Aljamain Sterling is a worthy contender. So worthy, his upcoming bout with bantamweight champion Petr Yan just may be the best fight the UFC could possibly make right now.
It wasn’t always this way. While Yan’s path to the title was as straight as the right hand that got him there, Sterling hit more than a few bumps in the road on his way up. After winning his first four Octagon appointments, he went on to lose two straight, one to the widely disliked Bryan Caraway, and one to the infamously ignored Raphael Assuncao.
If a piranha tank division like bantamweight has such a thing as gatekeepers, then these two men were them. And they slammed the gate in Sterling’s face.
So Sterling did what worthy contenders do: he got better. Then Marlon Moraes knocked him out, and he got better again. By the time Sterling was once again rapping at the gates of contention, he was a fighter transformed, ready to take on the toughest fights in the division.
Jimmie Rivera was supposed to be a bad matchup, a squat tank of a man who could shut down Sterling’s takedowns and outbox him on the feet. Instead, Sterling went ahead and outstruck Rivera, 101 significant strikes to 24.
Pedro Munhoz was a bad matchup too. Not only next-to-impossible to take down, but more than prepared to choke out any man who dared try. Far from a patient counterpuncher like Rivera, Munhoz was also a relentless pressure fighter, and basically unkillable. But Sterling handled him too, overcoming adversity to outland the Brazillian by almost 70 significant strikes.
So when I tell you that it is possible for Aljamain Sterling, renowned submission wrestler, to actually outstrike hard-chinned, heavy-handed champion Petr Yan, don’t laugh. Stranger things have happened in this sport, at the hands of fighters less clever and tenacious than Sterling. More than that, Sterling may actually have the very tools needed to cut the heart out of Yan’s game.
All it will take is an absolutely perfect gameplan, flawless execution, and a good dose of luck.
There, now. That doesn’t sound so hard, does it?
Finding the Source
For a grappler, Petr Yan represents one hell of a puzzle. Thus far in his UFC career, Yan has been extremely difficult to take down, and near impossible to hold down. His instantaneous scrambles will undoubtedly present opportunities to take the back—always a dangerous opening to give a submission artist of Sterling’s caliber—but the openings will be small, few, and far between. Take a look at wrestling maestro Ed Gallo’s latest breakdown for a full appreciation of just how difficult Yan is to outwrestle.
And each one of up to five rounds will begin in the champion’s world: on the feet.
As a pressure fighter, the heart and soul of Petr Yan’s game is initiative. He lives to lead the dance. In other words, as long as the opponent is forced to react to Yan rather than the other way around, he is comfortable. To this end, Yan uses his lead hand (right or left depends entirely on which stance he chooses to adopt) to measure distance, set his opponent’s rhythm, and hide his own footwork. Always, maintaining the initiative is the focus. Yan aims to give his opponent so much nonsense to react to that he either freezes up in front of him or starts running backward toward the fence.
None of this is to say that he can’t counter, merely that the ideal counter in Yan’s mind is always one which puts him right back in the driver’s seat, where he demands his opponent’s attention with moves like this:
1. With Jose Aldo pursuing, Yan circles to the left.
2. A touch on the glove reveals the range...
3. ...and Yan withdraws his hand.
4. Another touch accomplishes three goals: reaffirms the distance in Yan’s mind, establishes a handfighting rhythm in Aldo’s, and puts Yan’s jab hand over Aldo’s, clearing a path to the face.
5. Yan withdraws the hand again, but only brings it back half way. At the same time, he begins to step forward past Aldo’s front foot.
6. This time the jab is real, taking the track cleared by Yan’s handfighting. It only just brushes Aldo’s nose...
7. ...but Yan, accounting for this, overextends on his right hand to snap Aldo’s head back.
This short sequence gives us a good look at the tactical flexibility of Yan’s lead hand. By playing a little patty-cake with Aldo, he tells himself precisely how much distance he needs to cover in order to connect. But that’s not all—initiative, remember? By pawing at his lead hand, Yan convinces Aldo to do the same, sucking the former featherweight champ into a rhythm—and once the tempo is set, Yan can break it whenever he chooses. This sort of handfighting is almost like short-term hypnosis—but Yan has to be careful: give Aldo a few too many beats to follow, and he is at risk of falling into the same predictable rhythm he’s trying to force on his opponent. So he satisfies himself with two glove touches and no more; just the barest suggestion of a comfortable rhythm and then he snatches it away.
