Volk vs Zombie: It’s Okay, We Get It.
Nobody was clamoring for Chan Sung Jung to fight for the title off the back of one victory over Dan Ige (a test passed by both Calvin Kattar and Josh Emmett), but this is why the UFC is constantly preaching for their fighters to stay ready.
TKZ (Jung) is a legend in the game whose fan-favorite style and consistency at the top of the division had earned him the call after Max Holloway had dropped out of a potential trilogy bout. With Max (temporarily) deemed out (we’ll get there), the choice was really between Jung, Kattar, and Yair Rodriguez. While Yair earned a W against Jung in buzzer-beating spectacular fashion, it would be difficult to justify a title shot off the back of a loss, with his last win coming in 2019. In the end, it was Zombie who got the call.
After originally being scheduled to fight Volk for the third time, Max Holloway now sits as the backup for the fight. Max had originally been ruled out due to injury, but announced his return to full health and ability to fight shortly after being pulled. While there undoubtedly exists a contingent of fans in the community who smirk at such a situation and wonder why they don’t just go ahead with the originally planned bout, it seems that most of us understand.
It is refreshing to see this level of understanding come from the community that is constantly labeled as barbaric and judgmental, and a few layers contribute to this:
- Everyone Loves Max
The initial injury news likely left people bummed on many levels; many wanted to see Max get his shot at regaining the title after losing to Volk on an extremely thin margin on two separate occasions, especially with a clear 1A/1B situation developing in a division where every other contender seemingly isn’t close. Many others just wanted to see the end of this saga which has now lasted since 2019. Regardless, the MMA community can never be disappointed by a guy like Max Holloway, who continues to earn the admiration of the entire community after outclassing Rodriguez and Kattar in two fights that he arguably didn’t have to take.
- Everyone Loves Zombie
TKZ returned to the octagon in 2017 after a three-year hiatus of serving in the Korean army. Four of his seven UFC wins have come in the form of first-round KO, and he has even demonstrated incredible skill in his losses. Fighters know that he is incredibly difficult to put away, and isn’t afraid to use his chin as a weapon in a take-a-hit-to-land-a-hit style. Zombie presents issues on the feet with creative striking, but can also submit fighters on the ground, with multiple submission finishes on his record.
- Volk is gaining respect, let him build his legacy!
We have now not only seen the champ win the belt and defend it against Holloway, but we’ve also seen him defend it against another top contender in Brian Ortega. We’ve seen Volk swim out of deep waters, and we’ve seen him get his hand raised after surviving a war. People are starting to realize, “I’m starting to dig this cheeky Aussie bloke who never runs out of gas!”
Volk’s style may not come off as fan friendly as kickboxers like Yair or Zabit, his boxing might not be as crisp as Holloway’s or Kattar’s, and his submissions might not be as slick as Ortega’s – but he puts it all together better than anyone else, and he sticks to the game plan better than anyone else (an underrated skill).
X-FACTOR: TKZ’s training camp – Zombie has conducted his entire camp for this title fight at Henry Cejudo’s Fight Ready in Scottsdale, Arizona. He joins a growing roster of title contenders who have decided to adopt team Cejudo’s alternative training methods and strategies. This camp has already been home to Zhang Weili, who put on a much better performance against Rose Namajunas in a split-decision title loss, and to Deiveson Figueredo, who won his belt back with the camp. We have seen fighters from this camp approach their fights with two core principles in mind:
- Low, Karate-style stance. Legs wide to cover lots of space.
- Force the fight to where you believe that you are more dominant than the other fighter (i.e. Weili pressing the wrestling and Figueredo controlling where the standup goes)
It will be interesting to see the way that Fight Ready chooses to handle the game plan for this one, given Zombie’s more unpredictable fight style and inclination to take one to give one. While helping fighters take less shots is never a bad idea, it’s a fine line to tread when a fighter’s entire style is predicated on creativity (i.e. Johnny Walker).
Prediction: Zombie presents a difficult puzzle to solve, but Alexander Volkanovski is 23-1 with an undefeated record in the UFC. Despite the unblemished record, the Aussie hasn’t had a finish since 2018. Expect the same here, with Zombie causing problems throughout the fight and maybe taking a round or two.
Volk by Decision (-125)
TKZ by KO (+1000)
Aljo vs Yan 2: Let’s Close the Book on this One.
To understand the narrative of this tense title rematch, look no further than the jeers received by champion Aljamain Sterling in the leadup to this fight, in comparison to the cheers received by interim champ Petr Yan.
The MMA community has made it clear that they acknowledge Yan as their true champion, while rejecting Sterling’s claim to the belt. In reality, Sterling fairly holds the championship belt after receiving an illegal knee to the head while he had one of his knees on the ground, thereby being ruled a “downed” opponent. Rules are rules. The anger from the fan perspective comes from what has been deemed by the general public as two different reactions upon immediately losing the belt (when he seemed to show disdain for the way he won the title while Dana White wrapped it around his waste), and after the card concluded. He has continued to expand the negative narrative among the fans by increasing his activity on social media, jawing at Yan, and sharing his perspective on the entire saga.
Regardless of what your opinion is on Sterling, we are met with a situation where he still holds the belt, and Yan has moved forward to win an interim strap. A rematch can’t be avoided, and Yan’s dominant performance in the first fight leading up to the illegal knee has firmly cemented him as the heavy favorite. Despite being a noted slow starter, Petr Yan has begun to receive the highest of praise from MMA pundits; some believe that he is already worthy of pound-for-pound consideration, and several experts have labeled his boxing as the best in the entire UFC.
