Petr Yan has been ready to fight for the UFC bantamweight title again since the belt slipped from his hands in early March.
On Saturday night, he gets that opportunity, at least in part, as he squares off with Cory Sandhagen in a clash for the interim bantamweight strap, after current champ Aljamain Sterling was not cleared to compete this weekend in Abu Dhabi.
“I wasn't surprised he was unable to compete,” Yan said of Sterling, who had neck surgery following their clash in March, where the Russian lost the title by disqualification after blasting the American challenger with an illegal knee late in the fourth round.
It was a controversial and disappointing end to an engaging fight that started one way and shifted in the other direction midway through the contest.
Sterling came out hot, taking the fight to Yan and putting the champion on his heels. He threw more, landed more, and mixed in his grappling, getting out to an early lead through the first couple rounds.
But as he’s done throughout his UFC tenure, Yan got stronger as the fight progressed and began grabbing the momentum in the middle stanza. His volume increased, he took Sterling down three times and thwarted the challenger’s attempts to wrestle, looking every bit the part of the marauding, dominant champion walking down the fading challenger.
Petr Yan vs Cory Sandhagen Preview | UFC 267
Petr Yan vs Cory Sandhagen Preview | UFC 267
Late in the fourth, disaster struck.
Yan stuffed an exhausted, reaching level change by Sterling, pushing his head down, prompting the Serra-Longo Fight Team member to take a knee in the center of the Octagon. Referee Mark Smith can be heard telling Yan, “He’s grounded” on the broadcast, and seconds later, the Russian titleholder lets loose a knee that connects flush with Sterling’s head.
The challenger remained down in the center of the Octagon, unable to get back to his feet, leading to the fight being waved off.
From the time that fight was halted, Yan and Sterling went at each other on social media, bickering in 240 characters or less about the conclusion of their first encounter, with Yan questioning whether Sterling was genuinely unable to continue or simply trying to game the system, and the New York native firing back at Yan about understanding the rules and getting himself disqualified.
Despite the tides of the fight shifting dramatically into Yan’s favor in the third and fourth round after Sterling started well before fading, the controversial conclusion of that first meeting at UFC 259 and the subsequent public back-and-forth between ever since turned the rematch into a highly anticipated contest.
But now Yan has moved on, shifting his focus to Sandhagen and Saturday’s championship fight, which he believes will crown the top bantamweight in the UFC.
“I'm not thinking about Sterling anymore,” he said when asked about the unresolved tensions between he and Sterling. “It's a waste of time thinking about someone who doesn't want to fight me again.
“He never wanted to do it in the first place,” Yan continued, circling back to his long-held belief that Sterling had no interest in fighting him again. “But since he already agreed to that date and still pulled out, I believe my fight with Cory should be for undisputed title, not the interim.
“The winner of this fight should be considered the real champion,” he added. “There is nothing interim about this title.”
Sterling would certainly argue otherwise, as would former champ TJ Dillashaw, who never lost the belt in competition and returned from his two-year suspension this summer to edge out Sandhagen in an ultra-competitive clash that should feature in the Fight of the Year discussions.
But regardless of which title is on the line on Saturday, three things are clear: (1) the winner of this one should have first dibs at fighting Sterling once he is able to return; (2) this is an outstanding fight between two elite talents, and (3) the bantamweight division has never been better.
As odd as it may appear on paper to have two athletes coming off losses challenging for championship gold on Saturday, it’s not difficult to understand why Yan believes he and Sandhagen are the top two competitors in the division and deserve to be fighting for more than just the interim title.
While two of the three judges saw Sandhagen’s clash with Dillashaw in favor of the returning former champion, who had knee surgery following their battle in July and expects to return early next year, many media members scoring at home gave the fight to Sandhagen, who entered the contest off back-to-back highlight reel finishes of Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar.
The 29-year-old Elevation Fight Team member is 14-3 overall and 7-2 in the UFC, and brings a rare mix of fluid, precision striking and dynamic offense into the Octagon, making him a dangerous opponent for anyone, including Yan.
“He is a tough and worthy opponent who is the real challenge,” the former champion said of the man he’ll face on Saturday in Abu Dhabi. “But I'm confident in my skills.
“I will make him fight my fight under my conditions. I will control the cage and impose my game on him.”
This weekend’s event marks Yan’s second foray to Abu Dhabi, as he claimed the vacant bantamweight title on Fight Island at UFC 251 in July 2020, defeating Jose Aldo by fifth-round stoppage to rise to the top of the 135-pound weight class.
While the location doesn’t necessarily have any impact on his preparations or performance come fight night, there is something to be said for having a positive connection and general good vibes about the place you’re set to compete in, and after winning gold in Abu Dhabi once already, Yan is confident he’ll do it again this weekend.
“I have good memories in Abu Dhabi, I like that place,” he said when asked about returning to the location of his biggest win. “I'm looking forward to creating more memorable moments over there this time, too.
“I'm confident I can repeat history and win the belt again.”
And if he does, don’t expect Yan to put his feet up and wait for Sterling to be ready to compete again because, for the time being, it seems like he’s already moved on from the idea of running that one back.
“He can do whatever he wants; it's not my concern,” he said of Sterling when asked what comes next following a win over Sandhagen on Saturday. “I want to stay active; I'm not waiting for anyone.”
Don’t miss the ESPN+ special presentation of UFC 267: Blachowicz vs Teixeira on Saturday October 30th, 2021. Please note special broadcast times — prelims begin at 10:30am ET/7:30am PT, with the two-title fight main card starting at 2pm ET/11am PT.
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