As friends and teammates from Long Island shipped Aljamain Sterling from his Las Vegas home to the UFC fighter’s hotel on Tuesday to start his quarantine for Saturday night’s title fight, Merab Dvalishvili gave him clear instructions.
"You’re only allowed to come here with the belt," Dvalishvili told his Serra-Longo teammate.
There was Dvalishvili, Al Iaquinta, Steve Lee and others kicking the Uniondale-raised Sterling out of his own home and telling him not to come back if he didn’t win the bantamweight title from champion Petr Yan at UFC 259.
Sterling accomplished the task, though not the way anyone could have predicted, imagined or dreamed.
Late in the fourth round, Yan landed an illegal knee to the face of the downed Sterling. Referee Mark Smith paused the bout, and after several minutes, the doctor waved off the fight. Smith ruled the fight a disqualification, which resulted in Sterling’s being named the new bantamweight champion.
"Everything I worked for to this point, and to have the fight go like that," Sterling said. "I thought the fight was very close. I was down two rounds. That’s not the way I wanted to win. That’s not the way I envisioned this. That’s why I threw the belt down."
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. He let up on the pressure, and as Sterling pulled his head back a bit with his knee still on the floor, Yan threw a vicious right knee to Sterling’s head. The shot sent Sterling onto his back.
"I was too focused on his hands and not on his legs. Obviously, I didn’t mean to do an illegal shot," the Russian Yan said through a translator at his post-fight news conference. "No I didn’t realize it. For a while, I thought I did everything right."
When the doctor came in to look at Sterling, the referee could be heard telling the doctor that he told Yan (15-2, 7-1) that Sterling was down. Smith told the doctor that he likely would rule it an intentional foul. The unified rules of mixed martial arts prevent a fighter from kneeing a downed opponent.
"I was in bad shape. It would have just been ego taking over," Sterling said about trying to continue the fight.
While Sterling was in the cage, he tried to get up a few times but stumbled each time. He was able to sit up for a few minutes but then had to lie back down. The doctor asked him if he could see straight. "A little," Sterling said.
Yan was asked after the fight if he thought Sterling could have continued the fight with 31 seconds left in the fourth round.
"I don’t know. He knows better than me. But I think everyone saw that I was winning this fight," Yan said. "I think him as a fighter, he also doesn’t want to accept the belt this way. And if he’s going to be healthy I hope we are going to have a rematch."
Sterling said on Twitter after the fight that he wants to fight Yan again.
Later in the broadcast on ESPN+ pay-per-view, they showed the highlight of the illegal knee with audio of Yan talking to his cornermen. At one point, Yan asked "Can I kick?" A "Yes" could be heard in response to Yan's question. After the knee was thrown, it appeared one cornerman reacted positively to the shot and another cornerman reacted negatively to it.
"I didn’t do it intentionally," Yan said. "There’s a belt on the line and to make this mistake [un]intentionally, it’s unacceptable."
Sterling, 31, became the third Long Islander to win a UFC title. East Meadow’s Matt Serra won the welterweight title in 2007 against Georges St-Pierre and Baldwin’s Chris Weidman beat Anderson Silva for the UFC middleweight title in 2013. All three were trained and cornered by Ray Longo. He also became the first UFC champion with Jamaican roots, as both of his parents were born there before emigrating to the U.S.
Sterling opened the bout pressuring Yan and putting on an aggressive pace. He outworked Yan on volume in the first round, but Yan was able to land a straight right that knocked down Sterling. He popped right back up, though, and continued his relentless attack for the rest of that round and into the second round.
Yan, who was on a 10-fight winning streak, was able to assert himself more in the second and third rounds. He landed more punches and it seemed as if Sterling’s pace began to slow down. The judges had the bout scored 29-28, 29-28, 28-29 in favor of Yan through the first three rounds. He likely was en route to winning the fourth round as well before the illegal knee.
During the official decision, Longo and Smith each held one of Sterling’s arms to be sure he was OK and could stand up to hear the call. He looked dismayed as UFC president Dana White put the belt around his waist.
"Not the way I wanted to win," Sterling said. He then threw the belt on the floor and went to the floor to let out his emotions.
White said after the fight that he wants to do the rematch "soon as possible." He also said Sterling was transported to a nearby hospital and was deemed OK.
"I think that there’s a lot of fatigue, frustration," White said about how the fight ended. "It was a good fight. But the thing is, [Yan] was turning it on. He was starting to win the fight. He was starting to absolutely, positively take control of that fight. He was winning. You could see Aljamain Sterling breaking. Why you throw that knee, I couldn’t tell you."
UFC bantamweight championship history
Who has held the UFC bantamweight title, for how long and how many times they successfully defended it.
Dominick Cruz: 2 title defenses, 1,117 days
Renan Barao: 1 title defense, 2 interim title defenses, 138 days as undisputed champion
T.J. Dillashaw: 2 title defenses, 603 days
Cruz: 1 title defense, 348 days
Cody Garbrandt: 0 title defenses, 309 days
Dillashaw: 1 title defense, 501 days
Henry Cejudo: 1 title defense, 352 days
Petr Yan: 0 title defenses, 231 days
Aljamain Sterling: 1 day and counting.
Long Island has produced three UFC champions, all of whom were trained by Ray Longo.
Matt Serra, East Meadow, welterweight, beat Georges St-Pierre at UFC 69 on April 7, 2007
Chris Weidman, Baldwin, middleweight, beat Anderson Silva at UFC 162 on July 6, 2013.
Aljamain Sterling, bantamweight, beat Petr Yan via DQ (illegal knee) at UFC 259 on March 6, 2021.