The Russia-native and Phuket resident landed an illegal knee strike to Sterling’s head as the American was getting back up. As per the rules, the UFC awarded Sterling the victory. In doing so, they stripped Yan of his UFC bantamweight title (135 pounds, 61kg) and handed it to Sterling.
The ending of that UFC 259 title fight will go down as one of the most bizarre in mixed martial arts history. After the illegal knee strike, Sterling rolled around the ground, then attempted to sit up, and after some moments, was able to get up for the final decision. After the belt was wrapped around his waist, Sterling threw it back onto the canvas, seemingly disappointed, shaking his head. The whole moment was accentuated by the fact that there was no audience, as COVID-19 measures prevented a crowd.
“That’s not the way I wanted to win. That’s not the way I envisioned this,” Sterling said after the Mar 6, 2021 fight. “I was trying to continue even being all f****d up like that. I was in bad shape, and it would’ve just been ego taking over to take further punishment.”
While Yan would later apologise for the strike, citing a momentary lack of judgement, both he and Sterling continued to trash talk one another on social media. UFC President Dana White was adamant that a rematch would be in the works. However, a month after the fight, on the advice of doctors, Sterling opted to repair nerve damage in his neck. His recovery from the serious surgery put any talk of a potential rematch on ice for almost an entire year.
In situations where the champion of a particular division is out for a considerable amount of time, the UFC usually creates an interim division title to keep fighters active. This case was no different, especially after the 28-year-old Yan himself opted to continue fighting, instead of waiting for Sterling to get back to health.
“You all know that [Sterling] just ran away like a sneaky coward,” Yan said in a video.“I am not going to sit and wait for him. I am going to fight. Give me any fighter, top-five, top-seven, top-10. Anyone who deserves to fight for the belt and I will get the job done,” he said.
The UFC obliged and put him against Cody Sanhagen, the next top contender in the division, for the interim UFC bantamweight title at UFC 267 on Oct 20 in Abu Dhabi.
The fight was a masterclass for the boxing-heavy Yan, showcasing his all-around skill set, his durability, and seemingly unlimited gas tank, all honed at the famous Tiger Muay Thai & MMA Training Camp in Chalong.
By the time Yan and Sterling finally meet in the octagon for the rematch tomorrow (Apr 9) at UFC 273 in Jacksonville, Florida, it would have been more than 13 months since that infamous first meeting. The title unification fight has been a long time coming, and for Yan, the stage is set for sweet redemption.