Khamzat Chimaev proved to be his own worst enemy during his recent bout with COVID-19.
Following a 3-0 start in 2020, the top prospect’s campaign came to a screeching halt near the end of the year when it was announced that he had contracted the virus, knocking him out of a scheduled matchup with Leon Edwards that was to headline a UFC Fight Night in December (Edwards also tested positive for COVID-19 ahead of the bout). The fight was twice rescheduled and cancelled twice more, both times because Chimaev was still recovering from COVID-19 symptoms.
Chimaev’s struggles with the virus were well documented, with manager Majdi Shammas claiming that Chimaev ‘thought he was going to die’ following an incident in which symptoms resulted in him having to go to the hospital.
For Chimaev, it was not only an issue of dealing with the physical symptoms, but the uncertainty of the situation that took a mental toll on him.
“This was hard for me,” Chimaev told ESPN. “If you’re sick, you can’t think about fight and some of this stuff. I was thinking, one month sick, and still two months sick, how to finish with this? Now I start to be healthy, now I’m hungry again. I want to be back there and smash, fight somebody, make money. It’s fun for me to do it.”
The undefeated 26-year-old is targeting a return in August, likely at welterweight, though he has competed at both 170 pounds and 185 pounds in his three UFC appearances.
Chimaev’s improved health and outlook have to be music to the ears of a fan base that emerged overnight when he made his UFC debut last year and rattled off two wins in the span of 10 days. In September, he scored a third UFC victory with a 17-second knockout of Gerald Meerschaert.
But just six months later as he was still in the middle of recovering from COVID-19, Chimaev appeared to announce his retirement from competition and also shared an image of a bloody sink (the social media posts have since been deleted). He has since walked back that retirement talk and he also blames himself for aggravating his symptoms during a recent visit to Las Vegas.
“This was my fault,” Chimaev said. “I did wrong there because they told me don’t spar with somebody. But when I go with my manager Ali [Abdelaziz], he stop me all the time, ‘You can’t, you can’t,’ but [I want to jump in the cage] and spar with somebody, do something.
“When I go to the sparring, I told him I’m only gonna do pads. I was lying. I jumped in between the gaps in sparring, I did three rounds and then I feel bad, like in my chest. I did hard sparring with some guy, I feel bad. I go home, blood starts to come out.”
Chimaev said he was never worried about his own health or the possibility that he might die, rather he was concerned for who would take care of his mother and his family should his condition worsen.
A number of influential forces banded together to aid Chimaev, including the UFC and Chechnyan head of state Ramzan Kadyrov. Chimaev says Kadyrov contacted him shortly after seeing his retirement post and implored him to return to Chechnya to receive medical assistance. He credits the doctors in both the U.S. and his home country for looking after him, revealing that he also underwent surgery to help him with his breathing.
“After when I feel better, I start to feel something here (points to throat),” Chimaev said. “You know, like, bad. They check it, the doctor said to me, ‘We have to do operation, you’re going to feel much better after that.’”
“I feel better in my head also,” Chimaev added when asked how important the surgery was. “I was too angry to do something. I didn’t know what we’re gonna do. I was close to doing somethings like, ‘yes, no, yes, no’ but because I was still sick two months… Now I feel good. Now smash back, surprise surprise.”
Seemingly in the clear now, Chimaev is eager to pick up where he left off. He knows that even after his hot start with the UFC, there are those doubting whether he’s a legitimate contender or a flash in the pan.
His sights are still set on becoming UFC champion and establishing a legacy that ranks among the greatest in combat sports.
“I think it’s right because I only did three UFC fights,” Chimaev said. “I didn’t show who I am. The people still talk like, he beat (expletive) guys, something like that. That makes me inside somewhere like, now I have to show to these people who I am. To smash everybody, to take my belt, and show these guys who is the best in the world. I mean, ‘MMA Mike Tyson.’ I mean, ‘MMA Muhammad Ali.’ I’m gonna show it to everybody.”