Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling at UFC 259 this March 6, 2021 at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas, Nevada, United States.
One sentence summary
David: Funk master vs. Dunk master
Phil: Not only the best fight on the card, but debatably the best fight the UFC can put on at the moment
Record: Petr Yan 15-1 Aljamain Sterling 19-3
Odds: Petr Yan -112 Aljamain Sterling +102
History / Introduction to the fighters
David: Not too many champions can continue to boast an aura of mystery, but Yan can. He’s still a relative unknown. Critics might even argue that this is his first real test. Since Aldo and Faber are WEC veterans ‘past their prime’ (Aldo looks practically reborn at Bantamweight despite his record, which made both men’s performances at UFC 251 all the more impressive). There’s a little bit of truth to that, but there’s also a lot of truth to Yan’s game prior to his UFC debut. In fact, his title win largely feels like the natural evolution to his game when you dig deep into his Russian past. Nonetheless, this fight as good as it gets when it comes to BW’s future.
Phil: Petr Yan is a legit phenom, a UFC champion in a deep weight class who is still only a few years into his career. Taking a belt in Absolute Championship Berkut at four years into an MMA career is just not the done thing, and so its been both surprising and somewhat inevitable to see him surge to the top of the heap. If it was weird that the UFC selected an aging Aldo as his title fight rather than Sterling in the first place, at least that clash gave us one of the best fights we’ve ever seen at this weight class. At no time did it feel like Yan was in any doubt as to who would win their fight, and the man brims with cold-eyed resolve.
David: Sterling is that hot prospect who scores a lot early, and then hits a cold streak to bring out all the talking heads who pretend to know their history “biggest bust since Ryan Leaf” etc. Except his “cold streak” was always a little hollow. Moraes and Assuncao were blistering opponents for a young fighter, while the Caraway fight was an example of a prospect working out the kinks. Granted, that’s not to say we should play revisionist history or anything. Sterling has a very specific game, and certain opponents make the clash of styles more difficult. But Sterling is still very much a blue chip prospect with the potential to be the BW champion this weekend.
Phil: I always found a bit of the narrative around Sterling wearing, to be honest. The setbacks were completely understandable and there was the simple fact that he was clearly getting better. He lost the Moraes fight to a single weird strike, which unfairly capped expectations. However, even as an AlJo believer, some of his performances were remarkable. Sandhagen, Munhoz and Rivera were the kind of blowout wins over quality opposition that could convince anyone that this was a man who might be able to win a belt.
What’s at stake?
David: Just the usual: gold, legacy, acclaim, and personal well-being.
Phil: Yan gets to solidify his claim (“he only beat Old Aldo”) and Sterling gets to put an exclamation point on a great redemptive run. More than this, it’s just one of those fights between two athletes clearly in their absolute primes, at the height of their confidence. Can’t wait.
Where do they want it?
David: Yan is an MMA writer’s dream. Of course, one of the things that might get lost to readers is what when we praise technique, it’s implied we’re also arguing for supreme efficiency and quality. And that isn’t the case. Michael Johnson has some of the crispest boxing technique we’ve seen, but that didn’t translate to wins. So I just want to preface this section with that. Just because we have more positive things to say about a fighter’s technique doesn’t make them mythical creatures. With Yan, the name of the game is Shift and Conceal. Yan is a power puncher who, rather than spam Big Right Hand(s), wait for openings, or overtly pressure, simply establishes the dominant angle with subtle footwork so that his power is always available. It’s a very beautiful art requiring the least amount of energy to land the most energetic strikes. Within that rhythm is a game of show and tell, where Yan is telling his opponent he’s gonna throw an overhand right, but doesn’t show it until they’ve let their guard down. Or he switches stances, and releases strongside strikes after a quick step-in knee. Or he’ll FedEx the combo like he did against Faber: jab, power (orthodox), power (southpaw). And beyond that, as our colleague Ed Gallo brilliantly broke down, his defensive footwork and wide stance keep him mostly immune to the ‘Let’s GTFOhere and take him down’ strategy. Of course, he’s also never faced anyone like Sterling either.
Phil: Yan absolutely oozes with vicious confidence. He is absolutely sure that he is tougher and smarter and better than his opponents. He has some of the best, most precise pressure footwork in the game (to a certain point) and feeds himself all the data he needs from that lead hand while keeping the right coiled by his brow. Like the best pressure fighters he has an acute understanding of how a strike here pushes an opponent here, and so his performances tend to be building affairs, where he moves from pushing someone into a big sweeping hook at the beginning to ping ponging them around with multistrike combinations at the end. The confidence in his reads can occasionally backfire: stepping down hard on big swings to catch an opponent that he is sure is moving away from his power has gotten him clocked on occasion, but he is fantastically durable from both a damage-taking and cardio standpoint. More to the point, the opponents are almost always behind him, constantly trying to guess what he’s going to do. A genuine MMA native, he is a great offensive and defensive wrestler, with quick hips and phenomenal balance. He has a nasty riding top-game of his own, and do not be surprised to see him hit AlJo with his own body lock takedowns. However, there are some questions about how sustainable his ground game is in prolonged exchanges, as he has been trapped on the bottom (by Jin Su Son no less) before.
