During an open workout in Abu Dhabi earlier in the week, Petr Yan approached his coach, who had dropped to one knee. Suddenly, Yan leapt into the air and the coach went tumbling over backward.
It was meant as a joke, a play on the reason why Yan won’t walk to the cage with the belt around his waist on Saturday in Etihad Arena, when he faces Cory Sandhagen for the interim bantamweight championship in the co-main event of UFC 267.
In Yan’s last fight, in March in Las Vegas against Aljamain Sterling, he was on his way to a one-sided victory when he committed what might well be the most egregious, flagrant and perplexing foul in the history of the UFC.
Sterling was clearly down when Yan kneed him in the head. When a doctor determined Sterling could not continue, Yan was disqualified and Sterling lifted the belt from him.
They were supposed to rematch on Saturday for Sterling’s belt, but Sterling still isn’t healthy enough to fight after surgery, and Sandhagen stepped in to take the spot.
Yan doesn’t seem remorseful, even though it was his own actions that led to him being disqualified. He, and many fans, believe that Sterling exaggerated the injury. Perhaps, though it’s difficult to prove, and Sterling’s long recovery process suggests otherwise, but he would never have been in the position to act if Yan hadn’t lost his composure.
“It was a huge mistake [by Yan],” Sandhagen said. “You can’t make that mistake in a championship fight like that. It doesn’t get too much more flagrant than that, in my opinion. I think Sterling didn’t handle it the best, either, playing the heel role afterwards and all that. I thought it was really silly, didn’t need to happen and [Yan's] definitely living with the consequences, as he didn’t get to go home with the belt and Sterling did.”
Yan, though, didn’t want to address the situation. He said Sterling is the one who needs a rematch, and stressed he’s not interested.
He has what he wants, even if he will only be the interim champion with a win, and Sterling is the farthest thing from his mind.
“All the questions about [Sterling] don’t matter,” Yan said. “I have a fight for the belt on Saturday.”
The fight — with Yan as the -250 favorite at BetMGM — figures to be wild, as both are strikers with attack-oriented, high-energy styles. It’s one of those fights that has Fight of the Year potential and one that should lead to more than a few oohs and aahs from the Etihad Arena crowd.
There are a lot of similarities, including how they made their way to the top of one of the UFC’s deepest divisions.
“Me and him have really similar paths in our careers up until I lost to Sterling,” Sandhagen said. “I think I had a little bit of a harder road to get to where I am versus his road, but that’s not to take away from the fact that he was beating Sterling until the fight ended the way that it did, and that he did beat a very tough [Jose] Aldo.
“Petr Yan’s a very good fighter, and I’ve known that for a long time, and I figured me and him were going to cross paths at some point. We got into the UFC around the same time and we were growing and developing at the same time. Then, I lost to Sterling and he beat [Urijah] Faber and he got the title shot and I didn’t.”
A twist of fate got Sandhagen this title shot. He lost an agonizingly close decision to T.J. Dillashaw on July 24 in a fight that could have gone either way. Dillashaw earned the right to fight for the title off of that fight, but he suffered a knee injury that required surgery.
Yan took Dillashaw’s place against Sterling and then when Sterling pulled out, Sandhagen stepped in. Sandhagen's loss to Dillashaw doesn’t haunt him, even though he’ll believe to his dying breath that he won the fight.
“There’s certainly an argument that T.J. could have won 3-2 and I think there’s certainly an argument that I could have won 3-2,” Sandhagen said. “I think to dispute that would be a little bit silly, but what is indisputable is that one person walked out of the cage very beaten up and the other person walked out of the cage very not beaten up.”
That’s an argument to be had over a beer some day, but it matters little now because the winner of Sandhagen-Yan on Saturday will exit the cage with a belt around his waist.
Yeah, it officially will be the interim belt, but the public perception against Sterling is such that the winner Saturday will be viewed as the "real" champion.
Yan is a man of few words and, like Sandhagen, isn’t looking back, but in his brief but inimitable style, he laid out the story of the fight.
“Saturday is the only thing that matters,” Yan said. “Saturday is it.”
Indeed it is. And it could be one, given their styles, that is talked about for years to come.