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Three pay-per-views. Six title fights. It all kicks off Saturday night.
Undisputed champions Alexander Volkanovski and Aljamain Sterling are up first, with Volkanovski going for his third straight successful featherweight title defense when he fights “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung in the UFC 273 main event, and Sterling battling to become the one true king at 135 pounds as he attempts to unify his title with Petr Yan’s interim strap in the co-main event.
Volkanovski’s title tilt against Jung doesn’t have the history of Sterling and Yan, but if you can’t get excited at the prospect of the best 145er in the world facing one of the most exciting fighters in MMA history, you may want to reassess your fandom. Jung steps in as a replacement for Max Holloway making this the second time he finds himself as a short-notice title challenger and he has more than a puncher’s chance. It would be wild if the Zombie became the champion to lead off this upcoming slate of title fights.
Then again, Yan might beat him to the title change it as many expect him to become a two-time undisputed champion when he finally gets to share the cage with Sterling again. Their initial meeting at UFC 259 saw Sterling earn the dubious distinction of becoming the first fighter to win a UFC title via disqualification and while he’s done an admirable job of rolling with the punches, only a legitimate win over Yan will truly vindicate him. Sterling has the resume of a champion, now he has to prove that he’s better than Yan, the No. 1 bantamweight in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings.
Also, did you hear Khamzat Chimaev has a big fight? Nobody seems to be talking about this.
Anyway, Chimaev has a date with Gilbert Burns, a recent welterweight title challenger who is the stiffest test that Chimaev has faced in his young career. Four men have stepped into the octagon with Chimaev and he’s handled all of them in impressive, often scary fashion. Is “Durinho” the man to send the Chimaev hype train flying off of the rails?
In other main card action, Mackenzie Dern looks to rebound from her first loss in five fights when she takes on perennial strawweight contender Tecia Torres, and veteran lightweight. Vinc Pichel faces the undefeated Mark O. Madsen.
What: UFC 273
Where: VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Fla.
When: Saturday, April 9. The three-fight early prelims begin on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the four-fight prelims on ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting Global Rankings)
Alexander Volkanovski (1) vs. Chan Sung Jung (7)
After couple of close calls in his first two title defenses, expect Alexander Volkanovski to be even sharper on Saturday.
Volkanovski had to be on his best behavior to beat Max Holloway not just once, but twice, and even then the second fight saw Holloway score a pair of knockdowns. He had to be at his most gritty and most composed when Brian Ortega threatened to choke him unconscious. It’s these moments of vulnerability that make Volkanovski’s matchup with Chan Sung Jung so compelling as “The Korean Zombie” has as much finishing power as anyone that Volkanovski has fought. He has the technique to set up those bombs too so don’t be surprised if the champ faces some hairy moments once again.
In the end, Volkanovski just has Jung beat in too many categories to lose this one. He’ll have a major speed advantage, he’s a better striker, and he has enough wrestling to change the complexion of the fight if need be. Even the size advantage that Jung enjoys won’t mean much after Volkanovski is done chewing up his legs with low kicks.
The Zombie will make it to the scorecards, but it’s Volkanovski who takes a convincing decision to add to his ever-growing list of accomplishments.
Aljamain Sterling (2) vs. Petr Yan (1)
Aljamain Sterling is in trouble.
“Funk Master” put in a good effort in the first Petr Yan fight, throwing with enough volume to have the lead on one of the judges’ scorecards after three rounds. But Yan was turning it up in Round 4 and was landing the more damaging strikes throughout the fight. He’ll pick up right where he left off this time.
Yan downloads his opponents like few others and he already has almost 20 minutes of hands-on data to work with. Sterling will throw Yan some different looks in the first couple of rounds, but eventually he’s going to have to meet Yan on his terms and that’s bad news for him.
Unless Sterling gets his grappling going, I can’t see him finding a way to win this one. Even if he implements a wrestling-heavy gameplan, the wrestling actually favored Yan in the first fight as he was successful on all seven of his takedown attempts while Sterling scored on just one out of 17 tries (per UFC Stats).
The Terminator has had Sterling in his sights for over a year now and soon he’ll resume his reign over the deepest division in MMA.
Yan by fourth-round knockout.
Gilbert Burns (4) vs. Khamzat Chimaev (10)
Khamzat Chimaev is the real deal.
Time and time again, Chimaev has capitalized on every opportunity the UFC has presented to him. Whether it’s finishing two opponents in two different weight classes in 10 days or making hardy veterans look like rookies, his performances have amplified his one-of-a-kind mystique.
Cue Gilbert Burns, a one-time UFC title challenger that is all set to take Chimaev’s legs out from under him. “Durinho” has been big game hunting ever since he moved up to 170 pounds and that’s resulted in wins over Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, Tyron Woodley, and Demian Maia. He’s a cut well above what Chimaev has faced so far.
Chimaev is a massive welterweight and that’s a significant factor in how he’ll defeat Burns, a former lightweight. Even if they were closer in size, Chimaev’s relentless chain wrestling is exactly the kind of weapon needed to counter Burns’ outstanding jiu-jitsu game. Burns will compete on the mat with Chimaev for a couple of rounds and might even threaten with the occasional sub, but eventually Chimaev will carve through the defenses and end this.
Chimaev gets it done with ground-and-pound in the third round on a tiring Burns.
Mackenzie Dern (5) vs. Tecia Torres (7)
Picking this fight all depends on how much faith you have in Mackenzie Dern’s ability to get this fight to the ground. I’m not confident she can do that consistently enough in this three-round contest.
Dern could come out hot and take the first from Tecia Torres, but “The Tiny Tornado” has worked out of trouble spots before. It’s that experience that will carry her to a win in this matchup against the talented Dern. Torres has a big edge in striking outside of Dern having a bit more power, so we’ll see how much Dern has improved in that area because they’ll be spending more and more time on the feet as the bout goes on.
There’s a strong chance that Dern can catch Torres with a submission in Round 1, a possibility that’s always open to Dern given her prodigious grappling skills. But Torres has great defense and she’s so physically strong that she can weather the storm. If Dern can put together a dominant 15-minute performance against Torres, I’ll be impressed. As it stands, I’m thinking Torres by decision.
Vinc Pichel vs. Mark O. Madsen
Vinc Pichel knows how to get up after a takedown. The question is how many times is he going to have to demonstrate that skill in his fight with Mark O. Madsen, an elite wrestler brought Olympic silver home to Denmark in 2016?
The answer? Too many times for him to be able to win this fight.
Madsen is going to great lengths to round out his game, relocating to Fight Ready in Phoenix to work with Henry Cejudo’s team and maximize what’s left of his athletic prime. We’re going to see a more well-rounded Madsen, but wrestling is still his bread-and-butter and his best path to victory here.
“From Hell” loves to play the spoiler, whether its defusing prospects like Roosevelt Roberts, Joaquim Silva, and Anthony Njokuani, or knocking off fellow vets like Jim Miller. He has a deep gas tank and thrives in the standup, two factors that play heavily in his favor against Madsen.
I’m buying into the potential benefits of Madsen’s camp change and predict that working with a fellow Olympian in Cejudo is going to take his MMA wrestling to another level, which is an intimidating proposition given how effective he already is in that department. Maybe in his next fight Madsen will get to better show off his mixing of the martial arts; for now, he’ll stick with the wrestling to grind out a decision over Pichel.