After that second touch, Yan draws his lead hand back, but only halfway. This shortens the distance his fist has to travel to reach the mark—and therefore shortens the time it takes to get there—at the cost of power. But power is far from the primary purpose of Yan’s jab. In this case, the punch is merely a distraction. It enables Yan to step forward and create the angle for the punch that is supposed to hurt, and that one comes straight from the shoulder.
But the really frightening part of Yan’s game is the way it tends to build and expand. If the jab creates a crack, then Yan’s thudding power punches act like wedges to keep it prised open.
1. Yan advances on Aldo.
2. A jab feint closes the distance...
3. ...prompting a characteristically quick slip from Aldo.
4. Wary of the cross counter that could be coming with this slip, Yan steps back—but not out of striking range. Compare distance between Yan’s left foot and black line to Frame 1.
5. Instead of a jab, Yan throws a quick, soft right hand.
6. Which gets Aldo’s head movement going again. As Aldo slips to the left, his right cheek is exposed to a left hook.
7. Yan is aware of this, but so is Aldo. So instead of attacking outright, Yan simply throws away a left hook to draw another reaction out of Aldo.
8. While Jose is moving his head, Yan steps in behind the hook to land a right hand to the belly.
9. And as Aldo dips down to brace against it, Yan finishes his attack with a beautiful, short left uppercut to the chin.
Here we see just how dangerous Yan is when an opponent agrees to stand in front of him. The depth of his striking is as impressive as its systematic coordination. As with the one-two we looked at above, Yan shows his mastery of the set-up by always thinking past the first punch. The throwaway left hook in Frame 7 is not an afterthought, per se, but neither does it have any intention of scoring damage. It exists merely to demonstrate Yan’s awareness of the opening, and because Jose Aldo is such a studious defensive striker, he only needs to sense a threat in order to address it. Just as Aldo starts moving his head again, Yan throws a hard shot to the torso, which isn’t going anywhere. And as Aldo moves to address this new danger, Yan catches him on the chin with a brilliant follow-up shot.
By leading the dance, Yan enables himself to think in layers, stacking techniques like tupperware. Each shot that lands increases Yan’s grasp on the initiative, and he maintains it vindictively. The opponent doesn’t have the luxury of ignoring Yan’s fists when they’re smashing into his face; he has to react, and each reaction is another crack for Yan to pour strikes into. The more success he has, the more susceptible the opponent becomes, the more successes he has to build off of. Everything compounds exponentially—especially the pain.
Layer upon layer, it’s enough to tax the defenses of any opponent—up to and including Jose Aldo and Jimmie Rivera, two of the best defensive boxers in the sport. And tactical progression begets strategic progression. The more Yan demands of his opponent’s defenses, the less cognizant they become of things like pace and position in the cage.
This latter lapse is usually the nail in the coffin for Yan’s opponents. It is up against the cage where the Russian does his most devastating work. As we saw in our last example, Yan’s technique is never better than when he can dig in and rip combinations against a more-or-less static target. And the fence has the rather obvious ability of hampering evasive movement. Back up against it, and Yan will step casually into close range, plant his feet, and unload. Give him two or three rounds to overwhelm and outmaneuver his foe, and most fights end up as just another session on the heavy bag.
Stemming the Flow
So, we’ve identified the source of Petr Yan’s campaigns of terror. Everything begins with the lead hand. Handfighting disguises the jab. The jab freezes the opponent in front of Yan, creating openings for power punches, which breed further power punches in combination. And thanks to these aggressively adaptive tactics, Yan has so far been able to back absolutely everyone into the corner eventually.
So how can we reverse engineer this terrifying sequence of events? How does Aljamain Sterling keep a simple jab from mutating into an outright asswhooping?
The key is to kill the progression at its root.
One way of doing this would be to draw out and punish his more committed strikes. Despite the reputation for technical brilliance, Yan is more than willing to throw himself completely out of stance chasing an opening. In fact, doing so comprises a central part of his game, as he excels at shifting through stances to track the chin of a fleeing opponent. Yan is also fairly rudimentary on defense. Though he routinely moves to protect himself after one of these wild bombs, his methods amount to little more than a high guard and a few well-timed ducks.
Opponents who hold their ground not only take the shift out of Yan’s arsenal, but stand a very good chance of anticipating his stock defenses and hitting him just after he has unbalanced himself. Jose Aldo and Jimmie Rivera both attempted to deny Yan room to build just like this, by playing the handfighting game with him, drawing out his power punches, evading them, and responding with savage counters. Both did pretty damn well, too.
