UFC 259 will feature a bantamweight title fight where strategies won’t be hidden with smoke and mirrors. Champion Petr Yan will be looking to take Aljamain Sterling’s head off with his fists. And the “Funk Master” will be looking to get “No Mercy” to the mat and tie him in knots. However, every fight starts on the feet, and “Aljo’s” route to championship status will require a great deal of effort and cunning since his Russian counterpart knows that’s his best route to the W. With that in mind, I sought out several talented mixed martial artists with a gift for grappling. Hoping to gain insight into what Sterling will need to do to secure the gold, using the skills that brought him to this championship dance.
Cody Stamann: ‘The longer it’s on their feet, the worse things will be for Sterling’
Thirteenth ranked bantamweight Cody Stamann is a well-rounded fighter, but his wrestling abilities have always been a strength of his overall game. He’s shown this in the UFC by winning five of eight fights and averaging nearly three and a half takedowns per 15 minutes (via UFC.com). He also has a firsthand account of Sterling’s grappling talents after being submitted by him in their 2018 matchup. However, the biggest question for Stamann isn’t how effective Sterling’s wrestling can be on Saturday night, but what’s the level of Yan’s takedown defense.
“After watching Sterling and Yan’s last few fights, I feel if Yan fights the way he has his last couple, Sterling could beat him on the outside, change levels and get in on a good shot,” Stamann told MyMMANews. “Problem is Yan hasn’t fought anyone with high-level wrestling, so it’s hard to know how good his defense is. Sterling does his best wrestling on the cage or with a single leg in the open. Yan will be a hard guy to pin on the cage, and a single leg is probably the easiest defense to learn.”
Yan’s lone career loss came during a closely contested 2016 bout with another talented grappler in Magomed Magomedov. However, as much as that might prove Sterling has a clear weakness to exploit, during his UFC run, Yan has stuffed 88% of the takedowns thrown at him. Although “Spartan” admits that Sterling is ”tough to hit,” he knows if the recent stats hold, a mostly kickboxing affair could be trouble for the challenger.
“On the feet, Yan is more technical and throws a lot harder. The longer it’s on their feet, the worse things will be for Sterling,” he said. “But if he can impose his wrestling on Yan, he will be the UFC champ.”
Christian Lee’s takedown suggestion: ‘Body lock in open waters’
ONE Championship lightweight titleholder Christian Lee has been a beast using his wrestling to win 14 of 17 professional bouts—all in the ONE cage. The 22-year-old understands as well as anyone that rushing in with a shot is not going to cut it at the highest levels of competition. Meaning one must come with a nuanced grappling strategy to avoid stuffed takedowns, and being turned into a PEZ dispenser by a power striker like Yan.
“I feel that in order for Aljamain Sterling to get the win over Petr Yan, he will have to make Yan respect his striking by landing a few big shots,” Lee told MyMMANews. “Then set up his takedowns by mixing in his strikes, to his takedown entries. From there he will have to be able to control Yan on the ground, and out scramble him when he pops up.”
For a man with a striking accuracy rate of 51% in the UFC, working into his grappling with punches and kicks seems like a good start. Nevertheless, Yan will be waiting for the takedown to come. Considering that, the reigning ONE champion suggested a very specific technique Sterling may want to employ to get the champions back on the mat.
“I think that Sterling’s best chance of taking him down will be a body lock in open waters,” Lee says. “I feel that Yan will be well prepared for shots against the cage, but a well-timed body lock entry can be almost impossible to stuff.”
Gerald Meerschaert: ‘If I had to put money down, I’m on Aljo’
Having earned 23 submissions in 31 career wins, UFC veteran Gerald Meerschaert knows the strategic dance one must play to effectively use a deadly ground game. He feels Sterling has everything it takes to become the next UFC bantamweight champion. However, to do so “GM3” believes the challenger needs to be mindful of when he chooses to shoot his takedowns, as well as where he leaves his head when mixing in his striking. If he can do that, the UFC middleweight sees the fight playing out much like a certain welterweight title fight from UFC 94.
“Aljo has to be very careful and modify his head movement a little bit. He throws his strikes from unique angles because he can shoot off that. However, with a guy like Yan, if you dip too far to one side and you don’t throw heat behind it, you’re kind of leaving yourself open, especially for kicks. Yan’s got really fast kicks,” Meerschaert told MyMMANews. “Sometimes [Sterling] shoots from kind of far away. If I was in his corner I would say don’t worry about shots unless you see something wide open. Because Yan’s going to be looking for low kicks and knees. Pump fake the shot, but come up to the upper body with the idea to run him up against the cage, and make him stay in a grappling clinch. Just smother him. Get him tired. Drag and hang on him. It’s going to be like when GSP fought BJ Penn [the second time]. A lot of taking him to the cage. Tiring him out. Taking away his offensive weapons and putting hi in a position where he can’t get off. Then he’s going to get more frustrated, along with tired, and he’s going to open up, swing bigger and that will open up easier takedowns later on in the fight. If I had to put money down, I’m on Aljo.”