JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – The Ultimate Fighting Championship is back in town, with no shortage of storylines and no lingering clouds of the pandemic hanging around.
The UFC returns to Jacksonville for the third time in two years with the UFC 273 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on Saturday night. A bantamweight title fight grudge match between Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan and a featherweight title tilt between Alexander Volkanovski and the Korean Zombie Chan Sung Jung headline the card (ESPN+). Early prelims begin at 6 p.m. The main card starts at 10.
More than those bouts is the emergence of Jacksonville as a recurring destination for the top promotion in mixed martial arts.
Jacksonville rolled out the welcome mat to the promotion in May 2020 when the country was still mired in the rut of the pandemic.
UFC 249 was held May 9 in front of no fans, with Justin Gaethje dominating Tony Ferguson in the main event. The promotion stayed in town for a week, with UFC Fight night events on May 13 and 16. UFC president Dana White vowed to return to town when things started to get back to normal. And the UFC did just that.
When pandemic restrictions began to ease, Jacksonville served as host for UFC 261 on April 24, a blockbuster night that included Kamaru Usman’s brutal knockout of Jorge Masvidal, Rose Namajunas wiping out Zhang Weili and Chris Weidman suffering a brutal broken leg in his bout with Uriah Hall.
The arena was electric that night as Jacksonville was the center of the sports world. UFC 261 was the first indoors event with full attendance since before the pandemic began. While it’s a different feel now as normalcy has returned, the biggest promotion in combat sports back in town remains a significant story. UFC 261 earned an arena-record $3.3 million in ticket revenue and generated $17.6 million in economic impact for the area last time it was here.
The headlining match is the champion Sterling putting his title on the line against interim champ Yan.
Those two met at UFC 259, a fight that was extremely close at the time, before Yan was disqualified for an illegal knee to Sterling’s head when he was down. Should Yan win, would that create the need for a third fight?
“I don’t think that we need a trilogy, I believe I beat him in the first fight, too. It’s just things happened,” Yan said.
Sterling was not impressed by Yan’s fight week talking.
“I’m ready now, I’m ready Saturday. You really want to do something, I’m right here. I’m in the same hotel as you, you can find me. If you want, I can give you my room number. Not to all the people to show up at my door. So, it is what is. I think he’s just talking ****.”
Outside of the two title fights, which are laced with juicy storylines of their own, there’s a massive step up in competition for Khamzat Chimaev, one of the most intriguing athletes in the sport.
Unbeaten in mixed martial arts and often drawing comparisons to UFC hall of famer Khabib Nurmagomedov due to a similar smothering grappling style, Chimaev (10-0) is stepping up in competition level when he faces veteran Gilbert Burns. Should Chimaev emerge on Saturday night, and if there’s enough buzz, could he potentially vault from his No. 11 ranking and face the winner of the upcoming Usman-Leon Edwards bout?
“If they give me both guys, same night, I’m going to smash them both,” Chimaev said.