The upcoming UFC bantamweight title bout between Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling is one of the best possible matchups available in MMA today. Both men are riding impressive winning streaks, each is the best in the division at their respective strength, and the long-term buildup has developed tension and friction between them. At UFC 259, we will learn a lot about both the champion and the challenger.
At the moment, there is far more data available about Aljamain Sterling. He is a veteran of 14 UFC bouts and has taken his lumps against the elite. I wrote about the strengths and weaknesses of his wrestling game for MMA. We’ve seen him take down and submit rising contenders, we’ve seen him stand and out-strike some of the most talented fighters in the division, and we’ve seen him grow from fight to fight.
The Siberian champion Petr Yan, on the other hand, has left us with many more questions from his UFC career. He has faced, for the most part, strikers. Jimmie Rivera, Urijah Faber and John Dodson are all wrestlers at their base, but it’s rare these days to see them consistently pursue a top game strategy. Yan has had two “bad” looks with regard to his takedown defense in the UFC. First against Jin Soo Son, a short notice opponent who spent the majority of the fight blocking punches with his face, and later against John Dodson, who caught two stiff body kicks thrown by Yan. We’ll get to the implications of those fights later on.
VIDEO CLIP: Petr Yan has been taken down in the UFC
Petr Yan is one of the best adjusters in MMA. He changes pieces of his approach from opponent to opponent, and even from round-to-round depending on what his opponent is giving him. The moments in which he has looked vulnerable as a wrestler in the UFC have largely been off of huge, risky commitments as a striker. Whether chasing down his opponent and stepping through his stance on rear hands, or launching through the air to throw jump knees, Yan is fully willing to put himself in vulnerable positions and accepts the consequences, wrestling through situations to get back to his feet. It’s worth noting that, aside from the two examples in the clip above, Yan has looked fantastic as a scrambler and defensive wrestler, especially when starting from bad positions.
If we were only looking at his UFC career, there might not be any reason to think that Yan has the ability to “reel it in” and be more careful, modifying his approach to stay safer vs. a bigger grappling threat like Aljamain Sterling. Luckily, there is more to Petr Yan than just his UFC career. In this article, we will closely examine his two ACB title fights vs. Magomed Magomedov, an incredible 17-1 Dagestani wrestler and grappler.
Fight of the Year: Petr Yan vs. Magomed Magomedov 1
Petr Yan was just 5-0 and 2 years into his professional MMA career when he got his first crack at the undefeated ACB champion. He was fairly green, even in adapting his striking to MMA, but his cardio and scrappiness were on full display in this five-round war.
After assessing the strengths and weaknesses demonstrated by Yan in this fight, we will contrast them with his improvements in the rematch. I truly believe Yan’s second fight with Magomedov is the best analogue for how he can approach Aljamain Sterling, it may be the most important fight on his record to analyze this matchup.
Let’s begin with what you might call the “first layer” of takedown defense. Without a setup, from the outside, can you sprawl and create separation? It sounds simple enough, but many fighters fail to meet this basic criteria.
You can see even when he’s still relatively green, Yan has great hips and reflexes when it comes to defensive wrestling. Not only does he lower his level and kick his hips back, he makes sure to use his head and hands as another line of defense and creates additional barriers between his opponent and his own legs. Yan also knows how to disengage safely - pushing down on the head and breaking Magomedov’s posture before attempting to exit.
The ability to catch underhooks and stuff shots allows Yan to stand up with Magomedov and immediately transition into striking off the clinch break, his shot selection is excellent for making sure there can be no quick reattacks from Magomedov to attempt to grapple again.
Straight-on doubles like that are typically pretty easy to defend if you’ve got your base underneath you and you’re expecting your opponent to wrestle. But single legs from space are often more effective, you can sprawl out but if they catch a grip on your leg, they may be able to build up and transition to a finish. Let’s take a look at how Yan deals with singles in open space.
Like the great Jose Aldo, Petr Yan understands that in MMA, when no shoes are involved, the limp leg and kick-out defense to the single is the most effective way to defend. This is accomplished by establishing a post, turning the knee out and away from the attacker, using the post to push off and kicking the leg free. Typically, the other hand is used to whizzer on the attacking arm of your opponent, it also allows you to angle off and force your opponent to try and finish from the seatbelt position.
In the above clip, Yan demonstrates a commitment to that defense, controlling the head and constantly working to create the angle to kick out.
