Saturday’s UFC 273 event features two championship fights at the top of the bill. Somehow, though, those title fights are taking a back seat to arguably the most hyped talent in the sport today.
Khamzat Chimaev is an undefeated welterweight who has taken the fight game by storm since making his UFC debut in July 2020. Many have already branded him as the next big thing in the fight game, but he has yet to prove himself against the very best.
Real answers about his potential greatness will be provided at UFC 273, when Chimaev (10-0 MMA, 4-0 UFC) meets former title challenger Gilbert Burns (20-4 MMA, 13-4 UFC) in a critical main card bout from VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla. The card is available exclusively through ESPN+ pay-per-view (10 p.m. ET) following prelims on ESPN (8 p.m. ET) and early prelims on ESPN+ (6 p.m. ET).
Chimaev’s assent in the UFC came largely out of nowhere. His time in the organization got off to a historic start, when he earned two victories in the span of 10 days, to set a record for shortest turnaround time between wins in the modern era. He followed that up with a 17-second knockout in his third UFC appearance.
The level of competition Chimaev faced in those initial three UFC appearances left more to be desired. He was paired with a well-respected foe in Li Jingliang in October, and passed the test with flying colors in the form of a first-round submission win.
The hype around Chimaev hit a fever pitch entering 2022. The demand to see him fight an elite opponent couldn’t be ignored. The issue, however, is that few were raising their hand to fight the 27-year-old, who was born in Russia but now calls Sweden home.
“Nobody wants to fight this guy,” UFC president Dana White said of Chimaev in December. “Everybody wants to get out on social media and say this or say that. But when it really comes down to it, nobody’s trying to fight Khamzat Chimaev. I don’t blame them. He’s one of the baddest dudes that I’ve ever come across.”
The Brazilian grappling specialist who has developed a strong striking arsenal is established as one of the top three fighters in the world at 170 pounds. Burns is currently the No. 2-ranked fighter in his division according to the UFC’s official rankings and he’ll be the barometer of exactly how good No. 11-ranked Chimaev is, and whether he fits in the top of the division.
There’s a lot of potential downside for Burns, but at 35 years old, he understands and embraces the risk going into UFC 273.
“I have two objectives in the UFC: The first is fight against the toughest in the division, and the second is become champion,” Burns said in a recent interview. “And to be champion you need to fight against whoever. I’m not going to be picking and choosing: ‘Oh I want this one, I want that one.’ No.”
“I know he’s a big risk and he’s No. 11 and very tough, but if I want to be champion, I need to fight everyone.”
The public appears to believe Burns made a misstep in accepting this fight. The current betting odds have Chimaev as a massive favorite, to the point it’s almost shocking given Burns’ achievements in the sport.
— MMA Junkie (@MMAJunkie) March 31, 2022
Chimaev, who has won all 10 of his career fights by knockout or submission with his longest bout lasting just over six minutes, is not shocked at all. His unflappable confidence depicts a fighter who knows exactly how talented he is.
“To be honest, I don’t see a real challenge in him,” Chimaev said of Burns. “We’ll see. Everything may happen in a fight, but I’m confident, as usual. I think I will just smash him with my skills and power. I feel that way.”
If Chimaev can beat Burns – and especially if he can do it impressively – there’s going to be overwhelming public support to see him fight for a UFC title against the winner of champion Kamaru Usman vs. Leon Edwards, who are expected to clash for gold in the summer.
Chimaev trajectory to his first UFC title fight seems clear, and it could all happen within roughly two years of debuting in the organization. His goals don’t stop there, though. Chimaev is looking to achieve an unprecedented level of success.
“I don’t want to be just a regular guy who won one belt,” Chimaev said. “I want two or three belts. We’ll see, if I can do it I will do it. We may make our plans, but God has the last word.”
Chimaev’s fight with Burns will be the precursor to a pair of title fights at UFC 273. In the co-main event, Aljamain Sterling (20-3 MMA, 12-3 UFC) and Petr Yan (16-2 MMA, 8-1 UFC) will have their anticipated rematch for the unified bantamweight championship. The main event, meanwhile, will see featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski (23-1 MMA, 10-0 UFC) put his gold on the line against Chan Sung Jung (17-6 MMA, 7-3 UFC).
A number of other notable, ranked fighters are set to compete at UFC 273, making it a can’t-miss event. Watch it on ESPN+ here.