David: Sterling is a beautiful blend of jank and groove. His style can be somewhat counterintuitive at times, to the extent that you’re not even sure if some of his offense is even intentional. This is especially true of his striking; like a Pollock, minus the automatic aspect. Or maybe that’s just a bad analogy because I can’t find another way to describe how Sterling’s approach to striking is more options = best options. From his mostly bladed stance, he’ll spam front kicks, and swing wide-angle hooks either at range or in close. He sometimes pumps the jab to great effect, and sometimes to minimal effect, or not at all. He’s got backhands, jabs, hooks, kicks, and spinning back elbows. It’s downright exhausting, really. But ultimately all of this eccentricity leads to his grappling, where he’s probably even more eccentric. The difference here is that all of his little innovations and oddities, like the rear naked full nelson Cody Stamann, aren’t punished on the ground; in part because it’s hard to be so explicitly punished for ground mistakes, but also because he has such strong fundamentals. It’s easy to see why he’s had cardio issues in the past. That wasn’t tested against the excellent Cory Sandhagen but it will be this weekend.
Phil: It’s always a genuine pleasure to see a fighter weaponize something which they have struggled with in the past. In the case of Sterling, someone who slid out of the fight against Brian Caraway, that thing is pace. Is Sterling a model of technical efficiency? As you have mentioned, he is not. But, he is an intensely busy, rangy, and frankly irritating striker. Pedro Munhoz did his terminator thing to Sterling, as he is wont to, and found himself batting away at a constant blizzard of punches and kicks, trying to wade into effective range for pretty much the entire fight. Jimmie Rivera, an undeniably more skilled stand-up fighter, was visibly perplexed by AlJo’s funk. The funk of course extends to Sterling’s ground game, which combines submission wizardry with dogged and effective cage wrestling, where he typically drives the opponent to the fence with a single and then shifts positions until he gets them down. It would be helpful, perhaps, to hit doubles against Yan if he can force him to overcommit, but there have been several cases in recent fights where I have told myself that a fighter “never” goes for double legs so I can take them out of the equation, and they have proven me horribly wrong (Bryce Mitchell and Khabib, primarily).
Insight from past fights
David: Let’s start with Sterling’s fight with Pedro Munhoz. There are a ton of things Sterling did that he simply won’t get away with against Yan (mostly). The main one is not getting out of range quick enough. Against Munhoz, for all of Sterling’s offense, a lot of it was noise: a lot of low impact strikes thrown, leaving Munhoz in range to counter, or just pressure. I don’t think the problem is simply ‘stay in the pocket versus stay outside the pocket.’ The problem is whether or not Sterling shifts between both quickly enough to avoid getting punished. And further: the problem is how quickly those shifts become predictable. In a vacuum, I don’t think Sterling will simply be obliterated by Yan in the pocket. Connor discussed this at length. If anything, being aggressive inside the pocket can help neuter Yan’s forward movement. A strong kicking game, like what Aldo executed, can further accentuate that. And going even further, it helps that Sterling wants to finish this fight on the ground (something I think could allowed Aldo to pull ahead). Keep in mind, even though Aldo is obviously a much better striker, his willingness to stand his ground, kick and jab is what kept Yan at bay for the first half of their movement. It’s tough, and a double-edged sword for Sterling, but it’s there. This distance game is also why it’s so important for Sterling to find a rhythm. If Sterling is to land a takedown, he can’t do it against Yan’s sprawl. He has to do it in the pocket, where a clinch takedown can turn into a scramble.
Phil: I still think there is a lot to like about the Munhoz fight for Sterling, in part that he was simply willing to commit and dictate against a fighter who has been on the front foot in every single fight he’s had in the UFC thus far, without breaking down or losing focus at any point. The obvious pick from Yan’s side is Magomed Magomedov, another sterling talent from ACA (ACB), particularly his second fight with Yan. Yan shows incredible underhook awareness and cage wrestling, patiently digging at least one underhook every time they locked up, and eventually even turning the wrestling tables on Magomedov. So, I think the general equation is: don’t be surprised by Sterling’s striking success, but don’t expect wrestling exchanges to be one-sided traffic either.
David: Is Yan hiding an illness Russian dictators want him to fight through? If not, nothing of any real consequence.
Phil: Hmm not sure. I guess it’s Sterling’s first title fight, and Yan has already fought for both the UFC and ACB titles. He does also strike me as the less confident of the two, although practically everyone is less confident than Petr Yan.
David: I feel like I’ve talked myself into picking Sterling because he simply has more paths to victory. His striking is mechanically insufficient at times, but it’s effective. His grappling is mechanically proficient, but it’s not always available. Shall the twain meet, these sequences favor Sterling. But I just find myself going back to watching Munhoz pop him here and there with a rote attack. Munhoz isn’t a bad fighter, obviously. But I don’t think Sterling can survive getting popped by Yan here and there unless ‘here and there’ turns into ‘sporadically.’ Petr Yan by Decision.
Phil: I think the smart money is probably on Yan: he’s the more noticeable talent, the more natural fighter. However, I feel like I’ve underplayed Sterling’s chances too many times. The Munhoz and Rivera fights were meant to be tough, tough matchups, and he beat both of them very handily. I think Yan may be surprised by fighting someone with a reach advantage, and someone who is willing to throw more than he is, as all his (actually good) UFC opponents have typically had games characterized by low pace. While I don’t expect Sterling to outstrike Yan to a win, I think he can make Yan charge in on his reads and into clinch and wrestling exchanges which don’t favour him. It’s a narrow call, but I’ll pick Sterling to surprise everyone again. Aljamain Sterling by unanimous decision.