence has been as gradual as it has been impressive, especially considering how he started with a record of 3-3 following his first six fights, but Khalidov headlining ACB 54: Supersonic—the promotion’s biggest event so far in both publicity and size with its fight card ludicrously consisting of 25 fights—was a big risk for ACB, KSW and Khalidov himself.

As Fightland reported earlier this month, KSW’s “Colosseum” event scheduled for May 27—the biggest in their history, playing out in the Polish national football stadium in Warsaw—will be headlined by Khalidov in a “Champion vs. Champion” match-up against the promotion’s welterweight titleholder, Borys Mankowski. The fact Khalidov is headlining a fight card consisting of five title fights and a national hero in former World’s Strongest Man in Mariusz Pudzianowski suggests the gravity of Khalidov’s popularity in Poland.

A loss on Saturday night would have been catastrophic for Khalidov and KSW’s hopes of smashing the European MMA attendance record set by the UFC, a record they claim to have matched with ticket sales their ticket sales so far, while ACB would have had many questions to answer.

Instead, with the KSW champion victorious once again, the two main feelings coming away from ACB 54 were how a) Khalidov is all-conquering on the European scene, and b) the UFC really screwed up by not signing him when they could have a few years back.

In an interview with back in 2015, Khalidov commented on his unsuccessful negotiations with the UFC a couple years previous. “As for the UFC, many aspire to fight there but it is not so simple,” said Khalidov. “I helped raise and develop the sport in Poland. Now it has become very popular there. I put in a lot of hard work and have been in the Top 10 in the world rankings and, accordingly, have reached a good financial situation.

“It was interesting to work with the UFC and after a fight with Rodney Wallace, I officially announced that I wanted to go to them. But I will not hide the truth: as a result of negotiations, we could not agree on financial matters. I expected a different approach.”

Though Khalidov didn’t get into any specifics of the deal offered to him by UFC president Dana White and company, various reports at the time suggested Khalidov was offered a deal which would see him pocket $20,000 to show and a further $20,000 should he win—a contract worth considerably less than what he enjoyed with KSW, despite the promotion’s status as a regional show.

The UFC has since hosted their first show in Poland back in 2015, with Mirko Cro Cop finally avenging his devastating KO loss to Gabriel Gonzaga in their long-awaited rematch with a knockout victory of his own. But the promotion has long wanted some established European talent to bolster their presence on the continent.

Joanna Jędrzejczyk, the UFC strawweight champion, is a fantastic representative of Polish MMA on the UFC roster, while Karolina Kowalkiewicz serves as a credible support act. However, Khalidov’s name carries as much weight as Jędrzejczyk in his adopted home country.

In addition to this, his Chechen roots—as well as his religious beliefs as a Sunni Muslim—could have provided the UFC a popular MMA name from Russia’s South Caucasus region long before their belated efforts in promoting Dagestani lightweight Khabib Nurmagomedov, a man considered a key figure in the UFC’s wishes to break into the Russian market, ahead of UFC 209 and before his failed weight cut which called off his interim lightweight title fight against Tony Ferguson.

He has distinct marketability, but Khalidov is simply a talented fighter. Though top-quality middleweight opposition is relatively hard to come by outside of the UFC, Khalidov has still handily dealt with the likes of former UFC fighters Matt Lindland, Jorge Santiago, Maiquel Falcao, Kendall Grove, Rodney Wallace and James Irvin in addition to Barnatt, while he also holds victories over US MMA staples Melvin Manhoef, Brett Cooper, Jesse Taylor and Jason Guida—the latter being the sole fight Khalidov has had on US soil under the Elite XC banner back in 2008.

On the face of it, the UFC’s reported 20k/20k offer to Khalidov was derisory and didn’t exactly offer the clarity of vision expected of a promotion which often purports to operate its business with 20/20 visual acuity. Though, the company has been burned before with high-money acquisitions from rival promotions. Arguments can be made that UFC signings of Gilbert Melendez, Hector Lombard and Alistair Overeem haven’t exactly gone to plan, but lowball offers from the UFC, in addition to Khalidov, has cost them talents such as Shinya Aoki and Bibiano Fernandes in the past—imagine those two competing in what is undeniably the premier MMA promotion.

However, with the UFC middleweight division in total disarray with Michael Bisping and natural welterweight Georges St-Pierre seemingly calling all the shots ahead of their angry peers in Luke Rockhold, Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza, Yoel Romero and Chris Weidman, a touch of Khalidov class is what the UFC needs in amongst all the madness at 185lbs.

Unfortunately for them, Khalidov is more than happy in sticking with KSW in a mutually-beneficial partnership which has seen both his and the promotion’s names rise to prominence in synchronised tandem.