The UFC returned to Jacksonville, Florida Saturday, where a packed VyStars Veterans Memorial Arena served as the ideal backdrop for a night of high-octane fight action. Each of the three highest-billed fights of the main card delivered in answering key questions about the competing fighters.
The third fight of the main card featured No. 2 ranked welterweight Gilbert Burns (20-5) against skyrocketing prospect Khamzat Chimaev (11-0). On paper, Chimaev’s No. 11 ranking may have implied that Burns was punching well below his weight, but Chimaev’s rise to the summit of the welterweight mountain suggested otherwise.
Chimaev burst onto the UFC scene in July 2020 on Fight Island with a pair of dominant TKO finishes just 10 days apart, a UFC record. His next two fights included a 17-second one-punch knockout of Gerald Meerschaert (34-14) and a suffocating wrestling seminar over Li Jiliang (18-7) that culminated in a first-round submission victory.
Burns would give Chimaev the toughest test of his career in what was an early contender for fight of the year. Round one was a no holds barred brawl, and was punctuated by a stiff jab from Chimaev that put Burns down in the final minute and cemented a 10-9 victory for the heavy favorite.
Burns shook off the cobwebs and found his own striking success in round two, where he outstruck Chimaev and clearly bothered him with his power on multiple occasions. The round ended with a furious exchange that saw Burns stun and drop Chimaev with a pair of looping overhand lefts. Entering the third frame, it was all tied up.
The battle continued in round three with both men visibly battered, bloodied and fatigued. Chimaev took back the reins of the fight with crisp boxing and forward pressure, and did enough to convince the judges to award him the round, and the fight, after the final horn sounded.
Chimaev’s first stab at the upper echelon of welterweights might not have resembled the run that got him there, but the adversity he faced, and survived, was enormously telling. Chimaev proved his cardio, striking chops and chin could last him in a war, and that he had the will to dig deep and pull out a win in a high pressure scenario. As far as Chimaev’s next steps, UFC President Dana White indicated Friday that a matchup with No. 1 ranked welterweight Colby Covington (17-3) could be the fight to make.
The co-main event had a tough act to follow, but it delivered with its own unique blend of drama. The bantamweight title unification bout between champion Aljamain Sterling (21-3) and interim belt holder Petr Yan (16-3) was full of bad blood. Sterling claimed the belt in March 2021 after then-champ Yan struck him with an illegal knee. A lengthy layoff due to neck surgery postponed the pair’s rematch, and Yan reclaimed gold in an interim championship bout with Cory Sandhagen in October 2021.
Both fighters tested the stand-up waters in round one, as Yan deployed a measured striking output and Sterling dictated the pace from the perimeter. The second and third rounds saw Sterling unleash his ground game prowess after successfully bringing Yan to the canvas. Sterling cinched Yan’s waist in oppressive body triangles for the vast majority of both rounds, which stifled his opponent’s offense and squarely awarded him each frame.
Yan’s takedown defense improved dramatically in rounds four and five, and allowed him to widen the margin between his and Sterling’s striking games. By the fifth round, Sterling abandoned setting up his shots with strikes and instead desperately flung himself at Yan’s legs with the hopes of winning more control time. It was anyone’s guess as to who had claimed the sole belt as the fifth concluded.
The judges handed Sterling a split decision victory, as two scorecards saw the tight first for “The Funkmaster.” Regardless, Sterling did what few thought he could — assume rightful ownership of the bantamweight throne on his own terms. The razor-thin margin between these rivals might force the UFC’s hand in booking a trilogy fight.
The main event of the evening had arrived, and pitted two legendary 145-ers against one another for a shot at UFC gold. Champion Alexander Volkanovski (24-1) entered the evening on an unreal 20-fight winning streak. His third title defense, Volkanovski last fought against Brian Ortega (15-2), where he survived two perilous submission attempts in an otherwise complete victory.
Challenging Volkanovski was “The Korean Zombie,” Chan Sung Jung (17-7), who earned the title shot as a replacement for Max Holloway (23-6), who withdrew from the bout due to injury. Known for his relentless determination in fights after absorbing significant damage, Jung would have his hands full with Volkanovski, who excels in every aspect of the fight game.
Volkanovski’s speed, striking and fight IQ advantages over Jung were evident in each round, as the champ was able to stick and move with ease. Jung’s counters did little to slow down Volkanovski’s torrid pace, and soon Jung was faced with an enormous significant strike deficit. At the close of the third round, Volkanovski floored Jung on the heels of a powerful combination.
Entering the fourth, Jung still plodded forward as part of his signature style. Volkanovski offered a slick combination that staggered Jung, and forced Dean to call the fight in favor of the champ under a minute into the round.
The one-sided fashion in which Volkanovski retained his belt left no doubts that he is in fact one of the greatest fighters in the world, full stop. Having hardly a blemish on his face after multiple rounds with a fighter as tenacious as Jung confirmed that the version of Volkanovski we are beholding at present, is, put simply, untouchable. A long-awaited trilogy fight with Holloway still looms large for “The Great,” and could produce one of the greatest fights of the promotion’s history.