Last night at UFC 273, Aljamain Sterling crowned himself the undisputed UFC bantamweight champion. And he did it his way, capitalizing on a superior grappling arsenal to overcome fierce rival Petr Yan.
“This time, I did it the way I always wanted,” said Sterling. “I’ve felt like a champion for a long time, but this put a stamp on it.”
Returning after a 13-month absence from the sport, Sterling (21-3) defeated Yan by split decision in their bantamweight unification title fight. Conquering an opponent as talented as Yan (16-3) was particularly meaningful, especially considering that it was Yan who knocked Sterling out in their last fight with an intentional illegal knee to the head.
A whole host of significant problems ensued for the 32-year-old Sterling, who was forced to contemplate retirement after surgery to repair nerve damage in his neck that had accumulated over the course of his career.
“At the end of the day, I’m just really happy,” Sterling said, shedding tears of joy as he spoke. “There were times when it was very disheartening. I felt like s---. There wasn’t any improvement or recovery. But I trusted my doctors and put the brakes on my training. I did the physical therapy. Thankfully, the nerves started to reconnect, and I finally started to have some gains.”
After Sterling won the bantamweight title by disqualification in March 2021, unfinished business remained with Yan. Their issues hit a climax in the 273 co-main event, where Sterling wore down Yan over the course of the fight with relentless wrestling. Even when Yan was able to land shots, Sterling stayed disciplined and never deviated from his plan of attack.
“I knew I needed to make this a grappling fight and keep him guessing,” Sterling said. “If I stopped shooting, it would have been an open season for him to turn this into a striking match and stand up and trade. I could have done that, but I didn’t want to let him fight where he was strongest. I wanted to keep him guessing. That was the key to victory.”
This fight will forever be defined by Sterling’s dominance in the second and third rounds. Sterling took the fight to the mat and controlled Yan’s back, putting the MMA star from Russia in as vulnerable a position as he has ever encountered in his career.
More than seven minutes of ground control in those two rounds gave Sterling a decisive advantage, allowing him to ultimately score the split decision victory despite a very strong fourth and fifth from Yan.
“One round at a time, that’s what I kept telling myself,” Sterling said. “When I got through the third round, I got a little ahead of myself and saw the finish line before I should have. I felt so safe on the ground defensively that I let him back into the fight, but I was able to persevere through the fourth and fifth.”
Naturally, when it comes to Sterling and Yan, there was still a modicum of controversy involved in the decision. Speaking through a translator in his post-fight interview, Yan expressed frustration over the judges’ scoring, feeling robbed and wanting a rematch.
After five grueling rounds, the decision went to the judges’ scorecards. Sterling was flooded with a wide range of emotions as soon as he heard ring announcer Bruce Buffer declare that one of the judges awarded the fight to Yan.
“I thought I was cruising to a decision,” said Sterling. “To hear he won a scorecard, that was baffling. I thought I had a 10-8 round in the second and possibly the third. I couldn’t see how this man won this fight on any scorecard.
“It is what is what is, but I just wish we could get some clarity from the judges so we, as athletes, would know what we need to do better. That would allow us to adjust during the fight. But Yan’s a tough competitor and former champion for a reason. I’m glad I was able to get it done in those first three rounds.”
Carried to victory by a fighting spirit that was developed back home in Long Island, Sterling was honored to win the fight in front of his mother. This was her first time watching her son in the UFC, and she picked a perfect night to attend.
“She actually called me Thursday night right before I was about to start my weight cut to say she wanted to come,” Sterling said. “It was out of the blue, but we got her here and I’m grateful she was able to experience everything. It meant a lot that she could see it.
“We’re blue collar, we find a way to preserve. My path hasn’t been easy, but that’s Strong Island-Long Island. And I’m so proud to do it through wrestling. I’ve been wrestling since the 10th grade. It teaches you about adversity and a lot about life, how to adjust perspective and grinding it out. Even last time when it wasn’t going well against Yan, I was ready to go out on my shield. Wrestling is all about never giving up and succeeding through the work you put in behind the scenes, and that’s what happened here.”
After solving Yan and putting their rivalry in the rear view, Sterling can now celebrate his lifetime pursuit of excellence. But only briefly, as he knows that new challenges await, beginning with former champion T.J. Dillashaw.
“It’s been a long road and a long, long 13 months,” Sterling said. “I’m blessed to be back here doing what I love and chasing my dream.
“Next is T.J., then maybe José Aldo and Dominick Cruz. It’s time to keep climbing. I want to write my name in UFC history.”
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Justin Barrasso can be reached at JBarrasso@gmail.com. Follow him on Twitter @JustinBarrasso.