UFC 294: Khamzat Chimaev almost got title fight

Khamzat Chimaev weighs in for UFC 279. | Icon Sportswire / Amy Kaplan, IMAGO

UFC 294 has been through the ringer over the past couple weeks. A planned title fight between Islam Makhachev and Charles Oliveira fell to the wayside due to a training injury late in the Brazilian’s fight camp. That news, however, was followed quickly by the news that the co-main event between Khamzat Chimaev and Paulo Costa had also been cancelled. Costa picked up a nasty infection following recent elbow surgery, forcing him out of the event.

Fortunately for fans, the UFC got a couple top quality last minute replacements. Stepping in for Oliveira is none other than current featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, looking to avenge the single loss of his Octagon career to date. And in for ‘Borrachina’? Former welterweight champion Kamaru Usman. That should ensure that fans still get a couple of thrilling battles at the top of the card, but we almost had something much more unexpected.

UFC asked Sean Strickland to fight Chimaev

In a recent exposé article from ESPN detailing the behind the scenes machinations of creating these new bookings for UFC 294 fans got a closer look at the promotion’s thought process when finding replacement opponents for major bouts. Among the things revealed were that the UFC did toy with the idea of putting Mateusz Gamrot in for Oliveira, but that his ‘backup’ role was meant to serve as a potential last-second replacement during fight week, rather than the first guy the promotion calls when they need to change things up further out from the event.

Justin Gaethje was top choice for Makhachev

The article also noted that Justin Gaethje was the first choice to replace the Brazilian, but that he was too heavy to be able to make weight in time. On the Costa side of things, it turns out the UFC had a lot more time to figure out a potential new booking for Chechen sensation Khamzat Chimaev. As far as a month out from UFC 294 the promotion knew they likely had a problem on their hands.

After learning that Costa was suffering from an elbow infection that would require surgery, one of the first people the UFC turned to apparently was none other than newly crowned champion Sean Strickland.

Strickland turned down the fight

According to ESPN’s sources, Strickland turned the fight down, being just a week or so removed from his win over Israel Adesanya. Honestly, though, it’s crazy that the UFC even asked. A newly minted title holder getting just a month to turn around for his first title defense, against a dynamic, dangerous opponent in front of a likely heavily partisan crowd? It’s hard to think of a champion in the promotion’s long history that would have taken that kind of risk.

Instead, apparently, Jared Cannonier was set to step in for Costa. Dana White had reportedly even recorded promos announcing the new fight, before Cannonier caught the injury bug himself. That’s when Karmau Usman stepped in.

Usman vs. Chimaev will be top contender bout

Accompanying the news of Usman’s opportunity, is the report from his manager Ali Abdelaziz that a key part of the negotiation for Usman to step up to middleweight and fight Chimaev would be that a title shot against Strickland is on the line for whoever wins.

Strickland and Usman fought once before, way back in 2017 at UFC 210. Usman won that fight via unanimous decision.

Strickland recalls Usman loss

“I’ll never forget that camp,” Strickland said, recalling his fight against Usman in a 2020 interview, “I never wrestled, I was a black belt in Jiu-Jitsu and I was like, ‘I’m a Jiu-Jitsu guy, f*ck wrestling. I’ll do stand-up and if he takes me down, yeah, I’ll tap him out,’ Like a stupidass. This was like f*cking four years or however long ago.

“So then I bring a bunch of high-level wrestlers into my camp. And dude, I am just getting f*cked up all camp. The whole eight weeks, bro. These high-level wrestlers are just beating me into the ground while I’m like, ‘I’m gonna f*cking lose this fight,’ I remember walking out there and I had these wrestlers in my corner warming me up. And they were taking me down in the backroom! I had no chance because if these guys are taking me down, he’s gonna take me down.”

To Strickland’s credit, Usman only ended up securing two takedowns, but banked eight minutes of control in the three round fight, out-landing Strickland 117 to 30, largely off a ton of clinch work against the cage. But if Usman had it all his own way then, even he feels like Strickland isn’t the same guy he fought the first time.

Usman thinks Strickland has improved

“I think since that fight [Strickland has] grown a lot,” Usman said in a recent interview. “He’s gotten a lot better and I think he’s just settled into who he is as a fighter. And I look forward to that matchup because as he’s grown, as have I. I’ve grown a lot as well. So, I think that’s gonna be a highly anticipated matchup for everyone to see. And I can’t wait.”

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About the author

Zane Simon

Zane Simon is a senior editor, writer, and podcaster for Bloody Elbow. He has worked with the website since 2013, taking on a wide variety of roles. A lifelong combat sports fan, Zane has trained off & on in both boxing and Muay Thai. He currently hosts the long-running MMA Vivisection podcast, which he took over from Nate Wilcox & Dallas Winston in 2015, as well as the 6th Round podcast, started in 2014. Zane is also responsible for developing and maintaining the ‘List of current UFC fighters’ on Bloody Elbow, a resource he originally developed for Wikipedia in 2010.

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