But as clever as they were on the tactical level, neither man recognized the gaping hole in the center of his strategy. As we know, Yan is a pressure fighter. Initiative is his food. And aside from the obvious risks of letting such a subtle pressure fighter take the lead, standing one’s ground to counter means exactly what it says: standing in front of Petr Yan.
So while this approach can stem the worst aftereffects of Yan’s jab for a time, the end result is the same: Yan gets repeat opportunities to plant his feet and string strikes together, against an opponent willing to let him dictate the exchanges. If the plan is to scare Yan off in said exchanges, it will always be a futile one. The Russian is simply too fearless and too capable to let a fight like that go to waste. He will continue to force his wedges in until either the opponent starts backwards sprinting toward the wall, or he himself is knocked out.
So far that hasn’t happened, and Aljamain Sterling is the last guy we would expect to finally crack Yan’s chin, except perhaps through sheer attrition.
The way to outstrike Yan isn’t to scare him, and it isn’t necessarily to knock him out. Instead, the focus should be on frustrating him. If the goal of Yan’s jab is to freeze a reactive opponent in front of him, then he must be beaten at jabbing range. Fortunately, Aljamain Sterling has a solid jab—and a four inch reach advantage.
But we have already discussed how Yan will sell out to maim any opponent who attempts to maintain said range by moving straight backwards. So Sterling’s jab must come paired with footwork. He has to fight a retreating action without actually giving ground, by using the momentary interruption created by each jab to sidestep and pivot out of the crosshairs. Yan will struggle to set up any of his usual artillery if Sterling keeps making him pick it up and turn it around.
We’re talking good old fashioned stick-and-move. Matador shit. If Sterling is the kind of fighter who learns by watching others, he would be well advised to study boxers like Virgil Hill.
Like Sterling, Hill was tall, long, and a little awkward. Neither the quickest nor the most powerful boxer around, Hill used little more than footwork and a busy, educated lead hand to win the WBA cruiserweight title a remarkable 24 times. You can see throughout these sequences how Hill’s jab works in concert with his feet. With each jab he takes a small step to the side, not away from his opponent, Bobby Czyz, but actually toward him. As soon as the front foot initiates the angle, the back foot swipes around to complete it, reestablishing the position from which the jab is thrown.
Most of these shots are not particularly powerful. They don’t have to be. Their purpose is to irritate, distract, and demoralize, If the jab creates a spli-second interruption in the opponent’s rhythm, then it has done enough to take an angle behind it. And each pivot reinforces the angle, giving each successive punch a cleaner line on a more vulnerable target.
It may not lead to a knockout, but it can force a more powerful opponent to continually reset and disengage until he’s downright ashamed of himself. This kind of fighting made Roberto Duran, one of the toughest men and greatest boxers to ever walk the earth, give up after only eight rounds. He wasn’t too hurt to continue, only too pissed at himself to keep getting embarrassed.
25 minutes likely won’t be enough to make Petr Yan quit, even if everything goes absolutely perfectly for Sterling. I’m reasonably convinced that the man is a psychopath. But Sterling has shown the ability to play this kind of game, from way back to his first comeback win over Augusto Mendes, all the way up to the recent war with Pedro Munhoz.
1. Sterling meets Pedro Munhoz in center cage.
2. A long jab has no trouble touching his forward-leaning foe on the nose.
3. Sterling takes a short step back to retain this distance. Munhoz marches forward, slipping in anticipation of another jab.
4. But he slips too soon, allowing Aljo to crack him with a stiff jab to the cheek.
5. Sterling takes another short step back.
6. Struggling to connect at jabbing distance, Munhoz leads with a powerful right kick. Sterling blocks it...
7. ...and promptly feeds Munhoz another cracker of a jab.
8. This one, however, precedes a small pivot, taking Sterling counterclockwise around Munhoz, who is left countering the air.
The thing about initiative is that it works both ways. That’s precisely why Yan guards it so jealously; for all their attempts to counter, both Jimmie Rivera and Jose Aldo had their best moments when they simply stepped forward and threw hard punches.
By moving like a matador, however, Aljamain Sterling will have much the same advantage that Yan has against men who meet him head-on and toe-to-toe. Because lateral movement, just like a good, clean punch, demands a reaction from the opponent.
