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UFC 273 takeaways: Khamzat Chimaev may not be superhuman, but he’s still going to be UFC champion by the time this is done

Alexander Volkanovski remains the man to beat at 145 pounds, Aljamain Sterling defied the doubters, and the Khamzat Chimaev hype train may not have continued its carefree ride, but it’s still on the tracks after one of the wildest fights of the year. Between Volkanovski’s brutal burial of “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung, Sterling’s long-awaited redemption over Petr Yan, Chimaev’s war with Gilbert Burns and more, there’s plenty to discuss after UFC 273.

Let’s hit our five biggest takeaways.

1. So, it turns out Khamzat Chimaev is human after all.

You know what? That’s OK.

The Chechen wolf’s historic start to his UFC career was never going to last forever. That’s why it was historic — because we’d never seen anything quite like it. Even the majority of all-timers don’t charge through the minefield of the top five without suffering a few scars.

Considering the fever pitch the MMA world reached headed into Saturday night, nothing short of another superhuman performance would’ve satisfied the hype that had overtaken Chimaev’s story. That being said, it’d be foolish to let the weight of our own outsized expectations obscure us from what just played out in front of our eyes: A man with 10 professional MMA bouts, who made his pro debut a mere four years ago and wasn’t even a proper UFC fighter when Kamaru Usman and Jorge Masvidal collided for the first time at UFC 251, just strolled into Jacksonville, Fla., and laid down a “Fight of the Year” contender against one of the most talented welterweights in the world, walking out victorious in just his fifth octagon appearance. That’s both spectacular and impressive.

Chimaev is now a card-carrying member of the club — he’s one of the best welterweights on planet Earth. It’s a fact. And while he may be less of a mystery on this Sunday morning than he was on Friday night, that’s not necessarily a bad thing, because UFC 273 may have been exactly what Chimaev needed — a big win, but also a stark reminder that you can’t walk through everyone in this game. His corner’s frustration with his approach throughout the fight was telling. Chimaev even admitted it himself post-fight, at least in a roundabout way — he fell a bit too much for his own hype. He still has all of the physical and technical tools. But his heart, his chin, his recoverability, and most of all, his gameness — they’re all on a world-class level as well. Life is different when you reach the top five. I guarantee he won’t take it for granted next time.

UFC 273: Volkanovski v The Korean Photo by James Gilbert/Getty Images

That’s why Saturday was probably a necessary result in the long run. It was the perfect way to settle us all down and ground Chimaev’s path a bit more in reality. There’s no rush now. There won’t be anymore fanciful musings about potential three-division gold. We can all just chill. Leon Edwards earned his title shot against Usman 10 times over, so that bout can still move forward as planned. For Chimaev, the Colby Covington fight suddenly makes more sense than ever, because there are seemingly plenty of vocal critics who think a win over a top-3 welterweight “exposed” Chimaev as a fraud (which is patently absurd), so hey, let’s have the Covington fight answer some lingering doubts. Chimaev won’t be the betting favorite against the pound-for-pound No. 1 fighter in the game anymore, but he probably shouldn’t have been anyway. He’s 27 years old and just getting started.

Ultimately, the question hasn’t changed: How good is Khamzat Chimaev? After Saturday, we know he’s not invincible, but he’s also an undeniable title contender. And if he can keep progressing at a natural rate, whether it’s a few years down the line or at the end of 2022, there is no doubt in my mind: By the end of this story, “The Wolf” will be a UFC champion.

2. Go ahead and inject Herb Dean’s stoppage of Alexander Volkanovski vs. Korean Zombie into any and all training curriculum for MMA referees moving forward.

Dean has been a much-maligned figure over the past few years — most of it deserved — but his willingness to save Chan Sung Jung from himself was one of the shining moments of his decades-long career as an MMA official. Really, it was a boxing stoppage — and Dean did Jung a mercy, because the outcome was only headed in one direction. We didn’t need to see a veteran like Jung, who’s already given so much of himself to the game, reach whatever place that fight inevitably was going to reach. There is a shortage of proactive stoppages in MMA. Hopefully Dean’s timely trigger at UFC 273 — and the overwhelmingly unanimous praise it received from the community — leads to more of its kind.

As for the champ, what more can you say?

Volkanovski was a heavy favorite to win on Saturday, but even so, the way in which he pulled it off was as close to a flawless victory as exists in high-level MMA. Volkanovski was three steps ahead of Jung from the opening bell. His quick-trigger decision-making and sublime in-cage IQ continues to be a thing of beauty to watch. And the numbers are starting to reach rarefied air. Volkanovski is now a perfect 11-0 to start his UFC run. Take a guess at the only other fighters of the modern era to match or exceed that feat. It’s a short list — Anderson Silva, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Kamaru Usman. You want to talk about keeping good company? Sheesh. If Volkanovski hadn’t lost a random fight as a welterweight (!) way back in 2013, we’d be talking about an undefeated UFC champion with a 25-0 record who’d likely be drawing lofty comparisons. It’s silly to think that way, but it’s true.

Pound-for-pound is always a fairly stupid and subjective argument, but it’s getting harder to deny Volkanovski as a top three, top two, or even top one talent in the sport. Just look at his last seven fights: Darren Elkins (who was on a career-best six-fight UFC win streak at the time), Chad Mendes, Jose Aldo, Max Holloway x2, Brian Ortega, and now Jung. That’s wild. Not an easy name among them. I’m not ready to put Volkanovski above Kamaru Usman atop the pound-for-pound list just yet, but it’s probably time to slot him in as a healthy No. 2.

