The screeching sound you may have heard late Saturday night if you were anywhere near Jacksonville, Florida, was the Khamzat Chimaev hype train slowing its roll. Gilbert Burns was the one applying the brakes. Burns had been bloodied and beaten down in a brutal opening round, but he had survived. And as his UFC 273 fight against the skyrocketing star that is Chimaev moved into the second round, Burns started to seize control.
This was unlike anything we had seen in Chimaev’s first four UFC outings. This time he was in a competitive fight. And Chimaev showed that he was up to the challenge. After a back-and-forth three rounds, during which each man landed big punches and had big moments, Chimaev got the nod from all three judges (29-28, 29-28, 29-28) to prove something vital and sustainable.
Chimaev showed that he belongs in the Octagon with the elite of the UFC’s welterweight division. The hype train keeps chugging along.
This victory was far different than the nights of Chimaev’s total domination that had come before. In each of his previous appearances, Chimaev had looked superhuman in piling up video game-type numbers. 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 cageside during the fight! Superhuman, indeed.
But those performances came against John Phillips, Rhys McKee, Gerald Meerschaert and Li Jingliang. Every one of them was a perfectly appropriate foe for a fighter new to the UFC, but the only one of them you’ll find in the rankings is Li, who’s way down in the double digits.
Standing across the cage from Chimaev on Saturday was a fighter on a whole different level. Burns is a multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champion barely a year removed from a challenge for the UFC title. Among welterweights, Burns sits behind only champion Kamaru Usman and two-time challenger Colby Covington in both the UFC and ESPN rankings.
For Chimaev, this was no small step up in competition. This was a giant leap. And he navigated it with confidence and resilience.
Early on, Chimaev appeared to be headed toward another awe-inspiring rout. He dropped Burns with a crisp jab, and from top position on the canvas he dropped punches and elbows, one of which opened a cut on the Brazilian’s head. But Burns made it to the horn, and in Round 2 he appeared revitalized, his offense flowing. During an exchange near the cage, he dropped Chimaev with a right hand. At this point, both men were bloody and breathing heavily. But both men somehow had enough left in them to produce a brutal third round to complete a classic fight that had the crowd roaring.
If the Chimaev performance was stunning, the anticipation of it was surreal. Throughout the weeks leading up to UFC 273, fans and fighters on social media were expressing more excitement to watch Chimaev than either of the champions at the top of the bill. And despite Burns’ lofty credentials and Chimaev’s relative inexperience at a high level, many had no hesitation in predicting a Chimaev win. Some expected him to make it look easy.
When UFC president Dana White went on SiriusXM radio to promote the pay-per-view, he spoke just a little about Alexander Volkanovski’s main event featherweight title defense against Chan Sung Jung. He said not a word about the co-main bantamweight title bout between champ Aljamain Sterling and former champ Petr Yan. Instead, White spent much of his time talking about Chimaev, “somebody that people are very excited about.” White’s own excitement didn’t stop at hyping this weekend’s fight, either. He even looked ahead to Chimaev’s next one, saying that if the Chechnya-born Swede defeated Burns, the UFC would try to book him against Covington on a rare network TV show.
Hype has a way of getting ahead of itself on those rare occasions when athletes reveal themselves to be driven by the “it” factor. Conor McGregor was touted as a transcendent star long before he knocked out longtime featherweight champ Jose Aldo in 13 seconds in 2015 — in his seventh UFC fight — to fully live up to his billing. No one in MMA has been anywhere near as hyped since then, until Chimaev came along.
But it’s not simply fan excitement and promoter bluster that’s been behind Chimaev. Although he’s just No. 11 in the UFC’s welterweight rankings, he walked into the cage on Saturday as a -550 betting favorite over the No. 2 Burns. To put that 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 don’t get caught up in hype or potential. Chimaev clearly had proved to them that he belongs in the top tier.
Saturday was a big night for fighters proving their worthiness of the exalted place they already hold in the sport. Right after Chimaev validated his whirlwind of hype, Sterling found himself in a validating position as well, one surreal for a champion: He was defending a bantamweight belt that many who follow MMA felt did not signify 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 rendered Sterling unable to continue.
Between then and this weekend, there had been a lot of negativity thrown at Sterling, in part because he was losing the title fight right until he won it, and in part because of a photo posted to social media showing him celebrating with the belt hours after he had tossed it aside in the Octagon. Why MMA fans would lash out at Sterling for this is anyone’s guess. But the loudest fans can be the most damning fans.
Sterling lived up to even the most demanding observers in Saturday’s co-main event, solidifying his position at the top of the division by winning his rematch with Yan. It was a split decision, signifying a close fight, but Sterling dominated two rounds and got the nod from two judges in one of the other rounds, which were close. It had to feel like the most special of title defenses. All champions in all divisions are called upon to prove themselves every time — but for Sterling the demand was more so.
The Chimaev and Sterling victories were followed by featherweight champion Volkanovski’s absolute demolition of Jung in the main event. The champ was masterful in picking apart and battering Jung, who continued to plod forward until referee Herb Dean mercifully stepped in to end the brutality in Round 4. Volkanovski, in his third title defense, has never looked sharper and more in command.
But no one was going to upstage Chimaev on this night — although Burns came awfully close. Will anyone ever steal the show from the 27-year-old Chechnya-born Swede? If he does end up in the cage with Covington, as the UFC would like, Chimaev (11-0) would surely be a crowd favorite, but what would the oddsmakers say? And if Chimaev were to get through that daunting hurdle, there’d be nothing between him and Usman, assuming the champ is successful in a defense against Leon Edwards.
Usman knows what he would be up against. He helped Burns, who was a training partner before they were opponents, prepare for Saturday’s fight. Usman surely was watching. He knows Chimaev would be a handful. As unthinkable as it might seem for a fighter with just five UFC bouts under his belt, Chimaev seems ready for whatever comes.