Thirteen months after their title bout ended via disqualification, the bantamweight title rivalry between Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan appears to be only getting started.
Sterling (21-3) relied on his grappling early and held off a late rally by Yan (16-3) in the championship rounds to defend his 135-pound title on Saturday via split decision in the co-main event of UFC 273 in Jacksonville. Two judges scored it 48-47 in favor of Sterling while the third had the same score for Yan, the interim titleholder. CBS Sports scored it 47-47.
Sterling, 32, improved dramatically from his last outing when he began to fade late at UFC 259 before an illegal knee to a downed opponent from Yan in Round 4 gave "The Funk Master" the same bantamweight title his critics never gave him full credit for winning.
The difference in the second fight was that Sterling, who was coming off neck surgery, largely used Yan's aggression against him and built an early lead through his constant threat of submissions after taking Yan's back.
"I know I came in here very highly doubted. People wrote me off because of my last performance, but that was a big hiccup," Sterling said. "Yan is dangerous and brings it every time and he beat my ass in that fifth round but this is what this is all about."
Yan, 29, appeared lucky to get out of the second round after Sterling, who was relentless in pursuit of takedowns, pulled Yan down and instantly took his back. Although Yan rolled out of a choke attempt by rolling onto his stomach, Sterling was active enough with strikes from behind that it could've been scored a 10-8 round (although none of the three judges did).
Sterling enjoyed similar success in Round 3, although both the threat of submission and the impact of Sterling's ground strikes were far less pronounced.
Yan was much busier to open Round 4 and not only was he much better at keeping his back off the ground, his quick transitions out of trouble led to some sequences of big strikes from top position. The final round featured more of the same, only this time Yan was even more offensive after taking Sterling's back as he closed the round with knees from behind.
"I knew that it was really close but I think I outpointed him," Sterling said.
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Yan, who rebounded from the disqualification loss to outpoint Cory Sandhagen for the interim title, believed he was done wrong on the scorecards.
"I think I won this fight and I got robbed," Yan said through a translator. "I think I won three rounds of the fight. I want a rematch, I want a rematch."
After the win, Sterling called for a fight against a former champion who appeared to welcome the challenge sitting cageside."TJ Dillashaw, where the f--- are you at?" Sterling said. "You are next, motherf---er."