3. The unbridled feeling of “F*** YOOOOUUUU!” coursing through Aljamain Sterling’s body in his post-fight haze Saturday night must have been unbelievable schadenfreude, so I hope “The Funkmaster” is about to embark on a victory lap for the ages, because few men are more deserving. Sterling has been the butt of the joke for more than a year now, ridiculed everywhere he went, largely due to factors outside of his control. Every innocuous post he made on social media wound up bathed in idiocy from the peanut gallery — idiocy which only doubled down upon itself once Sterling was forced to withdraw from October’s scheduled rematch with Petr Yan because of lingering complications from a neck surgery that was supposed to take “20 to 30 percent” of his mobility away.

(Seriously, go back and read Alan Jouban’s description of his experiences with the same surgery. It’ll give you a newfound respect for Aljo.)

All the while, Sterling was left to languish on the sidelines, watching the world celebrate the man who nailed him in the face with a blatantly illegal knee.

Regardless of whether you like him or not, that’s a lot to handle.

Yet here he is, more than a year later, still champion, the belt still wrapped around his waist, and Yan suddenly mired in an 0-2 hole and being left to beg for a trilogy fight.

Again, the schadenfreude must be delicious.

At some point after March 2021, the broader MMA world seemed to convince itself that Sterling was some schmuck who didn’t deserve to be in the same cage as Yan, even despite the fact that their first fight was a back-and-forth affair until the championship rounds. That’s obviously silly in retrospect — Sterling and Yan have now fought for nine rounds and the majority of those rounds were competitive. If you want to call Saturday’s sequel a close fight, sure, it was, but it certainly wasn’t a robbery, and Yan certainly didn’t put on the type of unassailable performance that justifies outrage over the decision. I still need another rewatch, but either a draw due to a 10-8 second round for Sterling or an outright Sterling win made the most sense to me. The first round is the clear swing round, but it was tight, and Sterling nonetheless had the two most dominant stanzas of the fight by a wide margin.

As for a next step, I understand why Sterling and the UFC are eyeballing T.J. Dillashaw as the next challenger to his throne. It’s a fun stylistic matchup that comes with a little heat and plenty of intrigue. I don’t hate it, but I also don’t love it, partly because Dillashaw should’ve lost his return against Cory Sandhagen on any reasonable scorecard, and partly because it feels iffy to reward an admitted cheater with a title shot after just one indecisive fight back.

But as much as the old head in me wants to figure out a way to fit Jose Aldo into the title picture — I think he has legitimate paths to victory against Sterling and, if I’m being real, I just want to see him win one more belt before he’s gone — even my nostalgia-loving self can’t make the mental gymnastics work to get Aldo there. Dillashaw is the fight.

4. Few sights in MMA are more harrowing than watching a strawweight get trapped in the jaws of death that is Mackenzie Dern’s ground game. We saw it again on Saturday. Watching Tecia Torres desperately fend off Dern while trying to keep her limbs attached to her body in that second round was high theater, like watching a hapless swimmer fend off an entire school of starving sharks. There’s nothing quite like it in women’s MMA.

Still, while Dern eked out the scorecards to notch the biggest win of her UFC career, she remains in dire need of a go-to takedown to get fights against high-level opposition down into her world, particularly one she could religiously go to in the clinch and against the fence, a la Demian Maia.

At this point, that glaring hole is the lone thing holding Dern back from competing against the elite of the elite, because she’s making marked improvements elsewhere in every fight. Hell, she just defeated the division’s most reliable high-level gatekeeper in a bout where her bread and butter was only able to set the tone for a single round. That says something.

Dern is still just 29 years old and was always going to be a work in progress for the first few years of her UFC run. But if she can ever fix that one issue, her time as champion will come.

5. What exactly did the world look like when Aleksei Oleinik made his MMA debut? Let’s see. Bill Clinton had just defeated Bob Dole to win his second term as U.S. President. Hot new act the Spice Girls were the talk of the musical world after releasing their debut album. Kobe Bryant had just become the youngest athlete ever to play in an NBA game. And 7-year-old me was out on the playground tricking gullible idiots to trade their rare Mewtwos for my super special Rattatas. Yet, at age 44, Oleinik is still out here doing the damn thing, competing at the highest levels and submitting random 20-somethings under the UFC umbrella.

It’s impossible to overstate how impressive that is.

“The Boa Constrictor” notched the 60th win of his MMA career on Saturday when he stopped Jared Vanderaa with his 47th career submission. It was a scarf hold, of course, because few fighters in combat sports have fashioned better or longer runs out of simply playing their hits over and over again. Afterward, the old warhorse said he’ll probably fight for another five or 10 years, chuckled a bit, then walked backstage and immediately started sharing a few pointers with Vanderaa about his Ezekiel choke mastery.

There aren’t many odes written for the pioneers who played the long game — the nature of the content beast in this industry often just doesn’t allow it — but after 26 years, Oleinik’s train is still chugging along the tracks, undeterred as ever. Here’s one for the unsung trailblazers. Let’s book a how-in-the-hell-has-this-fight-not-happened-yet date with Andrei Arlovski next and do this for another five to 10 years.

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