UFC 259: Yan and Sterling Seek Career Breakthroughs on Saturday

Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling, UFC 259 presser
LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 04: (L-R) Opponents Petr Yan of Russia and Aljamain Sterling face off during the UFC 259 press conference at UFC APEX on March 04, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Petr Yan wants to usher in a new era of dominance in the bantamweight division, but Aljamain Sterling wants to prove it was his time all along at UFC 259.

In a division as competitive as bantamweight, to say you are the best is no small feat.  Currently, Petr Yan stands alone at the top following a career best victory against a living legend in José Aldo to win the vacant title.  The five round contest was one of the best in bantamweight title history in recent years and it was the culmination of a ten fight win-streak that dates back to Yan’s time in ACB in his native Russia and through what has been a stellar Octagon run.

As champion, Yan is the one who is the furthest ahead in terms of breaking out as the next great bantamweight title holder in the UFC.  With Aldo and perennial contenders Urijah Faber, John Dodson, and Jimmie Rivera already on his resume, “No Mercy” is in as great a position as any to ascend to the elite level previously held by the former title holder Henry Cejudo in the current landscape.  It is an unenviable position to pursue dominance when one has been unable to win the belt from the previous champion.  But at a time when the division is experiencing its latest renaissance, his goal could to prove he is the best could be much closer than it appears at first glance.

The man who has waited the longest to take a shot at Petr Yan and the bantamweight title is Aljamain Sterling.  A professional since 2011, “The Funkmaster” held titles in Ring of Combat and CFFC before joining the UFC in 2014 and slowly becoming one of the best bantamweights in the world.  After rushing to a 4-0 start in the Octagon, Sterling hit a skid where he went 2-3 that hurt his momentum with his last loss being a crushing Knockout of the Year candidate to former title challenger Marlon Moraes in 2016.  Sterling bounced back from the loss as great as any fighter could have, reeling off five consecutive victories over tough competition in Cody Stamann, Jimmie Rivera, and Pedro Munhoz.  Last June, he punctuated his win-streak and locked in a title shot by quickly submitting fellow elite contender Cory Sandhagen in the first round.

When Henry Cejudo vacated the title last May, most immediately called for Sterling’s fight with Sandhagen to be for the belt.  The promotion chose to go with Yan against Aldo a month later, but Sterling was forced to sit out the rest of 2020 when Yan was unable to make it to their title bout last December.  Now with the championship finally in sight and an opportunity to have taken out Sandhagen and Yan back-to-back, Sterling could complete his own incredible ascension to the elite level with one of the most impressive campaigns that the weight class has seen in recent years.

Stylistically, the versatile attack of Sterling will need to overcome the formidable horsepower of Yan.  The champion has shown impressive stopping power and an ability to keep a strong pace over five rounds.  He is also noticeable durable, having absorbed hard shots over four rounds from Aldo and still gone on to dominate the fifth no worse for wear.  Sterling should look to use a multi-faceted attack to keep Yan from settling into a rhythm.  To remove the best weapon of the champion, he should look to get the fight to the mat where the threat of Yan’s striking is removed and he can work his grappling from the top position.

The winner of the bout will likely go to the table with the UFC and choose between the surging Cory Sandhagen or former champion TJ Dillashaw as the next title challenger.  Coming off the strength of his Knockout of the Year candidate, Sandhagen would be the obvious choice even for Sterling despite the two having fought less than 12 months ago.  Dillashaw would arguably be the bigger draw, not only due to his name value but also the now infamous turn of events that led to him being stripped of the title.