If everything had gone according to plan for Petr Yan in 2021, this would have been the year where the bantamweight standout distanced himself from the competition and showed that while the level of talent in the 135-pound weight class has never been greater, he was in a class of his own.
After winning the vacant title with a fifth-round stoppage victory over Jose Aldo on Fight Island on July 12, 2020, Yan entered last year on a 10-fight winning streak, the last seven of which had come inside the Octagon. In a little over two years, he’d gone from making his promotional debut to wearing championship gold, and with a host of eager challengers at the ready, it seemed like Yan would get the opportunity to really cement his place atop the division in 2021.
But it wasn’t meant to be.
Instead of rattling off successful title defenses and distancing himself from the chasing pack, the Russian’s year was defined by an illegal knee, a delayed rematch, and an interim title win that served as a partial glimpse of what could have been, and may still be in the cards, for the year ahead.
A month before Yan claimed the vacant bantamweight title with his victory over Aldo, Aljamain Sterling established himself as the No. 1 contender with a first-round submission win over Cory Sandhagen. Long projected to be a potential title challenger, the 88-second submission finish pushed Sterling’s winning streak to five and set up a showdown with the new champion.
Initially slated to take place in December 2020, it was bumped from the UFC 256 pay-per-view and rescheduled for UFC 259 in March, the first of three championship bouts positioned one after the other to close out the biggest card of the first quarter.
Sterling started well, racing to the center of the Octagon and burying a kick to the body from the southpaw stance right out of the gate. He worked quickly, stayed in Yan’s face, touching him with kicks and punches and knees, making the champion think about level changes while taking the fight to the champion.
Yan sat the challenger down with a clean right hand just after the midway point of the opening stanza, and never seemed bothered by Sterling’s aggressive approach; he just stuck to his game plan, landed when it counted, and chipped away at the eager challenger.
Throughout the first two rounds, the question was whether Sterling could maintain the frenetic pace that was forcing the champion into defensive postures and limited output.
The answer was “no.”
As the third round began, Sterling began to wane — his output reduced, the speed of his attacks and movements diminished — while Yan started to ratchet things up. The champion’s early efficiency and experience in lengthy, grueling battles allowing him to quickly shift the tides of the fight, turning an even fight through two rounds into a contest where all the momentum was moving in his favor.
The separation between the two became even more apparent in the fourth, Yan making all of offensive actions count while showing his signature tremendous defense. Late in the fourth round, disaster struck.
After chipping away at Sterling through the frame, Yan shook off another attempt to clinch from the challenger, who dropped to a knee in the center of the Octagon. Referee Mark Smith said, “Grounded,” informing Yan that Sterling was a downed opponent, and seconds later, the champion uncorked an illegal knee that landed flush, sending the challenger falling backwards to the canvas in a daze and immediately brought the fight to a halt.
Sterling was unable to continue.
The foul was declared intentional.
The fight ended in a disqualification, Sterling was declared the winner, and the title changed hands.
Everyone knew an immediate rematch was in order, as Sterling never wanted to win his first UFC title this way and Yan felt like he was not beaten, but shortly after the contest, Sterling underwent neck surgery, putting the sequel on hold until the second half of the year, at least, and leaving things at the top of the division up in the air.
The rematch was announced as the co-main event at UFC 267 on October 30, but five weeks before the stacked card at Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, Sterling was forced to withdraw due to lingering neck issues.
Sandhagen, who’d lost a razor-thin split decision to returning former two-time champ TJ Dillashaw in the summer, was tabbed to replace Sterling in an interim title clash with Yan, as Dillashaw too was still recovering from a surgical procedure of his own.
The short notice pairing still carried a tremendous amount of anticipation, as many believed Sandhagen had done enough to earn the nod against Dillashaw, and the combatants were rightfully viewed as two of the very best the division had to offer.
Yan took his familiar approach in the highly anticipated interim title clash, displaying patience and an economic approach to his output through the opening five minutes, falling behind a round as Sandhagen fought from in the pocket, focused on staying in the former champion’s face.
It would be the only round Sandhagen would win on the official scorecards.
Much like in the fight with Sterling earlier in the year, Yan fought his way into a rhythm, the effectiveness of his attacks and the efficiency of his approach standing out as the two stood toe-to-toe for the remaining four rounds. Though Sandhagen was game, the former champion was sharper, quicker and cleaner, connecting on 55 percent of his significant strikes over the course of the 25-minute affair.
The scores were 49-46 across the board, and Yan once again had UFC gold wrapped around his waist, albeit of the interim variety. He’d turned in a dominant effort against an outstanding talent, closing out his 2021 campaign with the type of performance that was meant to further distance him from the pack in everything had gone as planned.
Instead, it ensured a championship rematch with Sterling would take place.
At the start of the UFC’s 2022 campaign, it feels like déjà vu all over again as the great Yogi Berra once said for Yan and the bantamweight division.
Once again, he’s waiting to share the cage with Aljamain Sterling, with championship gold still hanging in the balance, and the ability to call oneself the best bantamweight in the world awaiting the victor.
Many, including Yan himself, believe that title is clearly his already — that his efforts over his first two years, his performance before the unfortunate ending of his first clash with Sterling, and his dominant victory over Sandhagen at the end of October leave little doubt that the soft-spoken technician from Russia reigns supreme.
Proving that inside the Octagon was the plan for 2021, and it remains the plan for 2022.