Ranking the fights at UFC 273: There's much more than UFC gold at stake

Sterling leaves belt in Octagon after victory due to illegal knee from Yan (1:08)

After Petr Yan lands an illegal knee to the head of Aljamain Sterling, the fight is called off and Yan is disqualified, making Sterling the new bantamweight champion. (1:08)

A championship prizefight makes a Saturday night feel special. And when there are two tussles for titles on the fight card, that doubles the big-event exhilaration. This weekend's UFC 273 (Saturday, 10 p.m., on ESPN+ PPV) offers all that and more. The 13-fight event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida, is packed with storylines and intrigue.

There's the first top-10 test for a fast-rising star whose every performance thus far has been astoundingly dominant. Two former title challengers are on the card, not even counting the two bouts at the top of the bill. A couple of fights will feature prospects from ESPN's ranking of the top 25 fighters under age 25. There also will be two multiple-time jiu-jitsu world champions and an Olympic medalist in wrestling who is undefeated in MMA.

Those are a lot of career accomplishments packed into one night. What are the names attached to them? You'll find them in this ranking of Saturday's fights, listed by entertainment value and degree to which it would be unwise to step away for refreshments.

1. Men's bantamweight championship: Aljamain Sterling (c) vs. Petr Yan (ic)

Kay Hansen takes down Cory McKenna in Round 2

Cory McKenna lands a nice right hand and Kay Hansen responds aggressively by scoring a take down in the middle of the second round.

It is just the co-main event, but there's something dizzying that elevates this matchup above all else on the dance card. How often do we see a champion as an underdog? Sure, it happens occasionally -- just two months ago, the betting odds were stacked against Francis Ngannou for his fight against Ciryl Gane -- but Sterling-Yan has the added lagniappe offering of being a rematch with a twist.

A year ago, in the first meeting, the world saw Yan in control right from the start. At the end, however, the world spun in the other direction as Sterling walked out of the Octagon with the belt. The title exchange by disqualification was a topsy-turvy result that did not at all feel like resolution. That's what the rematch promises to provide.

Yan, who has since gone on to win an interim belt, looked like the better man in their first fight in March 2021. But Sterling has looked way better on other nights. Will that be the Sterling who shows up this Saturday? Will it make a difference, or is Yan simply at a higher level? And how different will both of these fighters look after each spent a year tightening up his own game and working out ways to exploit holes he found in the other's game?

2. Men's featherweight championship: Alexander Volkanovski (c) vs. Chan Sung Jung

Even though the bantamweight fight that comes right before has a bit more intrigue swirling around it, this main event is the kind of matchup that feels destined to end the night with a heart-thumping sendoff.

Volkanovski has quietly become one of the greatest featherweights ever. The other contenders for that honor are Jose Aldo and Max Holloway, and Volkanovski has beaten them both -- Holloway twice. There's nothing "quiet" about that, other than that the champ just keeps piling up the achievements without wasting his breath bragging about them.

Volkanovski's challenger Saturday is a fighter who has been there. Jung fought Aldo for the belt way back in 2013, losing by TKO after injuring his shoulder. That defeat was followed by a nearly four-year absence from the Octagon while Jung healed injuries and fulfilled a military obligation for his country of South Korea. But the 35-year-old is once again in his forward-moving glory, living up to the nickname, "The Korean Zombie."

3. Gilbert Burns vs. Khamzat Chimaev

For some, this is the night's real main event. No doubt, there's plenty of can't-wait-for-this-to-go-down anticipation surrounding the fifth UFC appearance by Chimaev. He is a question mark audaciously disguised as an exclamation point.

In smashing his first four Octagon foes, Chimaev has put up numbers that sound like the stuff of a video game. But those wins came against fighters who were, at best, on the fringe of the rankings. Now comes his first high-level test, as Burns is a top welterweight -- No. 3 in the ESPN rankings -- who barely a year ago was challenging Kamaru Usman for the title. The Brazilian is no sacrificial lamb, even if it's easy to interpret the narrative leading up to this fight as portraying him as one.

If Chimaev can do to Burns what he has done to everyone he's faced to this point, he too could soon be standing across a cage from Usman.

4. Ian Garry vs. Darian Weeks

Shortly before Chimaev gets his make-it moment, Garry will try to take the next step toward building his. He's undefeated, hails from Dublin and is nicknamed "The Future," so in addition to any opponent in front of him, Garry has also had to fight off the expectations of fans reflexively labeling him as "the next Conor McGregor." That can be toxic hype, weighing down a prospect, but Garry has held up so far. If he beats Weeks, it won't elevate him quite to welterweight contendership, but this fight is a showcase for him to demonstrate that he has what it takes to reach the promised land. Such an emergence can be a thrill to witness.

5. Aspen Ladd vs. Raquel Pennington

This is one of those rare instances when a late replacement might very well pose a tougher obstacle than the original. Ladd was slated to face Irene Aldana, who had to withdraw because of injury and is ranked higher than her replacement. But let's not forget that Pennington, since joining the UFC in 2014, has lost to no one but a champion (2018 challenge of Amanda Nunes) and former champs (Germaine de Randamie, Jessica Andrade, Holly Holm twice).

Ladd, who has dropped two of her past three, will be right back on track among bantamweight contenders if she can handle Pennington, winner of three in a row.

6. Mackenzie Dern vs. Tecia Torres

Dern has six victories inside the Octagon, four by submission -- the second-most by a woman in UFC history. And the six-time world champion in jiu-jitsu has been rounding out her game. That will be tested in this clash of top-10 strawweights. The resilient Torres has used versatile striking and vigilant submission defense to build a three-fight winning streak.

7. Jairzinho Rozenstruik vs. Marcin Tybura

After winning his first four UFC fights, all by knockout, to run his record to 10-0, Rozenstruik has dropped three of his past five. Those losses came against the absolute steel of the heavyweight division: Francis Ngannou, Cyril Gane and Curtis Blaydes. This will be a level-setting test. The durable Tybura was on a five-fight winning streak before losing to top-10 heavyweight Alexander Volkov in October.

8. Mark O. Madsen vs. Vinc Pichel

A silver medalist in Greco-Roman wrestling at the 2016 Olympics, Madsen is 11-0 in MMA and at times has looked like he could grow into a lightweight contender. But at age 37, he needs to pick up the pace. Since joining the UFC in 2019, the Dane has competed just once a year. And Madsen isn't the only one in this bout who could become a title contender. Pichel is 14-2 and owns a win over the no-easy-out Jim Miller.

9. Piera Rodriguez vs. Kay Hansen

The UFC debut of an undefeated fighter is a fork-in-the-road moment -- maybe the start of a golden road, or maybe the end of the road as she knew it. Rodriguez, a 7-0 former LFA champ, did not draw an easy first Octagon assignment. Hansen has lost two in a row and is just 7-5, but the 22-year-old strawweight has twice been on ESPN's ranking of the top 25 fighters under age 25. There's a fork in the road for Hansen, too. She is (maybe) just getting started.

10. The rest of the fight card

If we've learned anything from following MMA, it's to expect the unexpected when two athletes in 4-ounce gloves meet at the center of the cage. It's often a prelim pitting, say, an unknown against a fighter we thought had seen better days that sets the vibe for all of fight night, getting the fans' blood circulating and raising their expectations for those who walk into the Octagon afterward.

With that in mind, here are the other bouts at UFC 273:

Heavyweight: Aleksei Oleinik vs. Jared Vanderaa

Middleweight: Anthony Hernandez vs. Josh Fremd

Welterweight: Mickey Gall vs. Mike Malott

Men's bantamweight: Julio Arce vs. Daniel Santos