Khamzat Chimaev will face his biggest challenge to date on April 9, facing Gilbert Burns at UFC 273, and it comes 13 months after he came close to retiring from the sport.
Chimaev was scheduled to face Leon Edwards on Dec. 2021, but the bout got pushed back to January and then March after both fighters tested positive for COVID-19. Against doctors’ advice, however, Chimaev decided to resume training less than a month after testing positive for the infection in December, which led to multiple health issues.
“It affected him so quickly,” Chimaev’s jiu-jitsu coach Alan “Finfou” Nascimento said on a recent episode of MMA Fighting’s Portuguese-language podcast Trocação Franca. “He had every symptom, including difficulty to breathe. We were worried. He started to struggle desperately in the middle of the night, he couldn’t breathe, and we wanted to take him to the hospital.”
Chimaev and Nascimento flew back from Las Vegas to Sweden as soon as they tested negative for the infection. According to “Finfou,” X-ray and MRI exams showed Chimaev’s lungs were badly affected by COVID-19, “looking like he had pneumonia or asthma, something like that.”
“The doctor said we couldn’t train yet,” Nascimento said. “That was in December. I managed to stay away from training. Walking up stairs felt like heavy training to me. I knew something was wrong with me. With him, too.”
The problem was, Nascimento said, Chimaev decided to return to the United States later that year after the UFC offered to get him treatment. Chimaev, who was scheduled to face Edwards on Jan. 20, didn’t have his coaches with him in Las Vegas this time.
“Time went by and he didn’t have any symptoms anymore, and he thought he was ready to train,” Nascimento said. “The UFC told him he couldn’t train, doctors used a lot of medication on him. [But] he went to Xtreme Couture to spar. And out of nowhere, he started to cough up and spit blood. There were a lot of cases of high-level athletes dealing with severe post-COVID complications at the time, or even death, because they didn’t respect the post-COVID [rest time].”
Nascimento tested positive for COVID-19 two days after Chimaev and only returned to the mats three months later, and still didn’t feel 100% percent recovered. The UFC welterweight sparred less than a month after his positive result, “and was alone in America with his whole team back in Sweden.”
“That’s when he fell into despair,” Nascimento said. “There was no one there with him, people he was used to listening, people he trusted, so he went on and said, ‘It’s not worth doing this and putting my life at risk.’ That’s when he made that post and said he wanted to retire.”
The social media post was deleted sometime after. Chimaev’s Allstars Training Center coaches called him back to Sweden and “put a leash” on him, making sure he respected the doctor’s advice and stayed away from training.
“We knew he wouldn’t do that around us,” Nascimento said. “He’s a young kid, living all this hype. One day he’s living in a room in the gym, sharing his lunch with two other people, and the next day he’s the most talked-about guy in the MMA world, in the world’s biggest organization. He didn’t know how to deal with that situation.”
Chimaev flew to his home country to Chechnya to stay close to his family and friends and conclude his treatment. By the time he returned to Sweden, Nascimento said “he was already recovered, mentally and physically.” Chimaev finally re-entered the octagon in October 2021, dismantling Jingliang Li to set up a fight with “Durinho” at UFC 273.