Last week I posed the question, “What can we learn from Petr Yan’s fights vs. Magomed Magomedov?” I demonstrated the depth of Yan’s defensive wrestling game and pointed to the factors that would work in Yan’s favor in his upcoming fight vs. Aljamain Sterling at UFC 259. I suggested that some of Yan’s “bad” looks as a defensive wrestler in the UFC have been largely circumstantial based on his striking approach, and that the Magomedov rematch is a true demonstration of Yan’s ability to fight against a wrestler and grappler.
As predicted, Petr Yan put on a defensive wrestling masterclass against Aljamain Sterling. What I didn’t entirely expect was for Sterling to be the one repeatedly having his back taken and dumped on the mat. In this article, we will take a look at how exactly this came to be.
With regard to how the fight ended - it is unfortunate. It was fairly clear how that fight was trending and who was on a trajectory to win comfortably, but mistakes happen. In the conclusion of this article I will offer a few ideas about what Sterling can do in a rematch to improve upon his performance.
The First Layer of Defense
It’s necessary to point out that Aljamain Sterling’s shots in open space were mechanically terrible. You can see a clear pattern pointing to this in my breakdown of his wrestling game. Sterling’s height and striking style make full level changing double legs extremely difficult, he needs a clear path to the hips so he can run his feet on a finish or he loses his momentum very quickly. Sterling prefers to lean forward and reach for his doubles, even reactively, it’s something that because obvious during his fight with Pedro Munhoz. It stands to reason that a fighter who is striking responsibly and has a good sense of basic defensive wrestling would not be bothered much by these double entries.
What is basic defensive wrestling? It’s the first line of defense - your head, hands, and hips. Most MMA fans are aware that hip positioning and mobility is key to defensive wrestling, they know to “get your hips back” vs. a straight-on shot. But how do you completely stifle a shot, and how to prevent your opponent from even getting a lane to your hips in the first place? The first step is matching levels, which can be represented by head positioning. Check out this short instructional from Cary Kolat - he is able to defend outside attacks from his training partner with his hands behind his back.
By keeping matching his opponent’s level and leading with his head, Kolat is able to create a barrier and circle away from his shots. Of course, in MMA you can’t be crouched over all the time. It’s a game of constant level changing, up and down. Reasonably, your opponent will end up getting an attack off eventually. That’s where the rest of your defense comes in.
The head creates distance and allows time for your hips to shoot back, but the hands are what shut down the entry for good.
Check out the above clip - in every instance Yan is able to either kick his hips back hard, or establish some sort of barrier between Sterling’s head or arms and his own hips. The double forearm guard translated into solid hands defense very easy, Yan was able to lower his level and use his guard as a frame to push off on Sterling.
Check out some other examples of how Yan immediately killed Sterling’s shot attempts.
An important detail to note is that Yan was active in these positions, he didn’t just hold his grips. Once he established wrist control, he pushed and pulled Sterling’s hands away and stood him up into the clinch or created separation. And, just like in the Kolat video, Yan made sure to circle away from the shot and create an angle.
This was especially effective when Sterling actually was able to touch Yan’s legs - Yan countered quickly with his whizzer, which he was able to use to torque and further angle off with his hips and run his feet out of danger. On numerous occasions, Sterling lunged straight forward and Yan was able to stuff him and redirect him toward the cage and take rear-standing.
Yan’s fundamental discipline as a defensive wrestler served him well when Sterling started to lean on his “level change to spinning elbow” attack. Sterling would show the level change while coming in, Yan would match his level and then pressure in to establish dominant grips. While in “grip fighting mode”, Yan repeatedly had Sterling turning his back to him. I suppose the idea was that Yan was supposed to stand right back up after the fake shot, but Yan continually stifled him by pressing forward into the clinch every time Sterling shot, and later terrorized him with the osoto gari in those exchanges.
Ringcraft and Defense Against the Cage
Aljamain Sterling had a pretty solid gameplan. Knowing that Yan was a determined pressure fighter who builds on his opponents and breaks them with his pace, he made an effort to give Yan as little space to work as possible. He was constantly coming forward and throwing, kicking in volume and handfighting to draw up Yan’s high guard. Once the high guard was up, he barreled forward throwing combinations to the body and head, doing some of his best conceptual striking work we’ve seen.
