Khamzat Chimaev is finally returning at UFC 267: 'The circus is picking right back up'

Chimaev needs only one punch to knock out Meerschaert (1:01)

Khamzat Chimaev needs 17 seconds and one punch to knock out Gerald Meerschaert at UFC Fight Night. (1:01)

FOUR YEARS AGO Majdi Shammas was on the second floor of Allstars Training Center, the martial arts facility he owns in Stockholm, when he heard a disturbance downstairs. It sounded like someone was fighting. And not the kind of fighting that goes on in Shammas' gym seven days a week. No, it sounded like someone was actually fighting.

"I went downstairs and I saw two guys had jumped on one," Shammas recalls. "I said, 'Whoa, whoa! What is happening here?' I separated them, and the one who was by himself, I didn't know him. When I looked into his eyes, I could see he just wanted to rip the others' heads off.

"He knew I was the owner of the gym and I said, 'Well, who are you?' And he said, 'I'm a wrestler and I want to be a pro MMA fighter.' And that was Khamzat."

The name Khamzat Chimaev means something today. He has had only three fights in the UFC -- all in 2020 -- but Chimaev is already one of the most intriguing athletes on the roster. On Saturday at UFC 267 in Abu Dhabi (10:30 a.m. on ESPN+), United Arab Emirates, Chimaev will make his first appearance in over a year against Li Jingliang, a return that has been much delayed and highly anticipated.

The welterweight Swedish national born in Chechnya, Russia, made UFC history last year, when he became the fastest fighter in the modern era to reach three victories inside the Octagon. He accomplished that feat in 66 days, not just by obliterating the former mark of 105 days, but by proving to be a cold-blooded finisher in each bout. So far in his professional MMA career, Chimaev (9-0) has never seen a judges' scorecard, with six fights ending within the opening round. A big reason for Chimaev's instant renown is what Shammas saw that first day in the gym -- his "smash everyone, take on everyone, fight every day" approach to the sport.

"Nine guys I finish," Chimaev says. "The day I can't finish somebody, maybe I will start to think, 'I have to be done with this s---.' When I go into cage, I want to kill this guy, take his heart. He's going to tap or sleep. Every day, I want my gloves on and [on] an opponent. Just thinking about this ... I get angry."

That intensity is what drew Shammas, who has managed fighters for more than a decade, to Chimaev. When Chimaev first found the gym, he found it only because he knew Alexander Gustafsson had trained there. At the time, Chimaev was 23, with no martial arts training other than his background in wrestling. He was doing odd jobs in a town south of Stockholm, but because Shammas saw potential in Chimaev, the trainer wanted to keep him close. So close, he didn't even let him go home.

"I asked him that day, 'How bad do you want this?' And he had something in his eye. Sometimes, you just see that," Shammas says. "I talked to our head coach [Andreas Michael] and told him, 'I think you should take a look at this guy.' And we told Khamzat, 'If you're going to do this, you're going to stay in Stockholm.'

"From that day on, we sorted everything out. He stayed in the gym. He didn't go back to his house for two years."

Less than four years later, Chimaev is seemingly on the cusp of title contention and superstardom. UFC president Dana White has said Chimaev is "unlike anything I've ever seen before." After just three appearances in the Octagon, the UFC booked Chimaev a main event against top 170-pound contender Leon Edwards in 2020. And had Chimaev won, he likely would have challenged Kamaru Usman for the title in 2021.

But the fight against Edwards never happened, and the hottest start in UFC history nearly came to an end in March when, during his recovery from a serious case of COVID-19, Chimaev wrote on social media that he was contemplating retirement. Everything that had led to his rise in MMA -- his work ethic and obsessiveness to stay active -- was working against him as he tried to push himself too hard to come back quickly from the effects of the virus.

Now the 27-year-old is ready to get back to where he was in 2020. The time away has allowed his team to take a breath and prepare for what's ahead, because as history suggests, when it comes to Chimaev, things move fast.

