Saturday, May 21, 2022

The Final Bell: Why Khamzat Chimaev has become the biggest draw of UFC 273; Korean Zombie’s chance of an upset

Despite a pair of intriguing title bouts atop the marquee at UFC 273 on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida, the majority of attention and online traffic surrounding the pay-per-view has centered upon on a non-tile welterweight bout.  

With an almost mythic level of hype following him in, Khamzat Chimaev (10-0) will enter the Octagon inside VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena to face former title challenger Gilbert Burns (20-4) in what could be the final stop on Chimaev’s meteoric rise into title contention.  

Despite just four UFC appearances under his belt, the 27-year-old Chimaev is listed as high as a -500 betting favorite to steamroll the battle-tested Burns in the same he finished all nine opponents since turning pro in 2018. And given both Burns’ extensive edge in experience — not to mention the fact that he hurt and dropped defending champion Kamaru Usman in a 2021 title loss — it’s hard to get over just how brazen those odds appear to be.

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Turns out, it’s just as equally hard not to wonder whether the oddsmakers are completely right.  

Chimaev, a native of Chechnya, Russia, who fights out of Sweden, hasn’t just been dominant, he has been scary. He also might be the most hyped prospect in modern UFC history. And unlike former heavyweight champion Brock Lesnar, who parlayed his celebrity as a former WWE superstar into overnight success and an unlikely UFC title run, Chimaev came from relative obscurity when he debuted in 2020.  

With the exception of a 2017 interview making the rounds this week in which Brian Stann, a former UFC fighter and broadcaster, may have predicted Chimaev would one day make noise in the Octagon, few mainstream observers had even heard of him ahead of his UFC debut. But it didn’t take long for Chimaev to become an instant star of the early pandemic for UFC when a handful of fighters took advantage of global travel restrictions to score a series of victories in succession.  

Not only did Chimaev record a trio of stoppage victories in his first two months as a UFC fighter, two of them came in a record span of just 10 days. Chimaev was as destructive as any UFC rookie before him, but the even scarier part was how efficient he was in finishing them.

The only thing capable of slowing down Chimaev’s momentum turned out to be a pair of lengthy and intense battles with COVID-19 that kept him from competing for 13 months and saw him flirt with retirement on social media as the effects of the illness took over him. His comeback fight against a surging Li Jingliang was supposed to answer a number of questions regarding Chimaev’s recovery and whether the recent hype was deserved.  

Just over three minutes later, Chimaev put Jingliang to sleep via rear-naked choke in a savage and one-sided dismantling.  

Chimaev has looked so impressive through four fights, which include two at middleweight, that it would’ve been hard to criticize UFC brass had they fast-tracked him directly into a shot against Usman this weekend. Instead, he will face as difficult a warm-up test as possible in Burns, who rebounded from the Usman loss with a dominant decision win over Stephen Thompson last July and is 7-1 since 2018.  

Whether Usman is merely a good friend and ex-teammate of Burns or whether he has more selfish reasons for having done so, the champion has been a regular contributor to Burns’ preparation inside Sanford MMA in south Florida. Burns, who elaborated on his thought process in doing so during an interview with “Morning Kombat” last month, even brought in a pair of big-name Russian grapplers, who asked that their identity not be revealed publicly, to better prepare for Chimaev’s explosive ground game.

Traditionally, UFC prospects turned contenders have been forced to pass a gauntlet of tests while climbing the ladder before they can be deemed ready for a title shot. Even future Hall of Famer and former 145-pound champion Max Holloway needed to extend his win streak to 10 fights before finally getting a shot at UFC gold.  

Should Chimaev defeat Burns, one can only expect him to jump the line to fight Usman, who will likely defend his crown this summer in a rematch with Leon Edwards. Is it even possible to fathom whether Chimaev could open as the betting favorite against Usman, who has won all 15 of his UFC fights and currently sits as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the game?  

At this point, anything is possible.   

TKZ flying far under the radar 

Considering he sits as a +500 betting underdog, it’s safe to say very few are giving Chan Sung Jung a legitimate chance at unseating featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski in Saturday’s main event.  

Not only is Vokanovski (23-1) a poor style matchup for “The Korean Zombie,” the fight has generated very little fanfare and interest comparative to the other big fights on the card, largely because Jung (17-6) was named in January as a late replacement for Max Holloway, who pulled out with an injury.  

Holloway’s recent recovery and public declaration last month that he’s willing to step in on late notice should either fighter need it has only encouraged critics to ponder even more why the UFC doesn’t just go through with its original plan and do the Volkanovski-Holloway trilogy right now.  

If you’re Jung (17-6), the 35-year-old native of South Korea who will fight for UFC gold for the first time since his TKO loss to Jose Aldo due to injury in 2013, this is probably the best-case scenario to be in should he fancy a chance at upsetting the apple cart.  

As Jung began proving upon his return to the Octagon in 2017 after a three-plus year layoff due to mandatory military service in his home country, he’s a much more mature and calculated version than the original blood-and-guts brawler who first earned the flashy nickname.  

Even more, Jung enters the title fight following a thorough five-round decision win over Dan Ige in June, where TKZ showed his most succinct mixture to date of a well-rounded style just as heavy on offensive wrestling as counter punching. The performance, which came just eight months after a humbling defeat to Brian Ortega, proved that Jung never stopped evolving.  

Volkanovski’s footwork, feints and elite IQ have been a problem for everyone in his 10 UFC fights, but Jung enters with very little pressure to win and as patient a mindset as he has shown to date as a hulking striker inside the cage. While an upset isn’t likely, the foundation has certainly been built for one to emerge.

Finally, some bantamweight closure 

Or, so we hope.  

The only thing worse than how unsatisfying it felt to see Petr Yan (16-2) yield his 135-pound title via disqualification to Aljamain Sterling (20-3) last March was the fact that the sport’s deepest and most electrifying division had to wait 13 months for a rematch to take place.  

Finally, a bit of closure should take place in the co-main event of UFC 273 as Yan, who claimed an interim title by defeating Cory Sandhagen last fall, looks to put the illegal knee strike that cost him his title against Sterling behind him for good.

Yan enters as a sizable favorite, largely due to the fact that he controlled Sterling for much of their first fight at UFC 259 until the fourth-round foul. But Sterling is bringing a six-fight win streak into the rematch and has won eight of nine overall dating back to 2017.

Sterling also defeated Sandhagen in even more impressive fashion than Yan did in taking a decision from him as Sterling needed just 98 seconds to record a submission that set up the first Yan fight. 

Quote of the week 

Yan is pulling no punches this promotion when asked what he plans on doing to Sterling in the rematch. On Monday, he gave MMA Fighting a grave description of what is to come.  

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