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Apr 8, 2022

  • Brett OkamotoESPN Staff Writer

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    • MMA columnist for ESPN.com
    • Analyst for "MMA Live"
    • Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun

IT'S A SATURDAY morning in one of the final weeks of winter, and I'm standing in Allstars Training Center for precisely one reason. I have traveled all this way because I need to see it for myself.

I've heard the stories. It feels like everyone has, at this point. Tales of a welterweight who spars heavyweights. A dominant wrestler who has developed a knack for knocking people out with his hands. A workhorse who never gets tired. Just an absolute machine in the gym.

"It's almost become a little bit of a myth," says Allstars CEO Majdi Shammas. "The first thing any reporter asks people who have trained here is, 'Is he really that good?' Fighters will come here from around the world, and they'll immediately get a call from their friends. 'Is Khamzat really that good?' This is what's been happening."

Over the last two years, Khamzat Chimaev has been surrounded by hype nearly unprecedented in the UFC. He has finished all four of his opponents, three of them inside the first round. He set a modern UFC record in 2020 by winning two fights in just ten days. So far, he's out-landed his UFC opponents in total strikes by 254-2.

But beyond what he's done inside the Octagon, it's these stories coming out of this Swedish basement.

You want to really see Chimaev? You want to truly understand why his team believes he could be a UFC champion in three weight classes? You have to come to Stockholm.

This Saturday morning, the gym is alive with activity. A soundtrack of culturally diverse music pumps through its sound system. Endless conversations -- in English, Swedish and Arabic -- occur all over its mats. In one corner, a group of small children are joyfully learning jiu-jitsu. In another corner, professional fighters are torturing themselves on treadmills and stationary bikes.

Even in the middle of all this chaos, Chimaev is impossible to miss. The 27-year-old prospect, who is on the verge of superstardom, is weeks away from a fight against Gilbert Burns at UFC 273 in Jacksonville, Florida (Sat. 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV). If Chimaev wins, especially if he wins spectacularly, he could earn a shot at the UFC's welterweight title.

His workout today consists of five five-minute rounds on the treadmill. After each round, Allstars head coach Andreas Michael increases the machine's incline, which was already set higher than anyone else's in the group when training began. Twenty seconds on, 20 seconds off, 20 seconds on -- over and over, until the five rounds are up.

"This workout is a killer," Michael tells me quietly. "I'm telling you. Absolute killer."

As Chimaev ticks each round, seemingly without effort, the myths are becoming a reality right in front of me. He's coming off a full week of training, more than ten sessions. Some athletes would take a day off after such a grueling week, or at least take it easy -- but here is Chimaev, running a treadmill aimed halfway to the sky. When the session ends, he grabs two small weights and shadow boxes for approximately 10 minutes.

Who is this guy? Mixed martial arts is full of obsessive, hungry human beings. And Chimaev still stands out. What taught him to be like this?

"Mmmm, me," Chimaev answers. "From [the] day I recognized myself, I was feeling this. Always. Feeling I had something to put out, to make [a] better life. If you have to go 100 kilometer, you're [not] gonna get there if you stay, thinking about how you're gonna get there. Go, slowly. And maybe you go halfway and die -- but if you go, you [can] get there."

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CHIMAEV WAS BORN in 1994 in a small village in the Russian republic of Chechnya, just months before the First Chechen War. The conflict between Chechen rebels and Russia continued for the first two years of Chimaev's life. His village was located about 50 miles away from Grozny, the major Chechen city in which most of the hostilities took place. He doesn't have vivid memories of severe violence, but his life and homeland were still unquestionably shaped by war.

"But after [the war], you see the buildings down. I remember a lot of cars and military coming to my house, checking my house," Chimaev recalls. "At that time, it was normal to us. You see these things every day and it's normal, if you're a kid. I [eventually came to] understand it was war only in my country."

Chimaev grew up with two brothers and two sisters. His father was not around during his childhood, as he spent years at a time working outside of Chechnya. The family did not have much.

