UFC 273 – Khamzat Chimaev lives up to the hype in a new – and exciting – way by defeating Gilbert Burns

The screaming sound you might have heard late Saturday night if you were near Jacksonville, Florida was the Khamzat Chimaev hype train slowing its roll. Gilbert Burns was the one who put the brakes on. Burns had become bloody and beaten down in a brutal opening round, but he had survived. And as his UFC 273 fight against the soaring star, Chimaev, moved into the second round, Burns began to take control.

This was unlike anything we had seen in Chimaev’s first four UFC outings. This time he was in a competition match. And Chimaev, finally in with an opponent who could handle his assault and react in kind, showed he was up to the challenge. After a back and forth three rounds where each man landed big punches and had big moments, Chimaev got nods from all three judges (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) to prove something important and sustainable.

Chimaev showed he belongs in the Octagon with the elite in the UFC welterweight division. The hype train found new terrain to keep tough on.

This victory was very different from the nights of total Chimaev dominance that had come before. In each of his previous appearances, the 27-year-old Chechen-born Swede had looked superhuman in collecting video game-type tracks. A 124-2 edge in total strikes in his UFC debut. A 68-0 shutout in his return 10 days later. A 17-second one-punch knockout in his third appearance. Then another striking shutout (58-0) while talking to UFC President Dana White at the cage during the fight! Superman, actually.

But those performances came against John Phillips, Rhys McKee, Gerald Meerschaert and Li Jingliang. Each one of them was a perfectly fitting enemy for a fighter who was new to the UFC, but the only one of them you will find in the rankings is Li, who is far down in the double digits.

Standing across the cage from Chimaev on Saturday was a fighter on a whole different level. Burns has been the world champion in jiu-jitsu several times, almost a year back from a challenge for the UFC title. Among welterweights, Burns sits behind only champion Kamaru Usman and the double challenger Colby Covington on both the UFC and ESPN rankings.

For Chimaev, this was not a small step up in the competition. This was a huge leap. And he navigated it with confidence and resilience.

Early on, it looked like Chimaev was heading for another awe-inspiring route. He dropped Burns in the first round with a crisp sting, and from top position on the canvas he lost punches and elbows with bad intentions, one of which opened a cut in the Brazilian’s head. But Burns reached the horn, and in round 2, he somehow did not seem worn out, but revived, and his attack ran. During an exchange near the cage, he lost Chimaev with a right hand. At this point, both men were bloody and breathing heavily. But both somehow had enough left in them to produce a brutal third round to complete a classic match that made the audience roar.

If the Chimaev performance was amazing in an unexpected way, the expectation of it was surreal. During the weeks leading up to UFC 273, fans and fighters on social media expressed more enthusiasm for watching Chimaev than any of the champions at the top of the bill. And despite Burns’ high credentials and Chimaev’s relative inexperience at a high level, many did not hesitate to predict a Chimaev victory. Some expected him to make it look easy.

When UFC President Dana White went on SiriusXM radio to promote pay-per-view, he talked a bit about Alexander Volkanovski’s main event in the featherweight title defense against Chan Sung Jung. He did not say a word about the co-main bantamweight title fight between champion Aljamain Sterling and former champion Petr Yan. Instead, White spent much of his time talking about Chimaev, “one that people are very excited about.” White’s own enthusiasm also did not stop by hyping the weekend’s match. He even looked forward to Chimaevs Next one said that if he defeated Burns, the UFC would try to book him against Covington on a rare TV show on the network.

Hype has a way of getting ahead of itself in the rare cases where athletes turn out to be driven by the “it” factor. Conor McGregor was hailed as a transcendent star long before he beat longtime featherweight champion Jose Aldo by 13 seconds in 2015 – in his seventh UFC fight – to fully live up to his confident bill. No one in MMA has been near as hyped since then until Chimaev came.

But it’s not just fan excitement and promoter blusters that have been behind Chimaev. Even though he’s just No. 11 on the UFC’s welterweight rankings, he went into the cage on Saturday as the -550 betting favorite over No. 2 Burns. To put it in perspective, since the UFC rankings began in 2013, no top-five fighter has faced steeper odds against an opponent outside the top 10 than Burns (+400), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

The bookmakers in Las Vegas are not caught by hype or potential. Chimaev had clearly proved to them that he belongs in the top tier.

Saturday was a great night for fighters who proved their worth by the exalted place they already have in the sport. Right after Chimaev had confirmed his whirlwind of hype, Sterling also found himself in a validating position, a surreal position for a champion: He defended a bantamweight belt that many who follow MMA felt was not an expression of his supremacy. Thirteen months ago, Sterling became the first fighter in UFC history to win a title by disqualification after Yan hit him with an illegal knee that made Sterling unable to continue.

Between then and this weekend, a lot of negativity had been thrown at Sterling, partly because he lost the title fight right up until he won it, and partly because of a picture posted on social media showing him celebrating with the belt hours after he had thrown it aside in the Octagon. Why MMA fans would strike out against Sterling for this is anyone’s guess. He was the one who was polluted. But the most judgmental critics may be the loudest critics.

Sterling lived up to even the most demanding observers in Saturday’s co-main event, where he strengthened his position at the top of the division by winning his rematch with Yan. It was a split decision, which meant a close match, but Sterling dominated two rounds and got nodded from two judges in one of the other rounds, all of which were close. It should feel like the most special thing about title defense. All champions in all divisions are encouraged to prove themselves every time – but for Sterling, the demand was more.

The Chimaev and Sterling victories were followed by the absolute demolition of featherweight champion Volkanovski by Jung in the main event. The champion was masterful at separating and beating Jung, who continued to run forward until referee Herb Dean mercifully stepped in to end the brutality in round 4. In his third title defense, Volkanovski has never looked sharper and more restrained.

But no one was going to take over Chimaev this evening – even though Burns came terribly close. Will anyone ever steal the show on this guy? If he ends up in the cage with Covington that the UFC would like, would Chimaev (11-0) definitely be an audience favorite, and would the oddsmakers blow us all away by agreeing? And if Chimaev were to get through the frightening obstacle, there would be nothing between him and Usman, provided the champion is successful in a defense against Leon Edwards.

Usman knows what he would be up against. He recently helped Burns, who were training mates before they were opponents last year, prepare for Saturday’s match. Usman was definitely watching. He knows Chimaev would be a handful. As unthinkable as it may seem to a fighter with only five UFC fights under his belt, Khamzat Chimaev seems ready for whatever comes his way.

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