UFC: ‘King of Kung Fu’ Muslim Salikhov says Covid-19 struggles ‘woke me up’, and now he’s on different level
Dagestani faces fellow veteran Francisco Trinaldo at UFC Vegas 28 with an eye on a title run – and a return to fight in China
‘Now I’m in the best shape of my life,’ says Salikhov after shaking off long-term Covid-19 symptoms
Topic |
Coronavirus pandemic
Mathew Scott

Published: 2:23pm, 3 Jun, 2021

Muslim Salikhov kicks Elizeu Zaleski dos Santos in their welterweight fight at UFC 251. Photo: Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC
It takes a lot to stop Muslim Salikhov, as a record of being arguably the most successful martial artist to emerge from China’s domestic fight circuits might suggest.
So when chest pain hit the 36-year-old welterweight in December, and he found himself hardly able to move, Salikhov knew something might be seriously wrong.
“One morning I woke up and I couldn’t breathe, I couldn’t move,” says the Dagestani. “All I could do was sit in one position and focus on breathing, and on the pain in my chest. One whole day I sat like that.
“I had been sick with corona in September, it wasn’t too bad. But I started to train again too early. You know as a fighter you want to train every day and to train as hard as you can. But then the chest pains came and the doctors found I had a blood clot, and it could have been dangerous.”

The “King of Kung Fu” had of course battled through injuries across two decades of combat that saw him emerge as the first Westerner to be named the “King of Sanda” – as well as claiming multiple world titles – in the Chinese style of kick-boxing, before a move to MMA and to the UFC. But Salikhov had never felt anything quite like this.

In the end, his months-long battles with the coronavirus forced him out of two scheduled fights, and he’s now not been seen since a split decision win over Brazilian Elizeu Zaleski (22-7) last July.

Stories like Salikhov’s have echoed across the UFC this past 12 months, as a generation of fighters across all divisions have fought both the effects of Covid-19, and against their natural-born instincts to keep active, and to push themselves to the very limits of their physical abilities on a daily basis.
Just when the 36-year-old Salikhov (17-2) had battled his way to the brink of a ranking with a 4-0 run, he had to stop, completely, and he had to wait for his body to heal.

“That’s the lesson I learned,” says Salikhov. “When you get sick, you stop everything. That’s a hard lesson for fighters but now I’m in the best shape of my life. The experience woke me up. I eat better, I sleep better and I will fight better than I ever have before. I’m on a different level.”
Muslim Salikov throws a punch at Laureano Staropoli at UFC Fight Night 162. Photo: SingaporeMaven
And so now Salikhov’s journey begins again this weekend, when he takes on a fellow veteran in Brazilian Francisco Trinaldo (26-7) on the preliminaries of the UFC Vegas 28 card. He wants a finish.
“He’s tough,” says Salikhov. “He’s old but he has good genetics so being 42 years old is not a problem for him. But I don’t think about that. I prepare like he’s a young man. I know I’m much better than him. I just need to keep winning. I like to finish fights. I don’t like decisions, and that’s what I will aim for again.”
That Salikhov came to the UFC relatively late – he signed at 33 – has leaned a sense of urgency to his rise up the ranks. He wants a crack at a ranked welterweight and to win his way towards a title shot. But he also knows the clock is ticking – something that was drummed home during his recovery from Covid-19, when Salikhov had plenty of time to think.
UFC fighter Muslim Salikhov in action during his wushu days in China. Photo: IWUF (International Wushu Federation)
“Maybe next fight I will get a big name, it doesn‘t matter who,” he says. “I know to get that chance I have to do all I can on Saturday and I have to keep my run going. I’ve been thinking a lot about what is coming next and my fans in China say they want to see me again.
“Everybody keeps talking about [11th-ranked] Li Jingliang. You know many people in China are waiting for this. I have a lot of fans. He’s also very popular. If we fight I think China will be 50-50. For Chinese fans sanda is still more important and I represent them. They love me and I would love to show them what I can now do in MMA.”
In the shape of Trinaldo this weekend Salikhov faces a fighter also feeling time encroaching, as evidenced by the fact weight issues have sees him move up a division for the first time. That Trinaldo was once a feared kick-boxer in his own land – and a state champion in the sport – reveals how this one is likely to play out. It should be fast, and furious.
“But I know I am better than him,” says Salikhov. “It feels like I have been away for a long time. But I am better than ever.”

This article appeared in the South China Morning Post print edition as: Covid-19 struggles put Salikhov ‘on a different level’

Mathew Scott

Mathew Scott is a Hong Kong-based journalist who specialises in mixed martial arts. He covers the UFC, One Championship and Asian MMA.
Salikhov is mentioned in a few other threads here (which I may copy over someday) but he deserves his own indie thread.