Petr Yan may not have the full UFC bantamweight title but he may have re-established himself Saturday as the best 135-pound fighter in the world.
Yan (16-2), who lost his UFC title by disqualification to Aljamain Sterling in a March fight that ended due to an illegal knee, was thorough and powerful in a unanimous decision over Cory Sandhagen to capture the interim bantamweight title. Yan secured an undisputed championship rematch with Sterling, who continues to recover from nerve damage in his neck that required surgery.
The UFC 267 co-main event, held inside Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, was a thrilling chess match of the highest level between two fighters with pound-for-pound talent. But Yan was more powerful and precise throughout, taking home judges' scores of 49-46 on all three cards.
CBS Sports also scored it 49-46 for Yan in the first title bout in UFC history between two fighters coming off defeats.
"Cory is a well-deserving opponent," Yan said. "I knew at some point it was going to be a fight and I knew I would change the course of the fight."
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Sandhagen (14-4), who has now lost to the top three bantamweights in the world, controlled an entertaining opening round by switching stances and beating Yan to the punch with volume striking and a focus on leg strikes. But Yan, a 28-year-old native of Russia, made a perfect set of adjustments in Round 2 by establishing a series of hard body kicks and countering with heavier punches.
"I knew it was going to be his game plan to move a lot," Yan said. "He's a tall guy who moves well but our game plan was to beat him to the punch."
Yan broke open a close Round 3 by landing spinning backfist to the chin, which was followed by a left hook that floored Sandhagen. Yan added some clean punches on the ground from top position.
Although Sandhagen, 29, remained game in the championship rounds, his bursts of activity were typically countered by Yan's heavier blows. Yan also did well to stuff Sandhagen's attempts to change the momentum by bringing the fight to the ground.
"He is a hell of a fighter, man. He was better tonight," Sandhagen said. "I have nothing else to say. I always say that I want to fight the best in the world because I know that is going to make me the best I can be. I am grateful to get to fight the best tonight and I will learn from it and come back and beat him the second time."
Although UFC president Dana White said during fight week that the winner of this interim title bout would face Sterling next, Yan was just as interested in a matchup against former 135-pound champion TJ Dillashaw, who is recovering from injury suffered in his split-decision win over Sandhagen in July following a two-year suspension for a failed drug test.
"It's very nice the second time becoming the champion in Abu Dhabi. It has become like my home right now," Yan said. "Everyone knows I am the real champion. I am here and ready to fight anyone. It will either be Dillashaw or Sterling."