Petr Yan looked to be on his way to his first title defense, then delivered a brutal illegal knee, crowning Aljamain Sterling the champion at UFC 259.
The first of three title fights at the UFC 259 PPV was arguably the most competitive on paper. Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling was a pick ’em, with Sterling having the edge in grappling, and Yan the edge on the feet. As so often is the case, it was a matter of who could implement their game plan, and take the fight to their comfort zone.
Yan, in his first title defense, was coming off a win over Jose Aldo, with Sterling being the opponent fight fans had long wanted to see him throw down with. The fight capped a big night for the UFC’s 135lb division, with former champ Dominick Cruz also in action earlier in the evening.
Sterling opened the fight from kicking range, throwing several body kicks and a distance-finding jab. Sterling ducked under a heavy overhand right and delivered a body kick. The pace of Sterling was too much for Yan in the early going, landing a big knee to the chin up the middle. Punches continued to land for Sterling as Yan was struggling to find his rhythm. Sterling landed another big knee, then had a kick caught and was swept to the ground. Sterling popped back up to his feet and landed a takedown of his own, but perhaps the biggest moment of the round came when they returned to the feet, as Yan knocked the challenger down with a huge overhand right. Sterling returned to his feet and was looking to clinch. He closed the distance and tried a leg lock, but couldn’t get a hold of it. Near the end of the round, Yan landed a takedown and briefly had the back of Sterling, who reversed position before the end of the round.
Sterling was more aggressive with his wrestling effort in the second round. He backed Yan to the cage with strikes then landed a brief takedown after Yan defended a few attempts. Yan tripped Sterling again and kicked at his legs a few times before allowing him to stand up. Sterling then attempted a single-leg takedown against the fence, eating a knee to the head during that effort. He bounced back on the feet, landing a few strikes in succession before a late takedown from Yan.
Yan came out more active in the third round, landing a left hook in the early going and following with some combinations. Yan then hit a beautiful trip and a hammerfist. When Sterling got back up, he was hit by a gorgeous straight punch down the middle. Yan hit another trip but never allowed Sterling to get a hold of him on the mat. The champion was slowly taking over the fight as Sterling was slowing down.
Sterling had a burst of energy in the fourth round, but Yan weathered it and began landing a straight left down the pipe. The more the punches landed, the slower the takedowns came in from Sterling. On one of the attempts, Yan was holding his head down after a sprawl and delivered a brutal illegal knee and Sterling went down. Sterling was unable to steady himself and was clearly rocked by the knee and the fight was called off by the referee. A very unfortunate ending to a title fight and the first disqualification in UFC championship history.
Aljamain Sterling def. Petr Yan by Disqualification (Illegal Knee) in Round 4 (4:29)