Saturday's stacked UFC 259 card features a superfight between champions in the main event with the greatest female fighter in the history of the spot putting her skills on display in the co-main event. The first of the three title fights on the card, however, may be the best of all with bantamweight champion Petr Yan defending his title against top contender Aljamain Sterling -- a throwback fight, stylistically, highlighting a battle between striker and grappler.
Yan blasted his way to the championship with four knockouts in his seven UFC fights. He capped off his run to the title by stopping former featherweight champion Jose Aldo with punches in the fifth round of their UFC 251 war to capture the vacant bantamweight championship.
Sterling is on the far opposite end of the spectrum with eight submission victories and only two knockout finishes in his pro career. Sterling's entire gameplan nearly every fight revolves around control and grappling. At UFC 250, Sterling faced Cory Sandhagen with fan and media expectations of a grueling fight where Sterling would be in danger throughout. Instead, it took Sterling less than 90 seconds to take Sandhagen down and secure a rear-naked choke to secure his title shot.
The approach each man has taken to even speaking about the fight speaks to the clear differences in approach. While Yan has promised "a very violent finish," Sterling has spoken to his more methodical approach.
"I can shoot 100 times, he can stop it 100 times," Sterling told MMAjunkie. "I get that one takedown, that 101st attempt, I get him down on his back, it's gonna be a long night for that guy. That's what I honestly truly do believe. He's good on the ground, I know he can hurt me, I know what the threats are but, at the end of the day, he has to connect. I just need to get my hands on him and it'll be a bad night for him."
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The sport has come a long way since grappler vs. wrestler matchups were represented by Art Jimmerson wearing a single boxing glove against jiu-jitsu wizard Royce Gracie. Both Yan and Sterling have skills in every area of the game, even if it's clear where each man wants the fight to take place.
Sterling has been caught by heavy strikers before. In December 2017, he was hurt early by Marlon Moraes before being knocked out cold by a head kick. That was the lone stoppage loss of Sterling's career.
Yan, meanwhile, has not faced an opponent in the Octagon with the skills to execute the gameplan Sterling is sure to bring on Saturday night. That does not appear to be giving the champion any pause ahead of his first title defense.
"Aldo is one of the toughest fighters in MMA," Yan told MMA Fighting. "He punches hard, he has an unbreakable heart, he's a very, very strong fighter. Sterling, on the other hand, I don't know what he's hoping for when he fights me. Is he hoping just to work his jiu-jitsu on me? I don't understand. I work and train with black belts so it's not a problem for me.
"I'm training to break him and destroy him. I can't see what he's going to offer me and I'm determined to prove to everyone that I deserve to be champion. I'm gonna defend this belt for a long time."