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Aljamain Sterling has UFC bantamweight belt, just not the way he wanted

Aljamain Sterling trains at Longo-Weidman MMA in Garden

Aljamain Sterling trains at Longo-Weidman MMA in Garden City on Saturday, Jan. 30, 2021. Credit: James Escher

In the first few hours of Aljamain Sterling’s championship reign, he was called a great actor and a bad actor and likened to a soccer player pretending to be hurt on social media. To name a few.

It would seem these folks — some of whom are professional UFC fighters — gave no weight to the force with which Petr Yan delivered an illegal knee to the temple of the downed Sterling in their bantamweight championship fight on Saturday night at UFC 259.

That knee with 31 seconds left in the fourth round, ruled an intentional foul by referee Mark Smith, resulted in Yan being disqualified and Sterling being awarded the title.

"That’s not the way I wanted to win," an emotional Sterling said Saturday night in his post-fight interview before going to a Las Vegas hospital for testing. "That’s not the way I envisioned this."

Sunday morning, Sterling answered some of the negativity.

"I never faked out of anything before in my life and I would never start now," Sterling wrote on his Instagram account Sunday morning. "I thought the fight was going to be a 'no contest'."

Sterling, from Uniondale, became the third UFC champion from Long Island, joining East Meadow’s Matt Serra and Baldwin’s Chris Weidman. This was the first time a UFC belt changed hands based on a disqualification.

Sterling (20-3, 12-3 UFC) called for a rematch, both on Saturday in his post-fight interview, again to UFC president Dana White while at the hospital and then again Sunday morning. White said Saturday night that he wants to do the rematch as "soon as possible." Yan (15-2, 7-1) also said he wanted it.

"I look forward to the rematch with Yan," Sterling wrote. "He’s tougher than I expected."

Sterling pushed the pace early, outstriking Yan, 34-14, in the first round. They each landed 24 strikes in the second round. Yan handled Sterling’s pressure well enough to knock down Sterling with a right hand in the first round. Sterling popped right back up, but it was enough of a blow for two judges to give the round to the Russian.

Two judges had the bout scored 29-28 for Yan after three rounds, with the third judge scoring it in favor of Sterling, 29-28. The fourth round likely would have went to Yan if not for the illegal strike.

Sterling (20-3 MMA, 12-3 UFC) had his right knee on the floor, with Yan standing and pushing down on Sterling’s head to hold him in position as he looked to set up his next strike. MMA rules prohibit kicks and knees to the head of a downed opponent. A fighter with a knee down on the canvas is considered a downed opponent.

The referee said "grounded" at around the 40-second mark. Yan’s cornermen could be heard yelling "just punch, just punch."

Audio from the broadcast indicated that Yan then asked his cornermen if he could kick now, and a "Yes" could be heard in response. Yan let up on the pressure, and threw a vicious and illegal right knee to Sterling’s head. The shot sent Sterling onto his back. He struggled for several minutes to get up before the referee stopped the bout.

Some took this moment to take their own verbal shots at Sterling, saying he faked being hurt, or that he wanted out of the fight, or that he played up the severity of the injury. Sterling was transported to a nearby hospital for testing and was released.

"If he was decisively winning, I don’t think anyone has a problem with it," Sterling’s trainer Ray Longo said Sunday about the result of the fight.

Yan apologized for the illegal strike on Twitter, then answered all the questions with a calmness at his post-fight news conference. A short time later, when Sterling’s teammate and fellow UFC bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili posted a photo of him and Sterling at home with the belt, Yan called him a "clown" in Russian and included a clown emoji.

"Please allow me to cleanly knee you in the temple, while you aren’t looking!" Sterling tweeted on Sunday morning. "See how much of a ‘clown’ I would be then. I can admit RD 4 you were starting to land more shots, but the fight was statistically close, despite me fatiguing early. The clown here is you."

New York Sports