Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated’s newest look at MMA. Every week, this column will offer insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.
Calvin Kattar and Giga Chikadze headline this Saturday’s UFC on ESPN card, each seeking to take a step further in the featherweight division.
For Kattar (22-5), this will be his first time back in the cage since last year's one-sided loss to top-ranked featherweight Max Holloway on Jan. 16. He needs a victory to hold onto his fifth spot in the rankings, but that will be no simple task against Chikadze (14-2), who has rattled off nine straight wins.
Chikadze bludgeoned MMA staples in his past two bouts, quickly dominating Cub Swanson before obliterating Edson Barboza. His past three trips to the Octagon have resulted in Performance of the Night honors, a streak he would like to extend on Saturday.
“My mission is to get the UFC belt,” Chikadze said. “I’m getting closer to making that dream come true, and I’m doing it for Georgia, my home country. That is what drives me forward. I don’t take vacation. I just keep working to move forward and get that title.”
Now eighth in the division, Chikadze is primed to continue his ascent toward the title–and it feels as though Kattar is merely another step on his climb toward the top. Except, of course, no one informed that piece of information to Kattar, who is quite familiar with being overlooked. Kattar has a lot to prove on Saturday, and he plans on returning to the win column and resuming his own championship-driven journey.
“I know who he is and I respect him, but hopefully he is aware of who I am, too,” Kattar said. “I know all about his win streak. The kid is on fire. But he’s never faced an opponent like myself. He’ll see that on Saturday.”
The breathtaking beauty of MMA is on full display in this encounter. Featuring two elite fighters from opposite sides of the world, both men will enter the Octagon with the same objective: victory. Yet the paths traveled to arrive at this point in time could not be any more different.
Chikadze was born and raised in Tbilisi, the capital city of Georgia. He was only three when the country received its independence from the Soviet Union, and his country plays a monumental role in his identity.
“My country is a very small country, but we have been battling for centuries to keep our territory,” Chikadze, 33, said. “For us, to get punched and hit back is nothing new. That is in my DNA.”
Fascinated at an early age by the art of war, Chikadze has dedicated his life to becoming a fighter, one skilled in all ways of contending.
“I started to train when I was four and began competing when I was six,” Chikadze, 33, said. “When I was five, me and dad rented a videotape and watched Royce Gracie. I wore a similar outfit that he did, that Gi, and I thought that was me. That’s what I wanted to be.
“Not everyone in my country could understand it then, but my dream was to become a UFC champion. I love everything about this. It is my everything. It is my hobby. It is my fun. I was a skinny kid, and knowing how to fight helped protect me.”
A multi-faceted offense gives Chikadze an immediate advantage in his fights, and he is the favorite entering Saturday’s bout. He is elite in karate, kickboxing, and muy Thai, along with a new focus on his jiu-jitsu. His greatest strength, just like Kattar, is his striking–though Chikadze believes he has no peer in that particular realm.
“There are levels to striking, and I come from the highest level,” said Chikadze, who moved to California in pursuit of his UFC dreams in 2014. “I beat Cub and I beat Edson in my last two fights, and they are legends of this sport, but Calvin Kattar is the strongest opponent I’ve ever faced. Especially with him coming off a loss, he will be even more motivated. He is very strong, but at the end of the day, he is a striker.
“I am the best striker in the game. I have a huge advantage when we stand and fight.”
If the fight goes to the ground, Chikadze is excited for the chance to unveil new pieces of his arsenal.
“I made a new submission, one my teammates call Gigablata,” Chikadze said. “It is a chokehold. I cannot guarantee we will see it on Saturday. I am going against a striker and I want to knock him out. But I also have some new takedowns. If he tries to bring me to the ground, then you will see the Gigablata.”
More than 5,000 miles away from Tbilisi is Methuen, Mass. Based in the heart of the Merrimack Valley, the blue-collar city is a stone’s throw away from Boston. Unlike Tbilisi, brutally cold winters and hot Dunkin’ Donuts coffee are a way of life, as is a genuine devotion to Bill Belichick and his New England Patriots.
“I can’t wait to watch the Pats,” said Kattar, whose fight conflicts with the Patriots-Bills Wild Card game. “As soon as I get out of the cage, I’ll be watching.”
A fighter inside and out of the cage, the 33-year-old Kattar grew up in New England during a time when battles with addiction caused heartbreak all over the region. Kattar lost another beloved friend, Joel Gigliotti, in 2019, and he will be fighting for him this Saturday.
