The perfect artist, athlete and fighter
Editor’s Note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors, or its parent company, Evolve Media. .
A common theme in my columns is the UFC’s shortcomings in promoting fighters. One of the reasons I stress this is that the men and women who suffer serious physical injuries in sport with often little pay and serious consequences for their life after retirement deserve better. Looking around, even among the UFC champions, few are big stars. Great fighters like Alexander Volkanovski and even Amanda Nunes are struggling to attract pay-per-view purchases. Many casual fans don’t even know they are. A common refrain is that it is at least partly the fault of the fighters. Neither Nunes nor Volkanovski are big, brash talkers like Conor McGregor. Volkanovski also lacks a bunch of highlighted finishes.
But what if I told you that the UFC has a martial artist on its list that is superlative in all categories? Someone who consistently wins against elite competition, creating an aura of invincibility, who delivers all-time great battles every time they step into the Octagon, and who has a wildly entertaining personality? As you might have guessed by now, I’m talking about Petr Yan. Still, the UFC completely failed with such an unmissable superstar, having no idea how to properly present him. First, let’s take a look at what Yan has to offer in a bit more detail.
Most don’t understand Yan’s incredible run, not only in the UFC, but also in Russian promotion Absolute Championship Akhmat, known at the time as Absolute Championship Berkut. Competing in the most talented division in all of MMA, Yan has always faced a great fighter after a great fighter. He’s currently 16-2, his only flaws being a split decision loss to Magomed Magomedov at the age of 23, avenged a year later, then the famous disqualification loss to Aljimain Sterling in a bout he dominated. Incidentally, Magomedov is now one of the top contenders for Bellator MMA and a top 20 bantamweight who, after losing the rematch to Yan, was only defeated at the start of the year. Yan viciously defeating John Dodson, Jimmie Rivera, Urijah Faber and Jose Aldo, handling Sterling before the stray knee, then passing Cory Sandhagen, can be as good a six-fight run as anyone in the history of the sport. It suffices to compare it with that of the greatest fighters in the history of the sport: Fedor Emelianenko has defeated a large number of great heavyweights, but he has not always faced such a high caliber of opposition. There was Yuji Nagata and Wagner da Conceicao Martins mixed with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Mirko Filipovic. An old Tsuyoshi Kosaka and a painfully limited Naoya Ogawa aren’t enough to write home about either. Georges St. Pierre has consistently beaten tough enemies, but guys like Thiago Alves, Dan Hardy, and even Matt Serra just weren’t as good, even for their time, as one of the six names Yan beat. Anderson Silva also had relatively easier touches like James Irvin, Patrick Cote, Travis Lutter and Stephan Bonnar.
What’s most amazing about Yan’s run, however, is how he did it. The Russian does not win these fights with a dominant fight like “GSP” did. He doesn’t take a patient punch-back approach like Silva. No, he just goes after his opponents with a search and kill style on his feet, taking huge risk and blasting himself huge strikes multiple times for it.
Again, this is unheard of. In MMA, even the greatest martial artists who fight in this manner suffer a number of losses. But not Yan. It is unique.
While I haven’t seen all of Yan’s fights, the ones I have, including his nine UFC appearances and four in ACB, were all thrilling. Not just decent tunes, not just entertaining bargains, but sensational and memorable battles, always some of the best on the map and often all year round. Much of this has to do with Yan’s fighting style, mentioned above. When winning decisions it is not using a cautious and focused approach, as even great champions like Israel Adesanya have been forced to lean against very dangerous enemies. No, Yan goes straight into the fire and makes sure that even if an opponent survives the time limit, they will take serious and heavy damage.
Before the disappointing end, Yan’s game against Sterling was shaping up to be one of the greatest title duels of all time. It was a formidable fight between two titans in every fight arena, where Yan had survived Sterling’s scorching start and systematically destroyed his rival, who had seemed untouchable in recent fights.
And yet Yan’s fight against Sandhagen could have been even better. Sandhagen is a huge, striking shift for anyone in the 5-foot-11 division, with a unique blend of speed and power in every shot, from every angle. The only way to clearly defeat Sandhagen was through grappling, which Sterling and even TJ Dillashaw had relied on, although I think Sandhagen deserved the decision in that last encounter. Instead, in an incredible standing duel, Yan proved that it was possible to defeat Sandhagen in a hitting contest. And not just any Sandhagen, but a highly motivated Sandhagen who looked better than ever. You just have to be as incredibly talented and tough as Yan to do it.
Last but not least, Yan outside the cage is a lot of fun. Unlike most Russian fighters, he’s been learning English since signing with the UFC and is fluent enough to crack jokes and show his personality with the language. The trashy conversation between Yan and Sterling was excellent and sparked even more excitement for a fight that was already my most anticipated of 2021. However, there is a big difference between Yan and someone like McGregor in that regard. McGregor has no problem crossing the line into contempt, such as when he insulted religion and Khabib Nurmagomedov’s father, or threatened to kill Dustin Poirier and his wife in their sleep after losing a second time. As Yan himself stated in a recent interview with Sherdog, he understands that there are limits that shouldn’t be violated, like talking about another fighter’s family.
Also unlike McGregor, whose activities outside of the cage involve throwing a cart at a bus full of fighters resulting in multiple injuries, assaulting old men in bars for not wanting his whiskey, or randomly hitting DJs. Italians, to name a few, Yan is not an uncontrollable criminal. On the contrary, he is a dedicated family man and a deeply respectful martial artist. There is no risk that he will shame MMA with his behavior like McGregor or Jon Jones did.
I’m sure some people will accuse me of bias here, since I was born in Russia. Consider, however, that I had no problem writing a column about how Russian MMA pioneer Mikhail Ilyukhin is one of the dirtiest fighters in the sport and a shameful cheat. I care a lot more about the truth than where a fighter comes from.
Why did the UFC fail Yan, who ticks all the boxes? At the most basic level, he doesn’t even know how to present it. Yan is perhaps the most purely technical fighter in MMA history, with perfect form for every punching, kicking, and grappling technique. His understanding of distance is similar to that of a scholar, he can switch between orthodox and left-handed better than anyone I have ever seen, and his consistently high level of focus, absolutely necessary for his dangerous and aggressive form of combat, is breathtaking. .
Yet the one element of Yan’s game and personality that the UFC focuses on is his power. Yes, Yan hits hard, but so do at least 100 other UFC fighters, many in his own weight class. That’s not what makes him special or great, and of course, hearing such generic praise, which the UFC uses for anyone with a few knockouts, most fans go offline.
Whether or not Yan achieves the fame he rightly deserves, he is an extraordinary and wholly original champion at the peak of his career. Enjoy it while you can.