When Mamed Khalidov stepped into the KSW cage on December 6, 2014, he was clearly aware of the risk that it entailed.
The Chechen native and Polish national was the headlining act at KSW 29, an event that had already seen one main event fighter drop out with little notice. Khalidov, a superstar in his own right in Poland, felt a sharp, lingering pain in his neck, but decided to ignore it. 18,000 fans had already flooded the Kraków Arena to watch him compete. He was not about to disappoint them.
Khalidov stood opposite Bellator veteran Brett Cooper, who served as a late replacement for Polish legend Tomasz Drwal. It was a very different stylistic match-up for Khalidov on such short notice. He also lacked his explosive power, as well as confidence in his submissions.
The result was Mamed's longest fight in nearly five years. Following an impressive nine-fight win streak packed with slick submissions and violent knockouts, Khalidov was awarded a decision victory against Cooper.
With a look of relief etched across his bearded face, Khalidov addressed the ecstatic crowd: "I can't disappoint my fans as they come in great numbers. There are 18,000 here today. It was worth taking that risk."
Having satisfied his fans, Khalidov went under the knife three weeks later.
The former KSW light-heavyweight champion retired from the public eye for a few months after the spinal surgery to allow himself time to recover. Disturbing thoughts began to creep into his mind: What if he was never able to recover from the surgery? What if this was the end of his professional career as a fighter?
Before he understood what the problem was, a large portion of his confidence had already been carved away out of fear. It was then that Mamed realized: the mental struggle was to outweigh the physical recovery.
"I had a lot of mental issues that came along with the surgery and I began to worry if I could even come back to fighting," Khalidov told BloodyElbow.com while in London. "When I was waiting to do the operation, I had so many questions on my mind about my future. I spent ten years with such power and dominance, fight after fight, so it was the first time that I had a long enough break to question myself."
It was the longest layoff of Khalidov's career, especially over the past ten years. He spent months away from the gym but never lost the urge to compete. In fact, the injury reaffirmed his love for fighting and gave him a newfound appreciation for what he almost lost with a serious spinal injury.
Eventually, Mamed stepped back into his gym - the Arrachion MMA Fighters Team in Olsztyn, Poland -- and his mental problems started to dwindle.
As the pain dissolved, so did his fear.
"Now I feel good about my neck, I don't feel pain anymore so I'm not worried about what is going on," he explained. "I didn't need a sports psychologist or anything like that. I helped myself. It is enough for me that I feel good and know that I can go back to the old things I used to do in the ring."
Now 11 months removed from his last fight, Khalidov will return to one of the most anticipated fights in KSW history when he faces middleweight champion Michał Materla on Saturday, Nov. 28. The two have a storied history as friends and routinely refused to fight each other for years. However, following endless pressure from Polish fans and the promotional brass, the two stars finally agreed to put an end to the unavoidable rivalry.
"It is really hard to fight with a friend," Khalidov reflected. "However, history makes the moment. There is no other way to come out of this. People want to know who is better and even the owners of KSW have pressured me to determine who is better between us."
Khalidov is undefeated in his last ten fights over the span of five years, while Materla has only lost one fight in his last eleven outings and avenged that loss shortly thereafter. With little room at the top of the middleweight division for two top stars, their KSW 33 clash is pivotal in more ways than one.
Now that Khalidov's troubles are firmly behind him, he can focus on cementing himself as the only two-division champion in KSW history.
"Everybody knows that I'm a great champion but that I don't have a belt in this weight category, so I decided to stop the friendship for 15 minutes to change that."