Former Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) Bantamweight kingpin, Petr Yan, looks to rebound from consecutive losses opposite grinding wrestler, Merab Dvalishvili, this Saturday (March, 11, 2023) at UFC Las Vegas inside The Theater at Virgin Hotels in Las Vegas, Nevada.
Yan is in a strange position, having lost two straight split-decisions. He’s been pushed from the title mix as a result of those defeats ... that’s the nature of combat sports. However, Yan arguably matches up better with the entire Top 10 than anyone else at 135 pounds, and he very easily could still be undefeated in the Octagon with slightly better decision-making or smarter judges.
He’s really darn good. The problem, however, is that he’s now multiple wins away from another title shot, and ranked Bantamweight wins don’t come easily for anyone. Fighting “down” against men like Dvalishvili is a risky endeavor, and success is far from guaranteed.
Let’s take a closer look at the former champion’s skill set ahead of his first main event:
A Master of Sport in boxing, Yan has one of the most effective styles of striking in MMA. He lives up to his “No Mercy” moniker, building momentum as fights wear on and really putting the hurt on his opposition.
Yan is a pressure fighter to his core. Lots of fighters try to drown their opponents with relentless forward movement, but few are able to do so as effectively and safely as Yan. This comes down to a few factors, including Yan’s ability to fight fluidly from both stances, cut off the cage with small steps, and maintain good defensive movement and posture while advancing.
The latter trait is probably the most unique to Yan. I don’t want to imply that Yan never over-extends when punching or shifting — he does. However, Yan is better able than really anyone else to pressure opponents while keeping his guard high. Defensive head movement is built into his game, as he’s proactively taking his head off the center line after firing before his opponent even responds. In addition, Yan is a big proponent of ending exchanges by putting his hands on his opponent, snuffing out their potential counters and allowing potential dirty boxing follow ups.
Really, there isn’t a single strike in Yan’s arsenal of two stances that doesn’t land hard. He’s got a stiff jab from both sides, can blast power kicks to any target from either stance, and can strike well regardless of distance. It’s rare to see a fighter apply the fundamentals so soundly from both stances — most MMA fighters have a few tricks they like from the opposite stance, and that’s it.
Take, for example, Yan’s fight against Jose Aldo. Still a tremendous kickboxer himself, Aldo did give Yan’s pressure boxing approach trouble with his low kicks, as he was targeting Yan’s lead left leg. To continue applying the pressure without giving up that weapon, Yan went to Southpaw, his non-dominant stance, and then beat Aldo half-to-death from that position. How often do you see a fighter doubling up with hooks to the body and head from their non-dominant stance?
Perhaps the most standout feature of Yan’s kickboxing is his jab-cross-shift cross, where he’ll throw a 1-2 from Orthodox then shift into Southpaw as he throws his left once again (now a Southpaw cross rather than jab). This is a combination that has become synonymous with MMA. Great fighters like Max Holloway and Dustin Poirier have quite literally made careers out of their technique.
Yan throws it differently than everyone else (GIF). Typically, that shift cross is mostly for show, a punch that distract the opponent and allow the shift to happen. Poirier, for example, commonly throws jab-cross-shift cross THEN swings for the fences with an overhand or 1-2 from his new stance (Orthodox in Poirier’s case). In Yan’s case, the shifting cross actually carries a ton of power, and he’s stunned everyone from Urijah Faber to Sean O’Malley with the shot (GIF). He commits harder, and he’ll switch between throwing the shot as an overhand and straighter cross.
Like Poirier and Holloway, Yan can still follow up with power punches too. Being able to double up power shots on both sides from two stances makes him extremely effective at herding foes along the fence into brutal collisions (GIF).
He may well be the best at this combo on the roster.
Another example of Yan’s shifting came into play against Cory Sandhagen. The two were having a very closely contested striking battle really until the moment that Yan dropped him (GIF). When Yan overcommitted on a hook, he allowed the momentum to carry him through into a spinning backfist. That shot didn’t really land, but it moved him closer to Sandhagen, and the immediate big swing afterward did connect. It’s not a sequence that you’ll find in a striking textbook, but it’s a great example of Yan’s fluidity in both stances paying off against an expert striker.