"I know that once this fight happens in Abu Dhabi," Shammas says, "the circus is picking right back up."

CHIMAEV'S UFC DEBUT came with little fanfare on July 15, 2020, during the UFC's first trip to Fight Island. In order to get his foot in the door, Chimaev took a short-notice middleweight bout against John Phillips.

The fight was not competitive. Chimaev easily took Phillips down and controlled him on the ground. He amassed 43 significant strikes. Phillips amassed one. The bout ended via submission, 72 seconds into the second round.

After Bruce Buffer announced the result, Chimaev climbed one of the walls of the Octagon, leaned over the railing and shouted to Dana White, sounding perfectly clear as the arena was empty of fans due to the pandemic. It wasn't a "Hey, how did you like that? Make sure you remember me," kind of speech. Chimaev wanted to talk business. The UFC had two more events planned over the next 10 days on Fight Island, and Chimaev wanted to fight again.

"Before that debut, I was waiting one year for a fight. I was so hungry," Chimaev says. "Then the fight went so fast, I needed to go to Dana and tell him, 'How fast is possible to get me another one?'"

The answer was 10 days. The UFC offered Chimaev a welterweight fight against Rhys McKee, meaning not only would he be fighting twice in that time, he was expected to cut weight for the second one.

"A lot of people immediately said it wasn't a good idea, because he had to cut to welterweight now," Shammas says. "I had to convince his coaches, his brother. It was a big discussion within the team at that time. Of course, Khamzat said he was in right away. So, finally on that Wednesday before the fight, we said we had to give a decision to the UFC. The team said, 'OK, we will do it.'"

Chimaev wasn't even a part of that final discussion, as he'd already made it clear he wanted to fight as soon as possible. When the decision was made at the hotel on Fight Island, he was sleeping in the next room.

"We woke him up and told him, 'OK, you're fighting,'" Shammas says. "He was like, 'When?' I told him, 'Saturday.' And he said, 'OK,' and fell back asleep."

Chimaev dominated the second bout even more dramatically than the first, securing a TKO finish just three minutes into the opening round. Two months later, he returned to the Octagon and knocked out veteran Gerald Meerschaert just 17 seconds into a middleweight contest in Las Vegas. With his hype at an all-time high, the UFC elected to catapult him into a top-five matchup against Edwards.

"We woke him up and told him, 'OK, you're fighting.' He was like, 'When?' I told him, 'Saturday.' And he said, 'OK,' and fell back asleep." Majdi Shammas

That bout was originally scheduled for Dec. 19, 2020, but was postponed to Jan. 20, 2021, after Edwards tested positive for COVID-19. It was postponed again to March 13, after Chimaev contracted COVID-19. Then it was called off entirely when Chimaev struggled to recover from the illness.

"When he got COVID ... he came back too early, he was just so stressed about getting back to fight Leon," Shammas says. "I remember his friends calling me at 1 a.m. one night to say he was having a hard time breathing. I rang an ambulance and they took him to the hospital. He thought he was going to die. It was really bad. I was worried. To be honest, I was very worried."

Chimaev's recovery, or lack of one, made headlines in March, when he announced on social media he thought he was "done" with MMA. Chimaev wrote the post after coughing up blood after a training session. He has since deleted those posts.

Only then did Chimaev finally listen to his coaches and management and take a clean break from training. According to Shammas, he agreed to a period of complete inactivity. Chimaev traveled to his home country of Chechnya for rest and medical attention. He gained weight, Shammas said, and his condition eventually improved.

By midsummer, Chimaev's team was confident enough in his health to begin discussions with the UFC about a comeback. But following the scare with COVID-19, Chimaev's team agreed there would be some changes. They wanted him to acknowledge that he was human. Exceptionally human, sure -- but human. Moving forward, the team would protect him from himself. No more fighting anyone and everyone, every weekend. He would focus on one weight class -- welterweight -- and stop bouncing back and forth up to middleweight. There would be restraint. A clear plan for his future.

