Two title bouts and a fascinating fight featuring one of the most intriguing anomalies to ever enter the Octagon make UFC 273 taking place in Jacksonville, Florida on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time) a must-watch card, writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
The main event at the VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena will see Alexander Volkanovski defend the featherweight title against “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung.
The co-headliner is a bantamweight championship unification bout rooted in bad blood as champion Aljamain Sterling squares off with interim titleholder Petr Yan.
In a third blockbuster bout, former welterweight title challenger Gilbert Burns battles a mysterious mauler in unbeaten Khamzat Chimaev, who’s taken the UFC by storm.
But first, lightweight juggernaut Mark Madsen puts his undefeated record on the line against Vinc Pichel and top-10 strawweights Mackenzie Dern and Tecia Torres go toe-to-toe.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Alexander Volkanovski (1.11) v Chan Sung Jung (6.00) (Featherweight Championship)
Volkanovski (23-1) was meant to face the man he took the title from, Max Holloway, in a trilogy bout. However, with the fighting pride of Hawaii forced to withdraw due to injury, the man known as “The Korean Zombie” emerged from the shadows hell-bent on capitalising on his serendipitous second shot at becoming world champion.
Jung (17-6) succumbed to a prime Jose Aldo back in 2013 and has been on a march to another title fight ever since. As dangerous and durable as they come, his ability to absorb punishment and stay in his opponent’s face is the stuff of legend.
As skilled as he is tough, he has high-level striking and excellent jiu-jitsu. Former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar is among his six knockout victims while Dustin Poirier headlines a group of eight men he’s submitted.
With a record of 8-2 inside the Octagon, most recently outstriking Dan Ige over five rounds last June, and an undying desire for gold, the fourth-ranked veteran’s anything but a walkover.
That said, Volkanovski is a super athlete, a master tactician and has absolutely no chinks in his armour. Not only is he as complete a fighter as you can find, but his fight IQ is also off the charts and his gas tank limitless as well.
“The Great” is a go-forward, tireless, pace-pushing marauder who melts opponents with his ruthless pressure and power. Former title challenger Chad Mendez is among his 11 knockout victims, while he also has three submission victories.
On top of all that, he showed the heart of a champion to somehow survive a guillotine choke from Brian Ortega, the best submission artist in the division, and pummel him in his second title defence last September, which extended his UFC record to a perfect 10-0 and his remarkable winning streak to 20.
The Australian ace has fought better strikers, wrestlers and jiu-jitsu practitioners than Jung, who’ll make it a fight but isn’t the one to end Volkanovski’s reign. The champion has won his last four by decision and is most likely to continue that trend given the superhuman toughness of “The Korean Zombie.”
Aljamain Sterling (4.70) v Petr Yan (1.18) (Bantamweight Championship)
The two best bantamweights in the world will finally settle the score and prove who the rightful champion truly is after their maiden meeting last March ended on a historic low note.
Yan (16-2), who’d dominated the fight, landed an illegal knee to the head of a grounded Sterling (19-3) in the fourth round. “The Funkmaster” was unable to continue, resulting in the championship changing hands by disqualification for the first time in UFC history.
The shocking conclusion took their heated rivalry to the next level and Sterling being forced out of the initially scheduled rematch last October due to a neck injury did him no favours in the eyes of many MMA fans who feel he exploited the foul to snatch the title and is trying to avoid another showdown with Yan.
Instead, Yan went on to defeat replacement Cory Sandhagen by decision to claim the interim title and cement the long-awaited rematch. In what’s a classic styles clash, heavy-handed boxer Yan shut down the wrestling of Sterling, which sees the Russian instilled as a heavy favourite after the first fight was a pick ‘em.
It’s hard to see Sterling find a way to get his grappling off to change the way the sequel plays out. As a fighter who relies on his extraordinary wrestling and jiu-jitsu (he’s submitted eight opponents), he’s stripped of his strengths on the feet, where Yan’s at his most dangerous.
