It took Petr Yan 750 days to go from making his first walk to the Octagon to walking out of the eight-sided battleground with the UFC bantamweight title over his shoulder.
During that stretch, the talented Russian standout posted a 7-0 record, following up his impressive rookie campaign with victories over veterans John Dodson, Jimmie Rivera, and Urijah Faber during his sophomore season before finishing longtime featherweight kingpin Jose Aldo in his lone appearance of 2020 to secure his first UFC championship win.
In reaching the goal he set out for himself upon arriving on the biggest stage in the sport, the 27-year-old talent joined an exclusive group of fighters to claim UFC gold without having tasted defeat inside the Octagon, a list that includes Israel Adesanya, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Cain Velasquez.
“I'm proud to be the part of the group of great fighters who won the title without suffering the loss in the Octagon,” said Yan when asked to reflect on his rapid, unbeaten ascent to the top of the bantamweight division. “It’s an honor to stay in one row with Khabib, Israel, and Cain.
“This fact motivates me even more and tells me that all sacrifices I made were worth it, but also, deep inside, I understand that it won't mean much, because in the sport there's always new hungry guys that will appear, so you can't relax if you want to stay on top.”
While Yan’s statement about new threats always standing at the ready and rising to challenge reigning champions is obviously applicable across all divisions, it feels especially true in the 135-pound weight class he currently rules.
In the decade since it was added to the UFC fold, no division has experienced more title changes, with Yan’s victory over Aldo standing as the seventh time a new champion departed the Octagon with the UFC bantamweight title in his possession.
Despite its history of being difficult to retain, the heavyweight title has changed hands less frequently, joining the lightweight and middleweight divisions in a three-way tie for second with six title changes over the previous 10 years. No champion has successfully defended the bantamweight title more than twice, as injuries, unexpected departures, and the overall depth of talent in the weight class has resulted in a consistent collection of elite talent climbing the ranks and claiming the throne.
With his goal of capturing UFC gold already accomplished, Yan is approaching 2021 with designs on changing the trend at the top of the bantamweight division and chasing an historic championship accomplishment.
“My goal in the UFC was to win the belt, and now after I've done it, I have a new goal: I want to clear out my division and get the new record of title defenses in UFC,” offered Yan, who was initially scheduled to defend his title against Aljamain Sterling at UFC 256 before the contest was pushed back.
Cleaning out the division will be a daunting task, as in addition to Sterling, there are talented fighters like Cory Sandhagen, Frankie Edgar, and Rob Font all chasing down a championship opportunity along with former titleholders Cody Garbrandt and TJ Dillashaw. Along with that established quintet of contenders and potential adversaries, the bantamweight ranks are also home to stalwarts like Pedro Munhoz and Chito Vera, plus some of the most promising up-and-comers on the UFC roster, including Sterling’s teammate Merab Dvalishvili, China’s Song Yadong, “Sugar” Sean O’Malley and unbeaten Welshman Jack Shore.
In order to reach his second stated goal, the newly minted bantamweight champion would have to defeat all 12 of the fighters mentioned above, as former flyweight champion Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson established a new benchmark for consecutive successful title defenses at 11 when he defeated Ray Borg at UFC 215 in the fall of 2017.
Though he has a new set of lofty goals in mind now that he’s secured the bantamweight title, the level-headed, intensely focused Tiger Muay Thai representative is also maintaining a “one fight at a time” approach heading into next year.
“Like I said, I want to defend my title multiple times. I also dream about winning a title in another division after that or defeating champions of another division who will come to my weight class.
UFC 251: Petr Yan Post-Fight Interview
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UFC 251: Petr Yan Post-Fight Interview
“I will be always glad to accept the challenge from another champion,” he continued, “but I will take on one title defense at the time, so right now I'm only focused on my next opponent and the next date of my fight.”
For the time being, a new date for his showdown with Sterling has yet to be confirmed.
Despite being disappointed that he could not make the first defense of his title earlier in the month, Yan used the delay to spend more time with his family, and is already looking forward to the tackling the even bigger challenges that await him in 2021 now that he sits atop the 135-pound weight class.
“We were supposed to fight at UFC 256, but the fight was rescheduled to the new year,” began Yan, who pushed his overall record to 15-1 with his fourth-round stoppage victory over Aldo in July to secure the vacant bantamweight title. “Everything happened for the best — 2020 was a very busy year, so I'm satisfied with how this year went down for me personally, and I think 2021 has even bigger tasks and accomplishments to be made.
“I'm confident you will know and hear from me even more,” he added. “In 2021, I hope to have three fights. It's tough to plan with everything going on in the world, but I have a big desire to do it.
“I'm starting my training camp in January and I can't wait to enter the Octagon again.”
While maintaining possession of the bantamweight title for more than a couple of years has proven to be a difficult task thus far, the current titleholder believes that his best is yet to come.
“I'm 27 years old and I'm only beginning to come into the prime time of my career,” said Yan, who will turn 28 on February 11. “Mentally and physically, I'm getting stronger with each camp and each fight.
“I'm still in the developing phase and I'm still learning something new with each fight,” he added. “In three next three years, you will see the best version of me, and I hope to entertain the fans with my performances even more.”
Given what he’s accomplished in his first two and a half years on the roster, that sounds like a scary proposition for anyone hoping to force Yan to vacate the bantamweight throne and an appetizing one for UFC fans around the globe.