Khamzat agreed.

It took all of a couple weeks for that agreement to be tested. In June, the UFC floated the idea of a fight between Chimaev and former middleweight champion Luke Rockhold. Despite everything the team had laid out for his return, Chimaev wanted to accept.

"He was so mad," Shammas says. "He said, 'Hey coach, I don't care about our deal. Let me knock him out.' I told him, 'Khamzat, if you're going to answer to everyone who calls you a chicken, you're going to be fighting every weekend. We said we were going to stick to one goal, at welterweight. You can't say yes to every fight anymore.'"

Chimaev eventually relented, and the team booked this comeback against Jingliang (18-6). But while Chimaev did technically agree to turn down a fight, behind the scenes, his attitude certainly hasn't changed.

"My coach said all this, blah, blah -- I say, 'OK,'" Chimaev says. "But maybe if I take the belt someday and Luke is still fighting, I can fight him. Or maybe if he wants to just see, hey, come to Sweden or I'll go to the U.S. We can fight that way. It's like his brother [American Kickboxing Academy teammate Khabib Nurmagomedov] said: Send me location."

WITH THE PRESUMPTIVE return of Chimaev's health, the sport can again focus on the question it had back in 2020: Just how good is he?

It feels like every possible outcome is still on the table. Maybe Chimaev is a future welterweight champ. Middleweight champ? Light heavyweight champ? Or maybe he will flame out in spectacular fashion. There is a massive difference, after all, in dominating three opponents with a combined UFC record of 10-13 and dominating the very top of the division.

"There are still a lot of things he needs to go through," Michael says. "According to some people, we haven't fought anyone."

Arguably no one in the world is in a better position to predict Chimaev's future than Michael. He has been the head coach at Allstars for 10 years, and was entrenched in Sweden's amateur boxing scene before that. He oversaw all three of Gustafsson's UFC title fights, which ended in losses to all-time greats Jon Jones (twice) and Daniel Cormier.

Michael has been Chimaev's first and only coach in MMA, and has watched him exceed expectations at every step of his career. Most importantly, Michael has spent countless hours in the gym, watching Chimaev spar with Gustafsson and UFC veteran Ilir Latifi -- two light heavyweights who have also competed at heavyweight.

Chimaev typically goes with training partners two weight classes above him, because his rounds against other welterweights are not competitive.

"I haven't seen a welterweight who can challenge him in the gym," Michael says. "Maybe in the beginning, when they are fresh and it's Thursday and he's already done 15 sessions that week -- but even then, when he's exhausted from the week, in all my years, I haven't seen anyone in his weight class that has challenged him. He just grinds down everyone.

"I have to put him with Alexander and Ilir, and they put Khamzat through hell -- but he just pushes through it. He doesn't accept it. You see other athletes, maybe it's their 20th session of the week, they think, 'OK, I will accept this submission this once.' Khamzat doesn't do that."

Even so, Michael balks at guaranteeing any kind of success moving forward. He knows better than to do so, having been around the fight game for so long.

"It's a difficult question to answer, what will happen with Khamzat," head coach Andreas Michael says. "I can tell you what I believe, but I don't like to predict because anything can happen. When you get to the top, there are a lot of great athletes, and one mistake, one wrong choice, can cost you. There are so many things that can come in the way. Life can take you. Life is a hard obstacle to deal with. Money, success, all of it.

"What I can say is that this guy is pleasant. He's a good person with a good heart, and that makes him trainable. He always gives everything he has. And when he comes to fight, he's there to rip your head off. I believe we have something special here. We have someone who can go all the way, but it's not just talent and hard work. It's everything."

Shammas' feelings are similar, although he allows himself to dream a little bit.

"Whenever I hear people say he is the 'Chosen One,' I have been around so many failures in this sport," Shammas says. "I lost three title fights with Alex. I've seen all of this stuff.

"But is Khamzat the 'Chosen One?' Hmmmm. In my eyes, of course, I'm going to say, yeah."