Aljamain Sterling is the new UFC bantamweight champion of the world, and it happened in one of the most unimaginable ways possible. Sterling defeated defending champion Petr Yan via disqualification after an illegal knee in the fourth round at UFC 259 in Las Vegas. The result was not satisfactory, even to the winner after plenty of entertaining action.
Sterling came out of the gate fast, pressuring with strikes and takedown attempts from the opening bell. As Sterling continued pressuring, Yan patiently waited for openings that would come as the fight wore on. Yan showcased some impressive grappling skills, with many expecting that Sterling would be the stiffest test the champion had ever faced in the grappling arena.
The finish came in the fourth round, with Sterling having clearly tired and Yan coming on strong, landing the harder strikes and winning what few meaningful grappling exchanges there were. As Sterling was attempting to score a takedown, he was stuck on the ground and considered down with a knee touching the mat. Yan then let loose a blatantly illegal knee, crushing Sterling to the face and knocking him to the mat despite referee Mark Smith telling Yan that Sterling was a "downed fighter."
After Sterling was checked by the referee and the doctor, he was determined to not be capable of continuing. As the foul was deemed intentional, Sterling was awarded the disqualification victory, and the bantamweight championship.
The new champ was highly emotional after the decision, weeping on the mat before the decision was announced, and again after being awarded the belt. Before leaving the Octagon, Sterling removed the championship belt from his waist and dropped it on the canvas.
"Everything I worked for to this point and to have the fight go like that," Sterling said after the fight. "I thought the fight was very close, I thought I was down two rounds. That's not the way I wanted to win. That's not the way I envisioned this. I just took the belt off. I was trying to continue even being like that, I was in a bad shape and it would just have been ego taking over and just to get further punishment. The ref told me I was down. I don't know. I understand that there is some heat, some bad blood a little bit, but it's all rivalry…"
Sterling is the first fighter in UFC history to win a championship via disqualification.
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Adding some extra intrigue to the ending, despite Yan seeming to have established himself as the man with the momentum, Sterling was ahead 29-28 on one of the official scorecards after three rounds. Yan was up 29-28 on the other two. The fight, prior to the stoppage, was still very much up for grabs.
"I wanted to continue. The fight was fast paced, it was a lot of action, I know the fans were enjoying that," Sterling said. "This was potentially going to be one of the fights of the year or one of the greatest bantamweight fights in history for the title. The action was nonstop until that point."
During the UFC broadcast, newly retired UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov said that one of Yan's cornermen, speaking Russian, told Yan to throw the knee, at which point the fighter unleashed the illegal blow.
Yan posted on social media after the fight apologizing for the illegal strike that he claims he didn't mean to throw. "I made a big mistake and I paid for it," Yan said.
UFC president Dana White said they plan to meet in the coming week to try and book the rematch whenever Sterling has been medically cleared. He also believed Yan threw the knee intentionally.
"I think it was a lot of fatigue and frustration. The thing is, he was starting to turn it on," White said. "He was starting to win the fight and absolutely, positively win that fight. You could see Aljamain Sterling was breaking. Why did he throw that knee? I have no idea."