When the scrambles are extended and Yan does get stuck against the cage, he knows exactly what to do.
Yan understands the importance of a wide base, but also the need to pummel for underhooks and pull Magomedov up and off his hips. Yan does not use ties to hold, he consistently works them and applies force to bring his opponent up out of the takedown attempt. Yan also makes great use of the cross-face, disconnecting Magomedov’s head from the hips or legs, taking away any leverage or depth on the shot.
My favorite look from Yan against the cage is the way he attacks with his hips. Grabbing a bodylock from over top, Yan connects his hands and pushes the hips of Magomedov outward while thrusting his own forward. This puts a ton of pressure on the neck and upper back of Magomedov while lengthening his stance and making it harder to stay upright.
All of these defensive wrestling competencies are great - and ridiculously impressive for a striker that young in his career. However, the single most important note from this fight is how Yan controlled positioning through the clinch.
Any time I think about a striker vs. wrestler matchup, I consider the importance of ringcraft. Unless there’s a huge gap between your defensive wrestling and their offensive wrestling, if the wrestler is able to consistently put you against the fence or force you into bad positions, you’re going to be in for a long night. The ability to control the center of the mat or even put their back to the cage, is a huge equalizer when it comes to fighting wrestlers and grapplers.
Not only does Yan have the defensive footwork to avoid getting pushed straight back, and the built-in advantage of being a pressure fighter who takes the front foot, his ability in the clinch allows him to consistently control what literal direction the fight is headed in. Nevermind his ability to create motion and hit disruptive foot-sweeps, Yan’s use of forearm frames from the double collar tie and his transitions to posts and overhooks are what make his clinch game so effective. Yan is almost never “stuck” in a position, he’s either to limp arm out and create space, pummel for underhooks, or frame off on the biceps to move his opponent and turn them in the direction he wants.
This is huge. To avoid being pressured to the cage, Yan can simply hold his ground or come forward, creating a collision instead of conceding ground. Typically strikers avoid this because they fear most grappling exchanges with that type of opponent, but they don’t have the defensive footwork to avoid backing straight up into the cage. Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje’s fights with Khabib Nurmagomedov are excellent examples of this shortcoming.
What went wrong?
While it was incredibly close and could have been scored for Yan, he did lose this fight. In a way, Yan’s depth at this stage played against himself. Instead of sticking to those fantastic fundamental defenses and strategies, at times he opted to attempt to counter-grapple and exchange with Magomedov in wrestling situations on equal terms.
It wasn’t just Yan’s over-eagerness, Magomedov himself had some brilliant looks that allowed him to catch Yan off guard. One in particular that I loved was how he dropped into a leg attack right off the body kick. Round kicks typically stand your opponent up and prime them to counter-punch, making it an excellent time to shoot on the hips or legs. Of course, you have to be pretty darn athletic to pull that off. You know who else is, and does? Aljamain Sterling. We’ll get back to that soon.
Another issue - one that actually has not been remedied, is Yan’s habit to give up his back in the “quad pod” position when scrambling back to his feet. This is likely something that was developed while training with freestyle wrestlers in Europe, it’s an extremely common position to take your time in and stay stingy defensively, rather than quickly peeling hands and creating separation. That’s one advantage folkstyle definitely provides.
When you see Yan scramble successfully, you can understand why he takes these risks. He’s a great wrestler and an underrated offensive grappler. He opens himself up, sure, but he keeps the pace of the fight high and gives himself more room to do attritional work and hopefully get back to his feet.
With all of that in mind, take a look at how Yan approached the rematch.
Masterclass: Petr Yan vs. Magomed Magomedov 2
The biggest difference between the first and second Magomedov fight is discipline. Yan stuck with the tactics that led to his success, and stayed away from anything that gave Magomedov a fighting chance.
Magomedov made adjustments as well. He added open stance body kicking and intercepting rear straights to try and disrupt Yan’s rhythm and pressure. However, that forward motion only led him into the clinch with Yan once again, where he was just as outclassed as the first fight.
Yan had many brilliant methods for dealing with Magomedov’s attempts to press forward or grapple. When Magomedov was able to push through for an underhook, Yan immediately used his whizzer to angle off and pushed off on the bicep or wrist to make sure Magomedov couldn’t follow and square up.
When Magomedov pressured even harder in tie-ups to try to take that space away, Yan was able to capitalize on his momentum pull him across and hit those nasty over-under foot sweeps to throw him off balance and out of the clinch.