Angles are death in a fistfight. A fighter only has two legs, thus, while capable of dispersing incredible forces, his stance is nonetheless a fragile thing. Looking down both barrels at your opponent with good posture and a tucked chin, your back foot will act as a sort of spring to absorb and dissipate the force of anything that touches your jaw. If, however, your allow your foe to get around to one side, you give him a clear look at the center-line of your body, with no opposing foot to dissipate the impact. In a word, if your opponent can look into your ear, then he can knock you on your ass—with a featherduster, if that’s what he wants.
Angles are easiest to find off of quick, efficient strikes, and no strike is quicker or easier to throw than the jab. Now, making that jab effective does require that Sterling step in close enough to land it. But so long as he uses the openings created by the jab to circle out of Yan’s sights, that actually helps him.
A wide, loping sidestep like that favored by the majority of MMA fighters is not only detrimental to counter punching—you try throwing a decent punch while skipping sideways—but far too easy to match, and anticipate. A wide arc at long range actually enables the pressuring fighter to keep facing his opponent with relatively small steps, making it easy for him to cut him off with larger steps, or intercept him with sweeping strikes. Whereas a tight pivot at close range, by way of greater mechanical efficiency, requires the pressuring fighter to make a much more drastic turn to keep from being outflanked.
This allows the best stick-and-movers to stick an awful lot. Staying close enough to score without standing still to be hit creates opportunities for entire barrages of snappy strikes, like the eight-jab combo Virgil Hill cuts loose in the above GIF. This is a real window of opportunity for Sterling, considering the vast numbers he put up in two of his last three fights.
Even Urijah Faber enjoyed considerable success simply by covering Yan’s lead hand and circling away from the other, peppering away with jabs and hooks as he went. As long as he avoided letting Yan back him up on a line, Faber was able to maintain an even fight despite a relatively low output, comparatively little striking depth—and the small fact that, at 39, the California Kid was well past his prime at the time.
Finally, the jab is always a bridge to other weapons. Sterling can use it to take angles, but he can throw almost anything else while Yan is turning to face him. Sterling is a particularly good kicker. With a strong angle, he could dig hard kicks into the backs of Yan’s legs, or smash him right in the face. But even more crucially, angles do not only work to set up strikes; a weak position is a weak position, and wrestlers also try to look into their opponent’s ears. If Sterling can flank Yan, he has full access to the bodylock and a clean line for a strong shot. Layer upon layer, he too can tax his opponent’s defenses and create those vital moments when Yan has no choice but to show the submission artist his back.
Such a strategy could not only thwart the progression of Yan’s game, but allow Sterling to follow much the same tack with his own tools. Punch sets up the kick sets up the shot. Angles allow them all to land. The jab creates the angles.
It sounds as simple as it is difficult to do.
So. Do I expect this to work for Sterling?
Well... sure—a little. He’s a busy fighter with long reach, and Petr Yan isn’t all that hard to hit. Sterling has also shown flashes of exactly this kind of fighting, as we saw in that example from the Munhoz bout. But they have only been flashes. Sterling’s discipline as a striker is, like his technique, a little iffy at the best of times. Even his best performances have had their fair share of close scrapes, and between him and Yan, Aljo is the one who’s actually been KO’d before.
If, however, you’re asking me whether it’s possible for a fighter to win an unfavorable matchup through strategy and technique, then my answer is a resounding yes. Roxanne Modafferi (BE’s patron saint) wouldn’t have fared well in an even exchange with beefy prospect Maycee Barber, so she devised a gameplan that made such exchanges unnecessary, and stuck to it. Michael Bisping was physically outmatched by Luke Rockhold, yet he beat him with polished pocket boxing and airtight tactics. Randy Couture was a veritable dwarf next to heavyweight champion Tim Sylvia, but that didn’t stop him bullying the bigger man out of his belt.
Anything can happen in MMA. Athleticism and power go a long way, but so do discipline, preparation, and smarts.
But when the physical odds are long, the path to victory is always a narrow one. The above fighters all executed perfect gameplans more or less perfectly—and still things might have played out very differently without a wink from the MMA gods at just the right moment. Maycee Barber hurt her knee in round two. Rockhold’s chin failed him in round one. A flash knockdown set the tone for Sylvia’s downfall early on.
Strategy and technique are factors, but so is luck. Even the greatest victories are at least a little circumstantial. There’s a reason we so often talk about who was better “on the night.” No one is ever too good to get clipped, or too outmatched to win.
Aljamain Sterling really could outstrike Petr Yan. But it would have to be his night.
For a more conversational but not less in-depth look at this fascinating matchup, as well as the other two title fights scheduled for UFC 259, don’t miss the latest episode of Heavy Hands, a podcast dedicated to the finer points of face-punching.