Apart from the inclusion of both the #2 ranked dynamic standout, Cory Sandhagen, and the soon to return, two-time division champion, T.J. Dillashaw — this weekend’s clash between rivals, Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling feels like the most competitive matchup the UFC could put together in the bantamweight division right now — particularly with undisputed spoils awarded to the victor.
Out of the tripleheader of title fights to occur this weekend in ‘Sin City’ it appears the vast amount of the community are entirely invested in the first of those championship outings; Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling. The bill is rounded off by a monstrous champion vs. champion clash as Jan Blachowicz clashes with two-weight world champion hopeful, Israel Adesanya — while consensus female G.O.A.T, Amanda Nunes returns as she tackles striking talent, Megan Anderson.
Even with the presence of the charismatic Adesanya, and the dominant force that is Nunes — Yan vs. Sterling is stealing a lot of the plaudits, for many legitimate reasons. As mentioned above, it’s the right fight to make right now in terms of the outlook for the division. Also, one could argue that the promotion’s bantamweight division has never looked better, and can realistically be heralded as the best ranks on the UFC’s books — both in terms of excitement and all-round fighter quality.
Challenger, Sterling has quite the chip on his shoulder in regards to Yan’s path to the championship — and it’s reasonable if we look at how the Dudinka native earned his billing as the undisputed pack leader.
Just a seven-fight promotional veteran, Yan arrived in the UFC’s graces off the back of bantamweight title and Grand Prix success under the ABC banner back in June of 2018. Landing in Kallang, Singapore for his promotional bow with an eye-catching 8-1 record, Yan would be crowned 135-pound champion just six fights later.
The timeline of his rise is quite noteworthy. The UFC has recently honed in on talent emerging from Russia — and the arrival of Yan onto the big stage fell in line with the inauguration of Khabib Nurmagomedov as lightweight best. With Islam Makhachev also making a high-profile main card appearance this weekend, tied in with the careful progression of Zabit Magomedsharipov through the featherweight pile, the promotion is clearly keen on crowning another Eastern European champion in the not too distant future.
Sterling, who has been warned to expect a “very violent finish” come this weekend has, alongside his bantamweight counterparts — namely, Sandhagen questioned the path Yan traversed to obtain Octagon gold.
In a hard-fought unanimous decision win over the game and always gritty, Jimmie Rivera — Yan was then catapulted to a UFC 245 matchup with former WEC featherweight champion, Urijah Faber. Expected to win by the majority with relative ease, Yan produced no real surprises — dominating the Team Alpha MMA leader on the feet prior to an eventual third round knockout win.
Here’s where things get somewhat, dicey let’s say. With the cancellation of Henry Cejudo vs. Jose Aldo — the latter of which shouldn’t have even been considered for a title shot in the first place, in my opinion, Dominick Cruz drafted in his place.
Besting the former champion with a second round knee, Cejudo called it a career — leaving the bantamweight championship vacant for the second time in eighteen months following the exile of Dillashaw.
Earmarked for a UFC Fight Night Kazakhstan main event, Yan was set to meet with one-time title challenger, Marlon Moraes in an almost certain title-eliminator. Striking while the iron was hot, or more so sighting an opening for Yan, the promotion instead elected to shelf that matchup in part due to the ongoing COVID-19 pandemic, slotting him in against Aldo — who had dropped his last featherweight matchup, as well as his bantamweight bow, albeit close.
As per Sandhagen, Yan was more-or-less handed the championship on a “silver platter“, and while he still had to dispatch the durable Aldo, it’s hard to argue that he was certainly shoehorned into that position by promotional brass. As is often the case, your next challenge as champion is going to prove to be your greatest to date — well, Sterling certainly presents that for Yan.
If we take a look at Yan’s sole professional loss against recent Bellator MMA signing, Magomed Magomedov, he suffered to takedowns in the opening three minutes of the first round. The first of which, a scrambling single leg where Magomedov eventually turned the corner — but the second of which was quite more notable. Giving up his back as he made his way back to his feet, Yan was suplexed and momentarily gave up his neck, however, managed to escape. Sterling has maintained all he needs is one takedown to create enough concern for Yan, no matter how many the champion stuffs before that.
Looking back on Sterling’s arguably career-best performance against someone as dangerous as Sandhagen in June at UFC 250 — there’s a lot to take away from that brief Octagon appearance. It was the championship eliminator Yan vs. Moraes was set to be, but Sterling entered that fight with Sandhagen with a real point to prove.
Aggressively closing down the Aurora native, Sterling took Sandhagan’s back, dragged him to the canvas, and after patiently finding his body-triangle and hand fighting, eventually choked his fellow contender unconscious. It was pure aggression from Sterling from the get-go. UFC 259 presents Sterling’s first title shot under the UFC’s banner — overdue, no doubt, but it’ll prove entirely interesting to see if he’ll look to start out the blocks as fast against Yan as he did with Sandhagen.
Both Yan and Sterling have certain tools in their arsenals that present not exactly clear paths to victory when compared to each other’s skills, but definitely outweigh each other in that respect. Yan’s striking is much more technical when compared to Sterling’s dynamic and pressuring style, while Sterling has got the x-factor in the possible grappling exchanges — more prevalent than Yan’s striking advantage I’d argue.
Controlled, yet early aggression from Sterling may bring with it some decent success, particularly in the opening round or two — given Yan’s late stage of dominance against Aldo. Forward pressure from the New York challenger must also come with some caution, however, given Yan’s countering ability and slips into immediate clinch work.
The grappling aspect of this matchup is really a fascinating one. We’ve seen Yan give up his back in the past, and if he mimics those type of positional errors against somebody of Sterling’s grappling prowess — I can see him dropping his title.
Prediction: Aljamain Sterling def. Petr Yan via submission.
Senior writer for FightBook MMA. An aspiring mixed martial arts reporter based in Ireland. Producer of news articles, interviews, opinion features, and exclusive features such as, ‘The Fallout’, ‘The Breakdown, and, ‘This Week In MMA’.
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