While the first fight was clearly moving in Yan’s direction, Sterling also made it clear that he had the grappling advantage when both were at full strength. This illuminates a route to victory for Sterling, who hasn’t minced words about his intentions of taking Yan down and keeping him there. Easier said than done for Sterling, who was largely unsuccessful in doing so in the first fight, while also gassing himself out. Even so, we know that Yan wants to keep it on the feet, and Sterling wants to get the fight to the ground.
X-FACTOR: Everyone’s counting Sterling out in this one, but he’s done a pretty nice job as the heel in this matchup to establish an incredibly legitimate narrative. Sterling is returning from a surgery on his neck, which has apparently been bothering him since his college wrestling days. According to him, he feels better than ever. Sterling’s physique is remarkably impressive, and if he is truly feeling that much better in comparison to the way that he felt going into the first fight, then this one can prove to be more competitive.
The truth is that Sterling’s aggressive grappling style counters Yan’s slower-starting style perfectly, but Yan has also shown noticeable improvement in his past rematch against Magomed Magomedov (yes, that’s a real name).
Another factor to keep an eye on is undoubtedly the shenanigans surrounding Petr Yan’s corner. He has received and ‘accepted’ offers from both Henry Cejudo and Sean O’Malley to appear in his corner, so let’s see if that comes into fruition.
Prediction: I think this fight will be more competitive than the last. I can see Sterling putting Yan in immediate danger on the ground and perhaps taking the first two rounds. However, Yan has displayed superhuman cardio going into the championship rounds of previous fights, which will allow him to cruise to a unanimous decision on the judges’ scorecards. The threat of a finish is prevalent between both fighters – a Sterling finish would likely come at the beginning, and a Yan finish would be more probable at the end. I expect these 135ers to go to war, with Yan’s hand being raised at the end.
Petr Yan to Win in Round 5 or on Decision (-110)
Fight to Go the Distance (-120)
Aljamain Sterling to Win in Rounds 1-2 (+1200)
Aljamain Sterling to Win by Submission in Round 1 (+2800)
Aljamain Sterling to Win by Submission in Round 2 (+3500)
Burns vs Chimaev: The Peoples’ Main Event
Khamzat Chimaev leads perhaps the biggest hype train in UFC, and why wouldn’t he? The guy is an absolute killer who isn’t afraid to remind you – “ten fights, ten finishes!” Growing up in Chechnya under poor circumstances created this relentless fighter who has seemed untouchable in his rise to the top.
After moving to Sweden, Chimaev began a competitive wrestling career, and it wasn’t long until he found his way into an MMA gym. Ten fights later, the man remains undefeated, displaying show-stopping power in his hands to go along with a top-level wrestling base. I mean, the guy dominated 185 contender and wrestling specialist Jack Hermansson in a freestyle wrestling competition.
Chimaev presents as legitimate a threat to Kamaru Usman’s championship belt as anyone who has made their way to the top of the UFC rankings, but he still has to face Gilbert Burns, who is also a ground fighter with heavy hands. The matchup is interesting because they both have knockout power, but they both feel most comfortable in a grappling scenario. Regardless of Burns’ jiu jitsu accolades, it is difficult to imagine a former 155er put a guy like Khamzat (who can also fight at 185) in the same situation that he put Stephen Thompson. When the grappling exchanges occur, Burns will certainly be looking to go for finishes and potentially make his way back to the feet, while Chimaev will likely want to smother his opponent under his mount.
Both of these guys are known finishers. Khamzat’s mystique mainly comes from the lack of compromising positions that he has been in throughout his career so far, showing a Khabib-level of dominance that has us wondering if he’s the second coming. The truth is that he is the first Khamzat. The man gets it done on the feet, and can turn a guy’s lights off in just 17 seconds.
Speaking of Gerald Meerschaert – the guy he knocked out is no slouch, and is currently riding a three fight win streak after the Khamzat fight. Bottom line: we could be witnessing the rise of the next face of fighting, and Burns is his first true test atop the division.
X-FACTOR: Khamzat’s standup. We’ve seen Khamzat knock people out in the UFC, but one was by flush KO and the other was by ground and pound. The Burns matchup presents an interesting test in the sense that given both of their grappling credentials, we could be treated to a fight that largely takes place on the feet. If there is any hole in Khamzat’s game, it’s his lack of head movement. Burns was able to knock the champ down in his title fight, so it will be intriguing to see how a the fight would play out when they are walking each other down and throwing feints.
It is likely that Khamzat recognizes as well that his standup falls a step behind his grappling (we’re really nit picking here), but Darren Till’s muay thai focused game is a perfect addition to his camp. Let’s see how he looks on the feet.
Predicition: It’s hard not to see Khamzat come out on top here. I think it’s the size advantage that will end up being the deciding factor in this one. While Khamzat is my pick to win, its hard to see him wrapping his arms around Burns’ beefy neck. I see the fight ending in the third round after Khamzat’s cardio advantage becomes more apparent, with a flurry of punches from top position. Khamzat by ground and pound in round three.
Khamzat Chimaev by KO (+120)
Total Rounds: Over 1.5 (-115)
Total Rounds: Over 2.5 (+165)
Gilbert Burns by Submission/Decision (+475)