Whether he wanted to acknowledge it or not, Calvin Kattar’s career was at a crossroads heading into Saturday night’s fight with Giga Chikadze.
One year after suffering a brutal loss to Max Holloway, Kattar was making his return to the octagon, and although he was the higher ranked combatant at fifth in the featherweight division, it was the eighth-ranked Chikadze that entered as the favorite. A second consecutive loss would knock Kattar out of the top five, and deal a serious setback to the Methuen native’s hopes of capturing the title.
Neither scenario would be a concern by the end of the night, as Kattar delivered a dominating performance, with all three judges declaring him the winner of every round in a convincing five-round decision.
“They all counted me out for this fight. Everybody,” Kattar told ESPN immediately after the fight. “Like I’ve been saying man, it ain’t everybody that’s been counting you out. It don’t matter about them as long as you believe in yourself. That’s all that matters.”
Kattar (23-5) had many believers as he made his ring walk at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Having fought twice on Fight Island, located on Abu Dhabi’s Yas Island over the last 18 months, this was Kattar’s first bout in front of friends and family since the start of the pandemic. They made their presence known during the pre-fight introuductions, and throughout the contest.
A former kickboxing champion, Chikadze (14-3) had won nine in a row, and was 7-0 since joining the UFC in 2019. He had hoped to land some of his “Giga” kicks and end the fight early, as he had done in his three previous fights. But Kattar really never allowed Chikadze much room, constantly moving forward.
Known for staying on his feet and striking, Kattar pressed the action early, and when Chikadze missed a kick and fell off balance in the first round, Kattar went back to his roots from his days wrestling for coach Bill James at Methuen High, and took Chikadze to the ground. Although he was unable to finish a submission, he kept Chikadze on the mat, the Georgian struggling to shake free from Kattar’s grip.
Kattar would continue to stalk Chikadze through the rest of the fight, picking him apart with his jab, uppercuts and devastating elbows.
Well ahead after four rounds, Kattar’s corner urged him to finish strong, with manager Tyson Chartier telling him “I trust you, I believe in you,” as his fighter went back out for the fifth and final round. Holding off an initial burst from Chikadze, Kattar then nearly finished the fight in the waning seconds, sending Chikadze to the mat and delivering a series of blows before the final bell sounded.
As was the case in his loss to Holloway, Kattar again picked up a $50,000 bonus for the “Fight of the Night”, although he came out on the right side of the decision this time. The two grabbed a selfie after the fight and paid respect to each other.
“I knew what I had,” Kattar replied when asked after the fight what he learned about himself. “I think everyone else is learning. I know I can fight like this if I have to.”
Offered the chance, Kattar declined to call anyone out after his victory. Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski was scheduled to fight Holloway in March, but Holloway had to withdraw after reaggravating an injury. There were some clamoring for Chikadze to fill in, but Kattar effectively put that idea to rest.
Volkanovski will now fight Chan Sung Jung on April 9, with Kattar on the short list of potential opponents for the winner.
Follow Andrew Mahoney on Twitter @GlobeMahoney.