UFC 273 — Khamzat Chimaev lives up to the hype in a new — and thrilling — way by defeating Gilbert Burns

The shrill noise you may have heard late Saturday night if you were anywhere near Jacksonville, Fla., was the hype Khamzat Chimaev train slowing down. Gilbert Burns applied the brakes. Burns had been bloodied and beaten in a brutal first round, but he had survived. And as his fight at UFC 273 against skyrocketing star Chimaev entered the second round, Burns began to take control.

It was unlike anything we had seen in Chimaev’s first four UFC outings. This time he was in a competitive fight. And Chimaev showed he was up to the challenge. After three rounds back and forth, in 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 lasting.

Chimaev has shown he belongs in the Octagon with the elite of the UFC welterweight division. The hype train continues to roll.

This victory was far different from the nights of total domination by Chimaev that had preceded it. In each of his previous appearances, Chimaev had appeared superhuman while stacking video game-like numbers. A 124-2 advantage in total strikes in his UFC debut. A 68-0 shutout on his return 10 days later. A 17-second knockout on his third appearance. Then another striking shutout (58-0) while talking to UFC President Dana White cageside during the fight! Superhuman, indeed.

But those performances came against John Phillips, Rhys McKee, Gerald Meerschaert and Li Jingliang. Each of them was a perfectly fitting foe for a fighter new to the UFC, but the only one you’ll find on the leaderboard is Li, who is in double digits.

On the other side of Chimaev’s cage on Saturday was a fighter on a whole new level. Burns is a multiple-time world jiu-jitsu champion just a year after a UFC title challenge. Among welterweights, Burns sits behind lone champion Kamaru Usman and two-time challenger Colby Covington in the UFC and ESPN rankings.

For Chimaev, this was no small step up in the competition. It was a giant step. And he navigated it with confidence and resilience.

At first, Chimaev seemed headed for another impressive rout. He dropped Burns with a sharp punch, and from the top position on the canvas he dropped punches and elbows, one of which opened a cut on the Brazilian’s head. But Burns hit the horn, and in round two he appeared revitalized, his offense sinking. During an exchange near the cage, he dropped Chimaev with his right hand. At this point, both men were bloodied and breathing heavily. But both men had enough to produce a brutal third round to finish a classic fight that had the crowd screaming.

While Chimaev’s performance was breathtaking, the anticipation was surreal. Throughout the weeks leading up to UFC 273, fans and fighters on social media expressed more excitement watching Chimaev than either of the headlining champions. And despite Burns’ high credentials and Chimaev’s relative inexperience at a high level, many did not hesitate to predict a victory for Chimaev. Some expected him to make it easy.

When UFC President Dana White went on SiriusXM radio to promote the pay-per-view, he talked a bit about Alexander Volkanovski’s main event featherweight title defense against Chan Sung. Jung. He didn’t say a word about the co-main bantamweight title fight between champ Aljamain Sterling and former champ Petr Yan. Instead, White spent much of his time talking about Chimaev, “someone people are very excited about.” White’s own excitement didn’t stop with this weekend’s fight either. He even expected that of Chimaev next one, saying that if the Chechnya-born Swede beat Burns, the UFC would try to book him against Covington on a rare network TV show.

The hype has a way of getting ahead of itself on the rare occasions when athletes turn out to be driven by the “it” factor. Conor McGregor was touted as a transcendent star long before knocking out longtime featherweight champion 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 this excited since then, until Chimaev arrived.

But it wasn’t just fan excitement and promoter bluster that drove Chimaev. Despite being only No. 11 in the UFC welterweight rankings, he entered the cage Saturday as a -550 betting favorite over No. 2 Burns. To put that into perspective, since the start of the UFC rankings in 2013, no top-five fighter has faced higher odds against an opponent outside the top-10 than Burns (+400), according to ESPN Stats & Information.

Las Vegas bookmakers are not caught up in hype or potential. Chimaev had clearly proven to them that he belonged to the front runners.

Saturday was a big night for the fighters proving their worth of the exalted place they already hold in the sport. Right after Chimaev validated his whirlwind of hype, Sterling also found himself in a position of validation, a surreal one for a champion: He was defending a bantamweight belt that many who follow MMA felt didn’t 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 about Sterling, partly because he was losing the title fight until he won it, and partly because of a photo posted on social media showing him celebrating with the belt hours. after throwing him aside in the Octagon. Why MMA fans would go after Sterling for this is anyone’s guess. But the loudest fans can be the most overwhelming fans.

Sterling lived up to even the most discerning 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, meaning 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.

Victories for Chimaev and Sterling were followed by Jung’s absolute demolition by featherweight champion Volkanovski in the main event. The champion was masterful in separating and beating Jung, who continued to advance until referee Herb Dean mercifully intervened to end the brutality in the fourth round. Volkanovski, in his third title defense, has never looked sharper and more in control.

But no one was going to outshine Chimaev that night – although Burns came awfully close. Will anyone ever steal the show from the 27-year-old Chechnya-born Swede? If he ends up in the cage with Covington, as the UFC would like, Chimaev (11-0) would surely be a crowd favorite, but what would bettors say? And if Chimaev were to overcome this daunting hurdle, there would be nothing between him and Usman, assuming the champion succeeds in a defense against Leon Edwards.

Usman knows what he would face. He helped Burns, who was a sparring partner before they were opponents, prepare for Saturday’s fight. Usman was surely watching. He knows Chimaev would be a handful. As unthinkable as that might seem for a fighter with just five UFC fights under his belt, Chimaev seems ready for anything.