The first of three championship fights on this main card is an extremely intriguing stylistic matchup, which a lot of people are expecting to be the fight of the night. Petr Yan is the newly minted champion of the bantamweight division, following his fifth-round finish of Jose Aldo last summer. Aljamain Sterling earned the #1 contender ranking for his efforts in submitting Cory Sandhagen last June.
Yan is currently on a ten-fight winning streak, dating back to the only loss of his career, by split decision to Magomed Magomedov. He later avenged that loss, and is undefeated in the UFC at 7-0 with four knockout finishes.
Aljamain Sterling is a winner of five straight, dating back to his first-round knockout loss to Marlon Moraes in 2017. He is 11-3 in the UFC and is 19-3 as a professional, with eight submissions and two knockouts. He has five UFC finishes, four submissions and one knockout.
The Funkmaster is one of the most complicated stylistic puzzles to solve in this division. The two-time DIII all-American wrestler and Brazilian jiu jitsu black belt under Matt Serra is extremely dangerous on the ground and in the clinch, and has a unique striking style which few opponents have been able to solve.
He takes a low, wide stance and moves in and out, switching between orthodox and southpaw stances. He throws a lot of kicks up high and to the body, sometimes even throwing more kicks than punches. His roundhouses, front kicks and knees up the middle are quick and accurate, and opponents can become so fixated on his legs that they don’t see him following missed or blocked kicks with lead hooks and short combinations. He throws from unorthodox angles and finds different ways to split opponents’ guards.
Defensively, his range management and head movement are superb. His footwork allows him to step in, throw strikes, and move back out to safety and avoid counters. One of the things that allows him to move so freely is that he throws his punches with no windup, right out of his base stance. His usual reach advantage combined with his speed allow him to avoid damage from boxing-style strikers.
What Aljo is looking to do is cause damage in spurts, make his opponents start guessing, and shoot in for outside single leg takedowns. The name of the game with Aljo’s wrestling isn’t necessarily execution, as he only succeeds on 29% of his takedown attempts, but rather pressure. He often gets his opponents pressed into the cage, where he finds creative lanes to land knees, elbows and punches.
Once on the ground, Sterling is a nightmare to deal with. He’s a very advanced grappler and can pass opponents’ guards and gain mount with ease. He has vicious ground striking, and he forces his opponents to pick their poison. He backpacks onto opponents, maintains his position and usually doesn’t slip up high on the back, and softens them up before hunting for their necks.
One of the most impressive attributes of Sterling’s overall game is his speed. His fast footwork and kicks keep him out of opponents’ boxing range, and his quick transitions keep opponents guessing on the ground. As of late, Sterling has seemed to be just one or two steps ahead of his opponent in each of his fights. Overall, Sterling appears to be hitting the peak of his career and, with two of the best coaches in the sport in his corner, he has grown into one of the smartest fighters in this division.
Yan and Sterling appear to be the toughest tests of each others careers. Yan, a fundamental boxer who has incorporated disciplined kickboxing into his MMA style, is a stark contrast to Sterling’s free-flowing movement and multiple looks.
Yan looks to stand just outside of his opponents’ punching range, and carefully move his way in to land jabs and body shots. He’s looking to stay active enough to stay ahead on the scorecards, and force his opponents to move forward and trade shots with him in the pocket. He has good head movement which serves to set up his counters, and keep him from absorbing a lot of damage.
What Yan is looking to do is inch his opponents backwards, counter-strike and land three or more shots in the pocket. He thrives in measured, tactical striking battles, in which he can dictate the pace with his positional pressure. He does a great job of working the body and has a beautiful popping jab.
Though he isn’t known as a grappler, Yan does have some pretty strong wrestling ability. I don’t anticipate him initiating much grappling in this fight, but rather trying to avoid the canvas against a dangerous submission artist. He defends takedowns at an 87% clip and has shown the ability to land vicious strikes from within his opponents’ guards.
There is a significant discrepancy in speed and athleticism between these fighters, in favor of Sterling. Yan is much more successful when his opponents are willing to stand in front of him, which Sterling just won’t do. Yan’s measured pace will likely leave him chasing Sterling around and finding himself over-extending and getting countered.
One of the narratives around this fight is that Yan will have the advantage if it remains standing. Simply put, I don’t believe that to be true. I see Sterling having the upper hand regardless of where this fight goes. His striking and movement make for a stylistic nightmare for Yan on the feet, and it is abundantly clear who the more advanced and credentialed grappler is in this fight.
I love Sterling at even money (at time of writing) and I’m loading up on that moneyline bet before the line moves again.