If you were anywhere near Jacksonville, Florida, and heard a screeching sound late Saturday night, it was the hype train for Khamzat Chimaev slowing down. The brakes were applied by Gilbert Burns. After a tough first round, Burns was able to get back up and continue the fight. Chimaev’s rising star Burns began to take control in the second round of their UFC 273 encounter.
We had never seen anything like this from Chimaev in his first four UFC fights. His opponent was more aggressive this time around. Chimaev, on the other hand, proved he was up to the task. In the end, Chimaev prevailed by unanimous decision (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) after a pulsating three rounds in which both men landed massive blows and had memorable moments.
In comparison to Chimaev’s previous nights of utter dominance, this triumph was a sea change. Chimaev’s past appearances had shown him to be a virtual-game-playing superhuman. It was a 124-2 total strike advantage in his UFC debut. Ten days later, he returned with a 68-0 win. Third appearance, 17-second one-punch KO. Then, while chatting to UFC president Dana White at cageside during the bout, another striking shutout (58-0) occurred! Indeed, you’d be hard-pressed to find a more impressive feat.
The only problem is that they were up against some very tough competition in John Phillips, Rhys McKee, Gerald Meerschaert, and Li Jingliang, to say the least. They were all excellent opponents for a UFC newcomer, yet only Li is included in the rankings, and even he is well down at the bottom of the list.
On Saturday, a fighter of a very different calibre stood across the cage from Chimaev. Burns, a former UFC champion and multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion, is fresh off a championship defence. Burns is ranked third in the UFC and fourth in ESPN’s welterweight rankings after champion Kamaru Usman and two-time challenger Colby Covington.
This was a significant step up in the competition for Chimaev. This was a huge step for me personally. Confidence and perseverance helped him get through it.
As the game progressed, Chimaev seemed to be on the verge of a stunning victory. He knocked Burns out with a well-placed jab and then pounded the Brazilian with punches and elbows from the top of the mat, opening a gash on his head in the process. In the second round, Burns was rejuvenated, and his offence was flowing freely. He knocked Chimaev down cold with a right punch during a fight near the cage. Both guys were covered in blood and struggling to breathe hard at this time. However, both men were able to deliver a savage third round to finish a spectacular bout that had the fans shouting.
The buildup to Chimaev’s performance was as thrilling as the show itself. People on social media were more excited to witness Chimaev than either of the champs on the card. There was no doubt that Chimaev would win despite Burns’ great profile and his relative lack of expertise at the highest level. A few others thought he would make it appear simple for him.
UFC president Dana White talked briefly about Alexander Volkanovski’s featherweight championship defence against Chan Sung Jung on SiriusXM radio to promote the pay-per-view. He didn’t mention Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan, the co-main event’s bantamweight championship fight. “Someone that people are really enthusiastic” was the subject of much of White’s discussion. White’s passion for this weekend’s bout wasn’t limited to promoting it. Even if Chimaev defeats Burns, the UFC will want to schedule him against Covington on a rare network television programme if he does so.
The “it” factor has a tendency to get out of hand on rare instances when athletes show that they are motivated by it. When Conor McGregor knocked out longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo in only 13 seconds in his eighth UFC bout in 2015, he finally lived up to his billing as a transcendent star. Since then, no one in the MMA world has been as hyped as Chimaev.
Chimaev’s success isn’t only due to a combination of enthusiastic fans and blustery promoters. While just No. 11 in the UFC’s welterweight rankings, his odds against No. 2 Burns were -550 going into Saturday’s fight. For context, no top-five UFC fighter had greater odds against an opponent outside of the top 10 than Burns (+400), according to ESPN Stats & Information since 2013.
When it comes to betting in Las Vegas, bookies don’t get distracted by hype or promise. Chimaev had shown them he belonged at the top of the food chain.
This past Saturday was a crucial night for fighters to prove that they are worthy of the high esteem in which they currently hold in the sport. After Chimaev’s flurry of excitement was realised, Sterling found himself in a peculiar situation for a champion: he was defending a bantamweight title that many who follow MMA believed did not represent his superiority. After Yan knocked him out with an illegal knee 13 months ago, Sterling became the first fighter in UFC history to win a championship through disqualification.
As a result of the negative attention that Sterling had received before to this weekend’s fight and a picture on social media showing him posing with the championship belt hours after losing the fight, there had been an outpouring of hostility directed at him. It’s not clear why MMA fans are so enraged with Sterling over this. There are some supporters that are just as bad as the loudest ones.
In Saturday’s co-main event, Sterling lived up to the expectations of even the most exacting spectators, winning his rematch with Yan to cement his place at the top of the category. When two of the three judges gave Sterling the nod in one of the other tight round, it was a split decision, which indicates a tense battle. It has to be one of the most memorable championship defences in the game’s history. Sterling had to prove himself more often than the other champions in the category.
Featherweight champion Volkanovski destroyed Jung in the main event after wins over Chimaev and Sterling. Until referee Herb Dean came in to interrupt the carnage in Round 4, Jung was unable to stop the champ from picking apart and pounding him. When it comes to his third championship defence, Volkanovski is in peak form.
Despite Burns’s best efforts, no one could topple Chimaev on this night. The 27-year-old Chechnya-born Swede has never been overtaken by anybody. Chimaev (11-0) would be a fan favourite if he were to face Covington in the Octagon, but what would the oddsmakers say? After that, presuming the champion is successful in his defence against Leon Edwards, Chimaev would have nothing to fear from Usman.
Usman is well aware of the challenges he faces. Preparation for Saturday’s battle was aided by him and his training partner, Burns. We know Usman was paying attention. He’s well aware that Chimaev will be a challenge. It may seem impossible for a fighter with just five UFC fights under his belt, but Chimaev is ready for anything.