“Who is this guy?”
That was the question Alexander Gustafsson and his training partners were asking after getting their first look at Khamzat Chimaev.
“He’s a welterweight, but hits like a heavyweight, strong as a heavyweight, fast like a lightweight,” Gustafsson said Monday on The MMA Hour.
The three-time UFC title challenger can’t remember exactly when the Chechen fighter walked into the Allstars Training Center he now owns with his longtime partners. That first impression wasn’t the full extent of what Chimaev could achieve.
Chimaev didn’t arrive a complete fighter. He became a fighter, which set the stage for his UFC debut that has made him one of the most sought-after prospects in recent history.
“He works harder than I ever worked,” Gustafsson said. He’s doing at most five sessions per day. In my prime, when I fought Jon [Jones] and those guys back in the day, I did three sessions a day, and I did, like, 20 rounds every sparring [session]. My conditioning was crazy. But this guy, he outworks me. He doesn’t get tired.”
On the brink of a May 21 heavyweight return against veteran Ben Rothwell. Gustafsson’s bulk hasn’t stopped Chimaev locking him up in the cage. He said the 27-year-old fighter gives him a good incentive to practice defense.
” I better keep my hands off of you,” Gustafsson stated. “I’m not kidding. He hits hard. He has this thing that he’s fast, and he has very good precision, so he doesn’t need a lot of power to just knock people out, because he knows what he’s aiming at, and he hits every time.
” I’ve played-sparred with a lot of guys. You’re laughing, joking about and just having fun. But this guy, when he comes to spar, he comes to spar. He doesn’t care if it is me or someone else, he simply goes .”
Getting Chimaev’s speed down is the more difficult problem. The UFC is working to finalize his next opponent, and one-time title challenger Gilbert Burns appears to be a leading candidate. After Chimaev’s dozens of calls outs to top fighters, the Brazilian appears to have been one of only a few candidates who actually stepped up.
Since a battle with long COVID that threatened to end Chimaev’s career, Gustafsson said he and his team have worked as much on strengthening the contender’s mindset as his physical skills. Gustafsson says that as gung-ho Chimaev may seem, the truth is just like any fighter who has a dream and passion to be the best.
” We’re like family,” Gustafsson stated. Although I still struggle with some things, the team is there to help me. He is always there for us, and we did all our best to support him. His emotions are intense and his feelings can be overwhelming. He’s a pretty sensitive guy. We all are different species, so we help each other out in different ways.”
“I help him if he needs,” he added later. “I see some stuff I try to give input in, but I’m not trying to interfere too much either,. because I’m not his coach. Because I am his friend and coach, I ensure that the coaches are 100 confident in their ability to do the right thing when it comes down to training. When it comes to…sometimes there is just crazy stuff going on within you, feelings and thoughts, big fights up, large crowds, huge arenas. Just trying to be there for him as a friend. If my friend needs me , I am always available .