Petr Yan isn’t the best off the back foot, I’ve mentioned in the past that a lot of his great work with regard to ringcraft is done by intercepting entries in the clinch, and then using clinch positions to turn his opponent’s back to the cage. In the smaller cage, Yan often didn’t have room to accomplish that, and was pressed straight back to the fence.
At first, Sterling had success quickly transitioning to his doubles and singles against the cage, even briefly getting Yan down on his butt. Sterling had another good look in the second round where he was able to transition from his single leg on the cage to a deep underhook that he punched through to get to rear-standing, the position that was supposedly the best for his win condition. However, Yan was immediately able to shrink down and wedge his right elbow in to create a frame against the underhook and established control of the underhooking wrist.
From there, Yan was able to peel off that open-side arm and break Sterling’s grip against his own hip in a typical rear-standing escape. The idea of Sterling being able to instantly hop on his back and put Yan in danger was busted fairly early on.
As Sterling continued his volume punching game and forced wrestling situations, his arms became tired and heavy. This is when Yan started to find it easier to pummel more successfully against the cage and disengage with ease.
After the fight, Aljamain Sterling remarked that Yan was only using “a whizzer and wrist control, nothing special.” While a whizzer and wrist control were important first steps in stabilizing Yan’s position against the fence, it’s the way he progressed from those ties that truly were special. The key to his success was switching off from the whizzer and pummeling underneath Sterling’s shoulder to establish his own underhook.
From that position, he had tons of options. He punched up on the underhook to stand Sterling up and reverse position on the cage, but more often he used his newfound space to get a two-on one grip on the arm he already had wrist control on. This is a very precarious position - Yan had to act quickly, or the single on the opposite side would be wide open, and if he didn’t re-whizzer he ran the risk of leaving his back open. But from that two-on-one grip, Yan did a brilliant job of using the arm drag to throw off Sterling’s grip and escape out of that side.
The arm drag opened up further opportunities for Yan. From a dominant side-on angle, he was also able to apply the “quarter-nelson” through the whizzer and use that to control Sterling’s head and upper body to escape. The combination of Sterling’s fatigue from his striking gameplan and Yan’s savvy and energy level made it nearly impossible for him to hold solid positions on the cage after the second round.
What is anti-wrestling? As opposed to pure defensive wrestling skill, anti-wrestling has more to do with striking and footwork. It’s an approach to a fight that makes it difficult for your opponent to initiate wrestling situations at all.
The biggest turning point in the fight was when Yan opted for a longer, more open striking guard and began to shut down a lot of Sterling’s offense. Without the barrage of strikes available to push Yan back to the cage, he was left only with those subpar open space doubles.
There are obvious striking approaches to deter wrestling - throwing linear strikes (knees, uppercuts, straight kicks) that intercept level changes, for starters. However, in the context of a matchup, the most important thing to do is to take away the tools that are allowing your opponent to close the distance.
For Sterling, that was largely his jab. So, Yan adopted a longer, parrying guard and began to slip Sterling’s jab and counter with his own and added in a power cross-counter for good measure. When Sterling missed, after feeling some of Yan’s power, he began to back off much more often. That’s not to mention the counter wrestling threat possessed by Yan when he is able to make his opponent’s miss, surely Sterling observed that from the Magomedov and Faber fights.
Sterling’s increasing timidity finally gave Yan space to get his own pressure game going. Yan took special care to build in level changes to his combinations - going to the body and staying ready to put his frames up when Sterling looked to intercept.
As great as all of this work was, the easiest and most accessible counter to Sterling’s pressure and wrestling was to clinch reactively. Once they were in those clinch situations, it was Yan’s world.
Turning the Tables
This was the key read from the Magomedov fights. When a grappler is attempting to pressure, this can usually be achieved if their opponent has poor footwork off the backfoot - which is usually the case. However, in almost every one of those instances, their opponent is scared to push back linearly because they don’t want to get stuck in the clinch. As the best clinch fighter in his division, this is not a problem for Petr Yan. Check out last week’s article for more on that.