One of the interesting aspects of Yan’s game is his counter kicking. Often, Yan is standing his ground with a high guard, gaining reads on his opponent. After gaining a sense of timing, Yan will wait until his opponent’s combination ends and fire back a power kick (GIF). Often, he sneaks a kick to the ribs, taking advantage of the simple fact that elbows rarely return to the body in perfect form.
Finally, Yan is a real mauler in close distance exchanges (GIF). His boxing background has combined with his training in Thailand to produce a varied and brutal assault. Yan can glue his hands to his chin and dirty box, slipping his weight and firing combinations of body shots, usually to the head and body. He can load up and uppercut and let it rip from close range like a boxer, rather than the more typical lunging MMA variety we often see.
However, Yan can also tie up in the more typical Muay Thai fashion. He’s nasty with knees in close distance, and he’ll even jump into the knee from short distance. If his opponent drops their hands to block the knee, Yan will turn over elbows, attempt a brief trip, then go right back to slamming knees. Repeatedly, Yan has proven himself deadly on the break, and there’s no better example than when he converted a missed knee into high kick as Faber tried to pull away from the clinch.
Yan is wildly good at wrestling for someone with no real wrestling background.
Yan has fought Sterling twice, the best wrestler in the division and reigning champion. What’s hilarious about that fact is that Yan has pretty consistently outwrestled him! It’s true that Sterling was able to secure back control twice in their rematch — which equates to two rounds won, because Sterling is a master backpack — but Yan has scored more takedowns overall and finished both fights in top position.
Still, Yan’s wrestling style is difficult to define, a combination of strong fundamentals and funky Thai throws. Any time Yan catches a leg, for example, his opponent is in for a tough time. Yan is quite good at elevating the leg to his own ear then kicking out the base leg (GIF). Against Aldo, he took the caught leg across his own body and then when for an inside trip on the far leg, a unique flair that effortlessly dumped one of the best defensive wrestlers of all time.
Call it a choke slam or Osoto Gari, I don’t understand how Yan so effortless managed to throw Sterling to the canvas with this trip (GIF). It’s not something we see often, and Sterling’s fatigue surely played a factor, but this is simply beautiful technique on display.
Yan has proven himself surprisingly effective from a pair of more classic wrestling positions as well. From the rear waist lock, for example, Yan has a lot of good options. He’s more than capable of the classic mat return, but Yan again has shown himself well above-average at kicking out an ankle (GIF) to more easily floor his opponent. Against Faber, Yan twice dropped to one knee and created a table with his other leg, pulling Faber over his extended leg to drag him to the canvas in what’s sometimes called a cross scissor trip (GIF).
Lastly, he shot doubles along the fence quite nicely against the taller man in Sean O’Malley.
Defensively, Yan’s wrestling reactions have come such a long way since his first few fights. Sterling’s successful takedown percentage against Yan is awful, it’s just that his control after those few successes was enough to make up for it.
Yan does really good work with his hand fighting. When sprawling, he commonly uses forearm frames to push off the head and gain control, either to land illegal knees or circle towards the back. Along the fence, Yan adjusted really well to Sterling’s success early in the rematch, focusing more on fighting two-hands-on-one and forcing Sterling to try to wrestle with one arm.
Yan has a single guillotine win on his pro record, but I cannot recall him every coming particularly close to a submission inside the Octagon. Fortunately, his defense has held up as well, as he never appeared particularly threatened in all the time that Sterling controlled his back.
Could Yan have done better in escaping Sterling’s body triangle? Maybe, but it’s hard to hold that against him. Sterling is a master and a specialist from that position. He’s got the perfect body type to really lock in the triangle, and he literally does specific exercises to train his ability to squeeze from that position.
Yan being unable to escape that position is more indicative of Sterling’s expertise than a flaw.
Recent losses aside, Yan remains one of the best fighters on the planet. He’s incredibly skilled and naturally ruthless, a vicious combination that is a tough match up for any Bantamweight on the roster.
Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.
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