"[My mother thought] always about us," Chimaev says. "When you are young, you don't understand why she would give food to us and then [be] waiting for us. We finish the food and the things we left, she eat [only] this. Now, when I become older, I understand what she did."

Like virtually all young boys in Chechnya, Chimaev was involved in wrestling. He started the sport at age 6. His older brother, Artur, recalls Khamzat being so small at a young age, that he had to compete against bigger kids or not at all. After one tournament, Chimaev was awarded a certificate even though he'd lost. Technically, he was still first place, because he was the only one who'd made his weight category.

"He was teasing me, basically saying, 'Look, I'm No. 1,'" says Artur, who is five years older. "I tried to endure it as long as possible, and then I exploded. 'What first place? You lost the match.' And he was so upset and offended that he tore up his certificate and ran back home."

As Chimaev grew older, the results of any competition or confrontation mattered a great deal to him. He couldn't bear a loss. Chimaev developed a fierce refusal to accept defeat.

"One time, some guys jumped him," Artur says. "One held him while the other punched him. When Khazmat came home, he had a black eye, and I asked him, 'Why did you let yourself get hit? Why did you fail?' And he immediately began to cry. He ran and took a knife, saying, 'I will kill them now! It was unfair! They attacked me two on one!' I told him, 'Give me the knife and let's go figure it out.' He was 10 or 11 years old.

"If there is a fight, an issue, he will deal with it until the end. He will go all the way. He has been such a person since childhood."

In 2012, Artur moved to Sweden to seek medical treatment for torn ligaments in his shoulder he sustained in wrestling. One year later, Chimaev, his mother, his other brother and one sister also moved to Sweden. The four of them settled in a small apartment in a village in the southern part of the country. Chimaev was 19.

"Every morning I would run before work and [I'd see] buildings, nice houses," Chimaev remembers. "I was watching them, and [then] I go back to [my] small apartment and was like, 'If somebody can live like that, why we don't do it?' I'll make it for mother and me. I was like, 'I'm gonna find some way to make my life better.'"

Chimaev found work through his older brother, loading boxes onto trucks inside a refrigeration warehouse at a poultry factory. He continued to wrestle and was very successful in national competitions. However, he was not eligible to represent Sweden in the Olympics, and his lack of citizenship was a frequent hurdle when it came to international competitions.

In December 2015, Chimaev watched one of the biggest fights in UFC history -- Conor McGregor knocking out Jose Aldo in just 13 seconds to win the featherweight title. That moment led Chimaev to MMA.

"I was thinking, 'If that guy did that s---, why I'm not?'" Chimaev says. "I'm mentally stronger than him. My body is bigger than him. I was feeling, I [could] break him. If he makes that money, why not me?"

Artur has always felt a sense of responsibility for Khamzat, and throughout his entire life, Chimaev has respected that. Artur is his mentor, his voice of reason. But he didn't listen in 2017 when Artur said he disagreed with his younger brother's decision to quit his job and drive to Stockholm and train in MMA.

"Personally, I am not a fan of [MMA]," Artur says. "I told him, 'You have a job, you have a salary. You can live on it. Why do you need all this?' He said, 'I have been training all my life. I want to achieve something in this sport. I don't want it all to be in vain, for nothing.' He said that, and then he left for Stockholm."

WHEN HE ARRIVED at Allstars Training Center in 2017, Chimaev was an accomplished wrestler but a complete novice in MMA. He was a quick-tempered kid, who got into a brawl with two of the gym's regulars on his first day. Still, Shammas and Michael recognized his potential right away. Under the right direction, the coaches felt, maybe he could be something.

Chimaev had no money to stay in the city, and there was no way he could train effectively while going back and forth from Stockholm to his village four hours away. Shammas proposed a solution: Chimaev could live in the gym, in a small storage room under a set of wooden bleachers.

"I said to him, 'You look dedicated,'" Shammas says. "'You're gonna stay here. You stay here, you don't go back.' And he was like, 'Sure, I can stay here.' And he stayed in that room for like, two years."