And so, Yan’s counter wrestling offensive was two-fold. When Sterling crashed forward attempting to pressure, Yan could intercept in the clinch and work him over. When Sterling stuck to the outside and tried to kick in volume, Yan caught his kicks and dumped him.
For Yan fans, the highlight of the fight was likely seeing him hit the same osoto gari repeatedly on Sterling. Why was it so readily available for him? Interestingly enough, it was all about knees.
If you read my breakdown on Hector Lombard’s throws against Jake Shields, you would remember the importance of stances when it comes to clinch work. Typically, in a pure grappling context, athletes tend to square up and keep their hips back to avoid takedowns. However, in MMA, this leaves you wide open for knees up the middle to the body. We’ve seen plenty of knees that lead right into takedowns - one of the more famous being Jon Jones’ osoto gari against Matt Hamill.
After feeling a hard knee, fighters will often blade their stance, leading heavily with one leg. Well, they might as well be offering it up on a platter.
To add insult to injury, Yan began to bait Sterling at attempt his own offense in the clinch, only to angle his hips off to created another bladed stance matchup for the outside reap.
I am largely glossing over Yan’s mat returns from rear standing, as they were set up by Sterling refusing to stop attempting spinning counters.
What can change in the rematch?
A rematch with Petr Yan is a horrifying prospect. He’s a fighter who takes a round or so to pick up many of his reads before he can adjust his approach. Now that he’s seen and felt almost everything from Sterling, he is going to be able to start much faster. Getting those anti-wrestling striking tactics going earlier will be a key to shutting Sterling out of the fight much sooner, allowing him to become aggressive on the lead and exhaust Sterling for a second time. I feel that with the information he picked up from this fight, he’ll be less reliant on shelling up behind his high guard against Sterling’s pressure.
But what about Aljamain Sterling - the champion? For starters, he can probably eliminate the majority of his spinning offense. I don’t think he was expecting the counter wrestling from Yan, so it makes sense that he didn’t mind exposing his back in preparation for this fight. Once you’re in the fight, it’s very difficult to stop doing something you’ve been training daily for months. On a technical level, he’s going to have to find some safer clinch tactics, and nail down his preferred transitions on the cage between the single and the underhook.
I believe that part of his path to victory vs. Petr Yan will be...stalling. You saw how quickly things turned against him in round 3 when Yan had time and space, Sterling needs more work like round 2 of their fight, where he was able to hold Yan against the cage for a lengthy period. Even if his pressure tactics are being diffused, he may be able to lean on his single leg entries in space to stand up and walk Yan to the cage, those shots were absent in this fight.
Of course, Yan’s single leg defense in the open is incredible, so he’s going to have to do some work pressuring on the feet before he can seize that opportunity. That’s the dilemma. Another tough consideration is that the rematch will most likely happen in a larger cage, which is terrible for Sterling.
A lot of the discourse around Sterling’s performance is focused on the fact that he fatigued. I’ve seen fans suggest that he needs to slow down and be more patient. I disagree - that gameplan was extremely necessary to stop Yan from building on him. Sterling absolutely needs to pressure hard, but perhaps he can focus in a bit more on the tactics that were working, like his handfighting to draw up the high guard and that snap kick to the body. The problem is, Yan had figured it all out by the end of the fight. He was firing his straight off the hand fight, and he was parrying and catching the snap kicks.
There’s a chance that a gameplan centered around getting a clean single leg entry and wrestling to the back in the open could work, but there are a few issues with that. The first is that wrestling through singles is exhausting, and Sterling should be looking for the most energy-efficient approach possible. The other is that I’m not entirely convinced Sterling’s grappling advantage is what many made it out to be pre-fight. The one time Sterling took him down, Yan had no problem creating separation with his feet on the hips and getting back to his feet. There were a few situations where Sterling tried to hit some counters in scrambles, and Yan out-positioned him every time.
No matter what Sterling decides to do in the rematch, it’s going to be a rough, uphill battle as long as it lasts.