The last time I spoke to Yan Xiaonan in November, she was resolute that she’d take “one more fight max” before her own shot at the strawweight belt. That was just before her fight with Claudia Gadelha, where her unanimous decision victory secured her standing in the division’s top five. Now, that “one more fight” is upon us when she meets Carla Esparza Saturday in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night: Font vs. Garbrandt in Las Vegas.
Rise of Yan Xiaonan
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Rise of Yan Xiaonan
“I’m riding on a six-fight win streak, Carla has a four-fight win streak. Whoever wins this definitely deserves a shot at the title.”
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Back then, she imagined it would be compatriot Zhang Weili that she’d need to wrangle the strawweight crown from. But after the events of UFC 261, Yan now has Rose Namajunas in her sights, alongside the singular opportunity to bring a UFC championship back to her homeland.
“If I’m able to bring the belt back to China, it’s definitely a validation for not just for myself, but for all Chinese female fighters. And if I can bring the belt back to China, my plan is definitely to keep it there.”
First, of course, she’ll have to get through Esparza. The former champion has valiantly constructed a four-fight win streak and will have no patience for anyone standing between herself and a shot at regaining her belt. Yan takes the threat seriously, but she has other plans.
Like her preparations for Gadelha, Yan has camped out here in Las Vegas to be near the UFC Performance Institute, with a particular focus on her takedown defense. As a natural striker, it’s a facet of her game she knows she needs to continue developing, particularly versus someone with the high-caliber wrestling chops of Esparza. She also just enjoys being here.
“Obviously, getting here early made it easier to adjust to jet lag. I also love the nutrition training, the strength and conditioning training and all the facilities the UFC has to offer,” she explains. “It’s like a second home. It’s huge. Everything is top of the line. I love it.”
As I’ve noted in other columns, a standout asset in Yan’s game is her chin. She has an almost otherworldly ability to eat a punch and get in close enough to unleash her own offense. It’s definitely not something that can be taught, and even she has little in the way of explanation for it.
“I think it’s maybe the adrenaline rush or whatever, but when I’m in the Octagon, I don’t feel any pain. When someone throws punches, I feel no pain.”
That granite-like toughness has been an impossible puzzle for her opponents over the last decade-plus. Her lone pro loss came back in 2010, shortly after she began competing.
“There’s really no secret,” she says of the run. “Every day when I wake up, I set a goal. The goal is to not lose. It’s very simple, and I keep that goal every day. Wake up. Set a goal. The goal is never to lose.”
In the early days, there were those who dubbed her “The Chinese Cyborg” for an aggression that matched that of the former UFC champion. A cluster of KO victories followed, but beginning with her UFC debut in 2017, Yan has conquered each of her six subsequent bouts with careful, clinical unanimous decision efforts. An armchair critic would suggest that her finishing power doesn’t translate to the UFC competition. But Yan disagrees. As she evolves as a fighter, finishing has become secondary to securing the victory. She credits her coach for the credo she embraces:
“Be a smart fighter rather than a ruthless fighter.”