Chimaev threw himself into all aspects of MMA. He didn't get a job in Stockholm. Instead, he would train three, four times per day. Michael was sometimes forced to make him rest, over worry he would injure himself. At night, Chimaev would lie in that storage closet with no windows and watch movies on his phone. When he couldn't sleep, he'd hit a heavy bag, creating sounds that would echo off the basement's lonely concrete walls.

"When you're alone for four or five months [in this room], it makes your mind say crazy things," Chimaev says. "If you are alone every night and don't see somebody, nobody helps you, nobody knows you. It's like -- you feel like you're going to get [what you're working for], but nobody believes in you. And I didn't need that, because I was believing in myself. But it was hard. Really hard."

Chimaev's talent and work ethic quickly produced results through the difficult times. He sought out the greatest challenges in the gym, including UFC veterans Alexander Gustafsson and Ilir Latifi. He took it personally if he didn't immediately succeed.

"He was just brawling," Michael says. "He was a good, like, street fighter. But the thing that was most evident was that he had so much will. And at the end of the day, what we noticed is that he was fearless. He would go to the biggest guys in the gym, and he wanted only to prove that he could beat them. That was the trait that made him stand out. He doesn't accept that anybody is better."

This is where the myth of Khamzat Chimaev started to take root. The stories weren't well-circulated right away, but anyone who heard them had to take note.

There's a Chechen welterweight in Stockholm, literally living in the gym. He's sparring with Alexander Gustafsson, and he's holding his own.

As Chimaev started dominating actual sanctioned fights outside of the gym, his team grasped how special he could be. Shammas started hounding UFC matchmaker Sean Shelby for a contract, but he couldn't sell Chimaev on his MMA experience. "Sean," Shammas would say, "you should see this kid in the gym. These other welterweights can't last a round with him."

In July 2020, the UFC signed Chimaev for a short-notice fight against John Phillips on Fight Island. Chimaev won the fight by submission. And then, ten days later, he knocked out Rhys McKee in a middleweight bout. It was the fastest turnaround between victories in UFC history, and the numbers Chimaev produced in those wins were terrific. A 124-2 edge over Phillips in total strikes. A 68-0 shutout of McKee.

UFC president Dana White fell in love with the performances, and the fans were in awe. Chimaev exploded overnight.

"I've been in this game my whole life," said White after Chimaev's 17 second, one-punch knockout against Gerald Meerschaert in Sept. 2020. "I've never seen anything like him."

Everyone wanted to know more about this welterweight known as "The Wolf," who was still living in a storage closet despite his UFC contract.

Gustafsson, a three-time UFC light heavyweight title challenger, is constantly being asked about his training partner. "All the time," says Gustafsson. "But the guy is good. He's legit good. And this is just the beginning."

THIS SATURDAY IS already a fork in the road for Chimaev, whose UFC career has only just begun.

On a card with two title fights, it's Chimaev everyone is talking about. He is drawing the attention of the biggest names in the sport. Kamaru Usman, the welterweight champion and pound-for-pound king, has been prodded to weigh in on him. Middleweight king Israel Adesanya has flat out said he's pulling for Chimaev (10-0) to lose.

Burns (20-4) has twice as many professional fights as Chimaev. He is a multiple-time Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion and a former UFC welterweight title challenger. He's been in the UFC longer than Chimaev has been training MMA, and he's a massive betting underdog in the fight.

"I want to be the best in my game," Chimaev says. "Guys think about one belt, I think about three belts. I'm one step forward from them. Maybe 10 steps."

The myth of Khamzat Chimaev is real. It was written in the war-ravaged republic of Chechnya and the basement MMA gym in Sweden.

Now, will the legacy surpass the myth?

"Everything is happening with me now," Chimaev says. "Through one year, two years, I become a famous fighter in the world. And who talks about Conor now? Nobody. Who talks about Khabib [Nurmagomedov]? Nobody. He's finished. Conor is finished.

"Who's the famous fighter? Who's the most people [talking] about? It's me."

ESPN's Gueorgui Milkov contributed to this story.