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A common theme in my columns is the UFC’s shortcomings when it comes to fighter promotion. One reason I harp on this is that the men and women who suffer severe physical injury in a sport with frequently little pay and grave consequences for their post-retirement lives deserve better. Looking around, even among the UFC champions, few are big stars. Great fighters like Alexander Volkanovski and even Amanda Nunes struggle to attract pay-per-view buys. Many casual fans don't even know they are. A common refrain is that this is at least partially the fault of the fighters. Neither Nunes nor Volkanovski are big, brash talkers like Conor McGregor is. Volkanovski also lacks a bunch of highlight-reel finishes.
But what if I were to tell you that the UFC has a martial artist on its roster who is superlative in every category? Someone who consistently wins against elite competition, crafting an aura of invincibility, who provides all-time great battles every single time he steps into the Octagon, and who has a wildly entertaining personality? As you may have guessed by now, I'm talking about Petr Yan. Yet the UFC has utterly failed with such a can't-miss superstar, having no idea how to properly present him. First, let's run down what Yan offers in slightly more detail.
Most don't understand what an incredible run Yan has had, not only in the UFC, but also in the Russian promotion Absolute Championship Akhmat, known at the time as Absolute Championship Berkut. Competing in the most talent-rich division in all of MMA, Yan has consistently faced great fighter after great fighter. He is currently 16-2, with his lone blemishes being a split decision loss to Magomed Magomedov when he was 23, avenged a year later, and then the famous disqualification loss to Aljimain Sterling in a fight he was dominating. Incidentally, Magomedov is now a top contender in Bellator MMA and a top 20 bantamweight who, after losing the rematch to Yan, didn’t suffer defeat again until earlier this year. Yan viciously beating John Dodson, Jimmie Rivera, Urijah Faber and Jose Aldo, handling Sterling before the errant knee, and then outstriking Cory Sandhagen, may be as great a six-fight run as anyone has had in the sport's history. Just compare it to that of the greatest fighters in the sport's history: Fedor Emelianenko defeated a slew of great heavyweights, but he wasn't consistently facing such a high caliber of opposition. There were Yuji Nagata and Wagner da Conceicao Martins mixed in with Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Mirko Filipovic. An old Tsuyoshi Kosaka and painfully limited Naoya Ogawa aren't much to write home about, either. Georges St. Pierre beat consistently tough foes, but guys like Thiago Alves, Dan Hardy and even Matt Serra just weren't as good, even for their era, as any of the six names Yan defeated. Anderson Silva had some relatively easier touches too, like James Irvin, Patrick Cote, Travis Lutter and Stephan Bonnar.
What's most incredible about Yan's run, however, is how he did it. The Russian isn't winning these fights with dominant wrestling like “GSP” did. He isn't adopting a patient counter-punching approach like Silva. No, he is going right after his opponents with a seek-and-destroy style on the feet, incurring tremendous risk and being blasted with huge strikes on many occasions for it.
Again, this is unprecedented. In MMA, even the greatest martial artists who fight this way have a number of losses. Just not Yan. He's unique.
While I haven't seen every single Yan fight, the ones that I have, including all nine of his UFC appearances and four in ACB, were all thrilling. Not just decent scraps, not just good, entertaining affairs, but sensational, memorable battles, perennially among the best on the card and often the entire year. A lot of that has to do with Yan's fight style, mentioned above. When he wins decisions, it's not by using a cautious, point-fighting approach, as even great champions like Israel Adesanya have been forced to rely upon against very dangerous foes. No, Yan goes straight into the fire and makes sure that even if an opponent survives the time limit, they incur serious, heavy damage.
Prior to the anticlimactic ending, Yan's match against Sterling was shaping up to be one of the greatest title duels ever. It was a tremendous struggle between two titans in every arena of combat, where Yan had survived Sterling's scorching start, and was systematically breaking down his rival, who had looked untouchable in recent fights.
And yet, Yan's fight against Sandhagen might have been even better. Sandhagen is an enormous striking mismatch for anyone in the division at 5-foot-11, with a unique mix of speed and power in every blow, from every angle. The only way to clearly defeat Sandhagen had been through grappling, which is what Sterling and even T.J. Dillashaw had relied upon, though I believe Sandhagen deserved the decision in the latter encounter. Instead, in an amazing standup duel, Yan proved that it was possible to defeat Sandhagen in a striking contest. And not just any Sandhagen, but a tremendously motivated one who looked better than ever. One just has to be as disgustingly talented and tough as Yan to do it.
Last but not least, Yan outside the cage is just a hell of a lot of fun. Unlike most Russian fighters, he has been learning English since signing with the UFC, and is fluent enough to crack jokes and show off his personality with the language. The trash talk between Yan and Sterling was excellent and built up even more excitement for a fight that was already my most anticipated of 2021. However, there is a big difference between Yan and someone like McGregor in this regard. McGregor has no problems crossing the line into the outright despicable, such as when he insulted Khabib Nurmagomedov’s religion and father, or threatened to kill Dustin Poirier and his wife in their sleep after losing a second time. As Yan himself stated in a recent interview with Sherdog, he understands there are boundaries which shouldn't be violated, like talking about another fighter's family.
Also unlike McGregor, whose activities outside the cage involve throwing a dolly at a bus full of fighters resulting in multiple injuries, assaulting old men at bars for not wanting his whiskey, or randomly sucker-punching Italian DJs, to name just a few, Yan is not an out-of-control miscreant. On the contrary, he is a devoted family man and deeply respectful martial artist. There is no risk of him shaming MMA with his behavior the way that McGregor or Jon Jones have.
I'm sure some people will accuse me of bias here, since I was born in Russia. Consider, however, that I had no problems writing a column about how Russian MMA pioneer Mikhail Ilyukhin is one of the sport's dirtiest fighters ever and a disgraceful cheater. I care far more about the truth than where a fighter is from.
Why has the UFC failed Yan, who ticks every box? At the most basic level, it don't even know how to present him. Yan is perhaps the most purely technical fighter in MMA history, with picture-perfect form on every punch, kick, and grappling technique. His understanding of distance is savant-like, he can switch between orthodox and southpaw better than anyone I've ever seen, and his consistently high level of concentration, absolutely necessary for his dangerous, aggressive form of fighting, is jaw-dropping to witness.
Yet, the only element of Yan's game and personality that the UFC focuses on is his power. Yes, Yan hits hard, but so do at least 100 other fighters in the UFC, including many in his own weight class. It's not what makes him special or great, and of course, when hearing such generic praise, which the UFC uses for anyone with a few knockouts, most fans tune out.
Regardless of whether Yan ever achieves the superstardom that he rightly deserves, he is an extraordinary and utterly original champion, in the prime of his career. Appreciate him while you can.