With seven knockouts to his name, few bantamweights boast the power Yan possesses, which along with his ruthlessness, have seen him batter the likes of the legendary Urijah Faber and Jose Aldo on his surge to the belt. With no lapses in concentration, expect “No Mercy” to piece up Sterling over five rounds to reclaim the undisputed crown.
Gilbert Burns (4.80) v Khamzat Chimaev (1.18) (Welterweight)
A frightening force out of Sweden, Chimaev has taken dominance to an unthinkable level to start out his UFC career. He’s mauled all four of his opponents inside the Octagon, landing 254 strikes and absorbing just two. In a world of monsters, super athletes and elite assassins, no one has ever been as commanding as the Czechia-born boogeyman.
A perfect 10-0 with a 100% finishing rate (six knockouts and four submissions), Chimaev manhandles opponents – he picked up his last foe and walked him to the fence while talking to UFC president Dana White at Octagon-side before dumping him and choking him to sleep – and possesses wicked one-punch knockout power.
He’s captured the imagination of fight fans across the world and quickly shot up to 11th in the rankings but remains untested at the highest level. That’s where Burns (20-4) comes in.
The second-ranked Brazilian’s only loss in the last four years came against the champion and pound-for-pound king Kamaru Usman last February, a bitter defeat he bounced back from with a dominant decision win over Stephen Thompson five months later.
A multi-time jiu-jitsu world champion with eight submission wins along with six knockouts, “Durinho” serves as the acid test for the anomaly known as “Borz.” At 6’2″, Chimaev is a massive welterweight with light heavyweight-like strength who’s won at middleweight, while 5’10” Burns has competed at lightweight and will have a four-inch reach disadvantage. That size discrepancy should prove decisive.
Burns has never been submitted and is dangerous off his back, so I see Chimaev dictating where the fight takes place and valuing position over submission when he does take it to the mat to pummel his way to a title fight.
Mackenzie Dern (1.90) v Tecia Torres (1.90) (Strawweight)
Dern (11-2) goes from one extreme to the other in this pivotal strawweight showdown. The fifth-ranked submission specialist faced the big and powerful Marina Rodriguez last time out and is now matched up with a speedy, diminutive ball of energy.
A former Brazilian jiu-jitsu world champion, Dern is in a class of her own when it comes to the ground game in women’s MMA. Once she takes an opponent down, it’s just a matter of time before she forces them to tap.
Being unable to take the hulking Rodriguez off her feet led to Dern dropping a decision in her maiden main event last October, just the second loss of her career, which snapped an impressive four-fight win streak that included three first-round submissions.
Torres (13-5) is riding a three-fight win streak, most recently outpointing rival Angela Hill last August to move into seventh place in the rankings. She’s a black belt in karate and taekwondo but at 5’1″, she doesn’t carry much punching power, with all but two of her wins coming by decision.
In a game of cat and mouse in which “The Tiny Tornado” will look to stick and move, Dern should eventually grab hold of her and seal submission win number eight.
Vinc Pichel (1.76) v Mark Madsen (2.10) (Lightweight)
If you’re wondering why Madsen, with his flawless 11-0 record, is the underdog, it’s because his last fight highlighted his limitations. An Olympic silver medallist in Greco-Roman wrestling, the undefeated Dane eked out a split decision win over Clay Guida, his third in the UFC.
However, it was anything but convincing, showing how one-dimensional the decorated wrestler still is in MMA, while he also faded drastically in the latter part of the fight.
Pichel (14-2) is a seasoned campaigner with momentum of his own, having won his last three fights, all by decision. “From Hell” has eight knockouts to his name and is a much more nuanced striker than Madsen.
His takedown defence is poor, just 25%, but that’s just half of the story. His uncanny ability to get back to his feet and great gas tank see him outwork and outlast his opponent and that’s exactly what should happen here.