“Fight night is actually his birthday,” said Kattar. “He’s always on my mind. I am always fighting for the ones that aren’t here anymore with us. Addiction, all this sh--, it’s terrible. Not a day goes by when I don’t think about it or wish they were here.”
Reaching the top-five of the division marked a monumental achievement for Kattar, one that will only be topped by a title victory. Long overlooked in the division, a win against Chikadze will serve as a stark reminder that Kattar is more than just an upper-echelon fighter; it will show that he is elite. And after the endless sacrifice it took to reach his current position, Kattar has no intention of handing it over to Chikadze.
“It’s hard to get to this point and it’s even harder to stay here, but that’s nothing I didn’t already know,” Kattar said. “I’ve been putting my head down and putting in the work.
“This is the biggest fight of my life, and Giga has my full and undivided attention. I plan on taking this kid out. May the better man win.”
With both fighters full of conviction and confidence, there will have to be a breaking point on Saturday. Either Kattar reasserts his dominance, holding onto his top-five spot, or Chikadze continues his championship trajectory. This will be appointment-viewing for fight fans, and it is a bout that should feature an absurd amount of striking. While knocking out Kattar was a feat not even Holloway could achieve, Chikadze believes it will be his destiny on Saturday.
“I’ll do my best to end this as soon as possible in the first round,” Chikadze said. “Maybe it’s going to be the second, but I am aiming to end this in the first round.”
James Nakashima looking to make a statement at ONE Championship’s “Heavy Hitters” event
After suffering two losses in a row, James Nakashima looks to regain his momentum in a ONE Championship lightweight bout against Saygid Izagakhmaev.
Nakashima (12-2) had won a dozen in a row prior to the two losses. But this bout at Friday’s Heavy Hitters offers the exact type of rejuvenation he needs. He faces Izagakhmaev (19-2), a Khabib Nurmagomedov protégé, who has garnered a healthy amount of notoriety even before making his ONE debut.
“There is no denying the fact that I am being overlooked because of the spotlight that Khabib provides,” said Nakashima. “But I have a lot of respect for Saygid, who is a world-class martial artist.”
Despite all the attention focused on Nurmagomedov, he will not be in the cage. And Nakashima enters this bout confident that he can slay a very skilled opponent.
“I know who I am and what I’m capable of, and I believe I am the best in the world,” Nakashima said. “I needed a year off to regroup and recollect myself, and I suffered that [ONE welterweight] title loss [Kiamrian Abbasov] and the quick turnaround loss to [Shinya] Aoki, but I am prepared for this spot. I am very confident that I have the ability to take advantage of this opportunity.”
Building a legacy in mixed martial arts is a lifelong pursuit for Nakashima. A childhood friend of New Japan Pro-Wrestling star Juice Robinson, he has taken considerable pride in both of their successes as they climb the ladder in their chosen fields.
“This is bigger than me,” Nakashima said. “I’m representing home, I’m representing family. This is about my parents, my partner, my daughter Eleanor, for Joe [Juice] and my other close friends. When we were in high school, we set these goals together and we’ve gone after them with 150 percent commitment.”
The key to victory for the fight at Heavy Hitters, Nakashima explained, is to get comfortable early.
“I need to do what I do best, put on the pressure and pace and drag him into deep waters,” Nakashima said. “At this point though, with my undefeated streak being broken, I have to start fighting with a little more sense of urgency and flash.
“I’m trying to think a little bit bigger. That’s what I’ve done over the last year away from competition. I’m trying to create a masterpiece, and I don’t think there is a better spot than here to do it.”
The Pick ‘Em Section:
Here are my picks for this weekend’s fights:
UFC featherweight bout: Calvin Kattar vs. Giga Chikadze
Pick: Calvin Kattar
ONE women’s strawweight championship bout: Xiong Jingnan (c) vs. Ayaka Miura
Pick: Xiong Jingnan
UFC women’s flyweight bout: Katlyn Chookagian vs. Jennifer Maia
Pick: Katlyn Chookagian
UFC flyweight bout: Brandon Royval vs. Rogério Bontorin
Pick: Brandon Royval
UFC heavyweight bout: Jake Collier vs. Chase Sherman
Pick: Jake Collier
UFC featherweight bout: Bill Algeo vs. Joanderson Brito
Pick: Joanderson Brito
2021 record: 58-44
2022 record: 0-0