It's a debate the UFC has never had to deal with before largely because it had never happened. Until now.
Is it fair for a championship to change hands as a result of a disqualification?
As it pertains to the letter of the law in the UFC rulebook for all fights, the correct result played out Saturday when Aljamain Sterling was awarded a victory after reigning bantamweight champion Petr Yan was disqualified in Round 4 for an illegal knee to a downed opponent. That doesn't mean it felt like the right call.
Seeing a concussed Sterling (20-3), who was badly fading and losing on two scorecards before the illegal strike, rewarded by being affixed with the 135-pound championship simply felt wrong because he didn't earn it.
Even though it was later found out that Yan's corner gave him an ill-advised green light to release the knee while Sterling knelt in front of him -- which was relayed to the UFC broadcast team after Khabib Nurmagomedov overheard Yan's corner cage side -- doesn't change a thing. Yan's foul was a horrendous mistake at the most inopportune time.
Yet it seemed somewhat apropos that the one person who benefitted most from the regrettable outcome to this much-anticipated title bout between two prime studs was the most reluctant to even remotely enjoy the moment.
Should the UFC need any form of influence as to whether the rules regarding title changes in this scenario might need challenging, look no further than Sterling's reaction. Despite being hit with an insanely flush knee to the face, Sterling never lost consciousness and made an extended effort to try and clear the cobwebs for the fight to continue because the true competitor within him refused to accept a title in that fashion.
Sterling went on to drop the belt in the center of the cage after it was wrapped around his waist. Should he receive an immediate rematch as a result of the foul? There's no question about it. But even Sterling knew better than to truly accept the accomplishment.
Rules like this are made as harsh as possible for an important reason -- to avoid the potential fiasco of a pro wrestling-like ending in which a reigning champion might intentionally foul as a means to retain a title at all costs. But it's difficult to argue that this is any less of a fiasco considering how much it alters the record books to have Sterling named champion despite not actually defeating the one before him.
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Although this is the first time it has technically happened in the UFC, the promotion had an opportunity to consider a moment like this was possible after Jon Jones' light heavyweight title defense against Anthony Smith in 2019. Smith, who was shutout in a dominant effort by Jones, was hit with a similar strike late yet chose not to take a disqualification win despite the tease of what comes with it -- the chance to become champion and force an immediate rematch for big money.
In hindsight, both the UFC and Jones dodged a huge bullet. In the case of Smith, he told the referee he was physically able to continue. Sterling tried the same, of course, but was overruled by the cage side doctor and referee after proving unable to regain his balance while kneeling.
In both cases, the decision should never come down to the fighter in the first place, especially not when it's obvious they have been concussed. And furthermore, UFC 259 proved the rule needs to be changed altogether.
Even if the right move would be to strip Yan of the title given it was his mistake before scheduling an immediate rematch (helped by the fact that Yan was winning), it would be a better scenario for everyone that the title not change hands and that true victory must still be earned.
Sterling's reaction was the lone piece of evidence UFC needs.