As Chimaev’s future hangs in the balance, Smith thinks about the physical challenges he had to overcome to keep fighting. There were times when they seemed so great he questioned whether he should even try.
“You look at the hill, and sometimes, it doesn’t even seem like it’s worth it,” Smith said on Sirius XM.
A severe knee injury suffered in his UFC debut against Antonio Braga Neto led to his release from the promotion after just one fight. It took him three years to get another shot. Then there was a reoccurring hand injury that required two surgeries after a key win over three-time title challenger Alexander Gustafsson. Both were major tests of Smith’s will to stay in the game.
“When you’re injured, and it just seems like a mountain you can’t climb,” he said. “When I hurt my hand after Gustafsson, and then the surgery failed, the bones shifted again, the plate broke, and they had to do it again. Sometimes, when your body betrays you, it seems like it’s just too much and you’re never going to be the same, and if you can’t be the same, you don’t want to compete if you can’t be the same.”
It’s that thought pattern that Smith sees as the most difficult part of the recovery process, and a possible culprit behind the apparent announcement from Chimaev that left the UFC scrambling to explain and even prompted a head of state to intervene.
Chimaev’s unbeaten record and spotless performances in the octagon may be working against him when it comes to making a full recovery. Outsiders may see someone with a promising career and question the rationale of leaving it behind on the apparent cusp of greatness, or attribute Chimaev’s decision to a fit of emotion, as did UFC President Dana White, but Smith said fighters measure themselves by what deliver inside and outside the cage.
“He’s used to being a f*cking killer,” Smith said. “He’s out here smoking people. It’s not even competitive at this point yet. And now he’s a shell of himself? There’s more than just physical stuff that goes along with it. There’s a lot of mental stuff. He’s not used to being weak. He’s not used to struggling, he’s not used to having a tough time because he’s so good and he works so damn hard.
“Through this, through injuries, through sickness, it doesn’t matter how hard you work. It just takes time. And fighters aren’t patient.”
Smith, of course, prevailed over his injuries. Not only that, he built an impressive record that led to a shot at the light heavyweight title. While unsuccessful in capturing the belt, he expanded his skill set as a UFC broadcaster and a podcast host. Fighting became one of several ventures, to the point where he realized he needed to focus more on it.
This past May, Smith returned to the octagon after his second hand surgery. After losing his next two bouts, he rebounded this past November with a submission win over Devin Clark.
The UFC is reportedly targeting June for Chimaev’s return bout after flying him to Las Vegas for special medical treatment. The fighter’s strongman backer, meanwhile, wants him to return to his native Chechnya to finish his rehabilitation and make a comeback.
As with many so-called “long haulers” of the COVID-19 virus, much is yet to be known about how long symptoms persist and whether damage suffered during the active phase of sickness is permanent. Chimaev reportedly tested positive for COVID-19 four months ago, and his symptoms were reportedly severe enough to hospitalize him on multiple occasions.
Time may be the only path to Chimaev’s recovery. But according to Smith, the right mindset will give the 26-year-old star the best chance of bouncing back.
“Things start to get better, day by day,” he said. “I have no doubt that Khazmat will be back.”
"Through injuries, through sickness… it takes time and fighters aren't patient."@lionheartasmith explains how fighters who face adversity like Khazmat Chimaev are quick to make decisions. @RJcliffordMMA pic.twitter.com/3QVhPYfYoI
— MMA on SiriusXM (@MMAonSiriusXM) March 3, 2021