Another neat trick to diffuse pressure is the outside slip duck-under. Yan noticed Magomedov was consistently trying to lead with that rear straight, and found his timing to turn the strike into favorable clinch positions. I broke that technique down in more depth here.
As mentioned earlier, heavy pressure from wrestlers and grapplers typically leads to big linear retreats from strikers. However, perhaps due to his amateur boxing experience, Petr Yan is exceptionally comfortable with traditional infighting. He has brilliant awareness for keeping his hands and arms up as a barrier to feel his opponent’s positioning before firing off quick uppercuts or hooks around the guard. He manipulates hand positioning and pulls his opponent into larger strikes like jump knees.
His quick hips and overall awareness make this a safe position to strike from, any wrestling entry will be from short range and thus be easier to deal with by bringing his opponent up into the clinch. Yan can use those same positions to work the collar tie and turn his opponent toward the cage before disengaging.
This is not to say that Magomedov didn’t get to Yan’s legs at all in the rematch. But when he did, we saw Yan stick to the fundamental defenses that worked for him in the first fight - stuff the head, control wrists, post and limp-leg out.
You can see Yan is instantaneously getting to his proper defenses in every situation. His reflexes to get to the whizzer are impressive, and his reaction time in kicking his hips back is even more outstanding. Even in situations where he’s kicking or feinting with his hips and theoretically weakening his base, he is able to quickly recover and hit a hard sprawl or whizzer off to the angle.
Yan’s performance in this fight was absolutely brilliant. Not just because of the individual skills he demonstrated, but because of the dedication he had to an anti-wrestling gameplan. It’s worth noting that even looks that had troubled him in the first fight, like the double leg off the body kick, were summarily shut down in the rematch.
Between the two Magomedov fights, Petr Yan both evolved his skill-set and gained focus in his gameplan and tactics. These same ideas will be extremely important if he wants to take the path of least resistance vs. Aljamain Sterling. Revisit my breakdown of how Sterling likes to enter into wrestling situations. You’ll see that Sterling is at his worst as a wrestler when he is put on the backfoot and forced to shoot reactively. Not only that, he has struggled as a wrestler with opponents who can shut down his entries early with solid first-layer takedown defense like Pedro Munhoz, Jimmie Rivera and Raphael Assuncao.
Let’s take another look at the “bad” wrestling looks from Yan in his UFC career and attempt to make sense of them. There are only two UFC fights I feel in which Yan looked troubled as a wrestler. He wrestled plenty in many of his fights, but held up beautifully in every exchange other than these.
In the first example, Jin Soo Son hits a beautiful reactive double off of a big left hook commitment from Yan. We’ve discussed how Yan adjusts his strike selection and overall approach with consideration to his opponent. In this short notice fight, Yan did not know what to expect from Son, but realized early on he was pressuring hard but defensively porous. It made sense that Yan would load up and attempt to do damage to capitalize on this, he wasn’t expecting the shot. Fair play. You can see the aforementioned “quad pod” defense from Yan in which he gives up his back. A bad look undeniably, but one that you might expect to change when fighting an opponent who lives to take the back.
In the second clip, you see a big rear hand commitment from Yan that takes him out of his stance, his rear foot trails and when he recovers, he’s standing square and narrow. Another reactive double worked beautiful for Son. Before reading into this heavily, recall the above caveat and take a look at Aljamain Sterling’s reactive double attempts in the UFC. It’s not a strength of his, and it is fair to expect more caution from Yan.
Against Petr Yan, John Dodson wrestled more than I have ever seen in his entire UFC career. He must have taken notes from the Jin Soo Son fight. Defensive as always, Dodson hung back along the cage and waited for Yan to open up, and had success catching open-side body kicks. Yan’s hips are a bit inflexible as a kicker, he had a hard time recovering his balance. This is definitely something that Aljamain Sterling could replicate. It’s a bit different because Sterling is a volume striker and Yan’s attempts might not be as “naked”, given he’ll have more reads to work with and might be operating largely on the counter. Nonetheless, it would be smart for Yan to keep his kicks no higher than the legs, Sterling will definitely be looking to take advantage of this weakness.
The final takedown came from John Dodson fully ducking under a flying knee from Yan. If the significantly taller man Aljamain Sterling can pull that off, he deserves to win the fight.