Undefeated MMA prospect Khamzat Chimaev burst onto the scene this past summer when he finished his first three UFC fights within a two-month period, with his second win coming 10 days after his first. The Chechnya-born fighter was slated for a step up in competition last December with a main event against top-three ranked welterweight Leon Edwards, until the bout was delayed after both fighters tested positive for COVID-19. The match was ultimately canceled in January after Chimaev was still too sick to even train.
Many athletes have tested positive for COVID-19, and while the majority of them have returned to their sports, athletes like Nassir Little, Asia Durr, and Ryquell Armstead have detailed serious after-effects that have debilitated them for months. Chimaev had one of those severe, lingering cases that is still affecting him. On Monday he appeared to announce his retirement from MMA, writing (via translation), "I think I’m done, yes, I know that I didn’t take the belt, but this is not the most important victory in this life, it may upset you, but my heart and body tell me everything." He also posted a photo of what appeared to be coughed-up blood, warning people to take the coronavirus seriously.
In February, Chimaev's training team detailed the effects of their fighter's infection. His manager Majdi Shammas said one day Chimaev wasn't able to walk up the stairs to his room, so that night he slept in the lobby of his building. After a training session, Chimaev's training partners frantically called Shammas and said that he was having trouble breathing and couldn't speak. He was taken to the hospital in an ambulance, where he was diagnosed with bronchitis. "Even when he was in the hospital, when he called me he thought he was going to die," Shammas said. "He was really bad."
Despite his retirement announcement, Chimaev's future seems to be more uncertain, due to interference from his boss as well as the ruler of Chechnya. Repressive Chechen dictator Ramzan Kadyrov, best known internationally for his anti-gay purges, wrote on Tuesday morning that he spoke with Chimaev and urged him not to retire. "I told him that the WHOLE Chechen people were upset with the news," Kadyrov wrote. "During our conversation, Chimaev realized how important his career is to every Chechen citizen."
In mid-February, the UFC had Chimaev flown out to Las Vegas for treatment where he was treated with the steroid prednisone. UFC president Dana White spoke with MMA Junkie on Monday and downplayed Chimaev's desire to stop fighting, saying that Chimaev only posted it because he was upset after he tried to train.
"He went in and fucking trained today, felt like shit, and got super emotional and posted that," White said. "He’s not supposed to be training, but you know, this guy’s a savage. He wants to fight like every fucking weekend, and now he can’t even train, so he just got emotional and posted that, but he ain’t quitting."
Combat sports retirements are notoriously flimsy, although an athlete walking away from the sport for leverage against management is substantively different than an athlete walking away because their lungs don't work. The figurehead of an organization, known for its hostility towards labor, is not flying Chimaev across the world for treatment out of the kindness of his heart. It is manifestly obvious why White is going to try and use his power to keep Chimaev in the octagon: He looks like he can make White a lot of money.