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The Weekly Takedown: Aljamain Sterling ready to finish Petr Yan at UFC 273

Plus Nate Diaz's return appears to be near and we make picks for Cage Warriors 135 and 136 in the latest edition of The Weekly Takedown.

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every Thursday, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Aljamain Sterling on Petr Yan: 'There is a part of me that would really like to hurt this guy'

Next week's UFC 273 will determine the top of the bantamweight division as reigning champion Aljamain Sterling makes his long-awaited first defense against interim champ Petr Yan.

The title bout should settle the score between the two men, which intensified a year ago at UFC 259 when Yan was disqualified after drilling Sterling in the head with a vicious illegal knee strike. That cost Yan the bout and the title. It was also completely unnecessary. With less than a minute remaining in the third round, Yan was on pace to win the fight decisively.

In his next bout, which took place at UFC 267 in October, Yan (16-2 MMA, 8-1 UFC) defeated Cory Sandhagen to win the interim belt. Initially that was intended to be the site of the Sterling-Yan rematch, but neck injuries prevented Sterling (20-3 MMA, 12-3 UFC) from fighting. Now, more than a year since his last fight, Sterling returns to the cage at 273 seeking a chance to do damage on Yan.

"There is a part of me that would really like to hurt this guy, and do it legally," Sterling says. "I think some people think it's so personal that if I saw him, I'd attack him on the street. I'm not that mad at the guy. This is competition. I think he thought he was going to get away with one, but at the end of the day, he got punished by missing out on a big pay-per-view payday for his next fight. Now he has to fight me again, and this time I'm at 100 percent."

Sterling entered last year's bout against Yan on a tear, having won five fights in a row in convincing fashion, especially his dominating 88-second submission victory against Sandhagen. But he struggled mightily against Yan, which he claims is largely because he did not eat before the fight.

"That was a crucial mistake," Sterling says. "It was a blunder, and I learned a lot from it. I'm not going to make that mistake ever again.

"He's a real smart guy. I think he knows he has a real problem on his hands. This is going to be a very difficult fight for him. For me, for some reason, I feel super confident. I think I'm going to look just as good as I did in the Sandhagen fight."

A lot has changed over the last year. Sterling now enters the rematch against Yan as a hefty underdog, which is remarkable considering how they were viewed just over a year ago.

When Sterling defeated Sandhagen in June 2020, he looked unstoppable. At that time, Sterling was ranked second, and Sandhagen, who had just defeated Raphael Assunçao, was fourth. Sterling was coming off a victory against Pedro Munhoz, who had just knocked out former champion Cody Garbrandt. The Sterling-Sandhagen fight could have been an interim title bout, but that distinction was instead given to Yan in his July 2020 fight against José Aldo, which Yan won by TKO. 

Yan boasted less impressive victories than Sterling, defeating Jimmie Rivera after Sterling had already done the same, as well as a retired Urijah Faber. Then Yan fought Aldo, who was coming off a split decision loss against Marlon Moraes. Originally it was Yan who was viewed as the paper champion, so it is interesting to see the manner in which that has all changed over the past year as Yan enters a heavy favorite.

"It is what it is," Sterling says. "This is my opportunity to do it how I want. Let's see who really is the best in the division.

"I can't wait to show what my pace can really do when I have the fuel to go 25 minutes. I'm sparring with two or three guys and really challenging myself. I will gas pedal anyone in there, relentlessly, for 25 minutes. I'm getting my arms heavy with wrestling, then sparring with a striker the last two rounds. I'm prepared for this fight."

Sterling's decade-long, unrelenting pursuit of UFC gold reached a completely unfulfilling ending when he won the title under terrible circumstances. Over the past year, he has come to terms with the way he won – and he knows he is the champion for a reason, which he will solidify at 273.

"It was not easy to enjoy the title win," Sterling says. "My best friend said it best when he was at the house and gave me the belt. He told me to repeat the words, ‘I'm a UFC champion.' He was telling me I put the work in and I earned my spot. When I look at it from that perspective, it made it a lot easier not to hang my head.

"I'm still not happy about the way I won. This is a very difficult sport. I acknowledge that the tide had turned tremendously and he was coming on strong. I botched that whole entire training camp in one day on the day of the fight with my nutrition. Now I have a chance to go out there and right the ship."

What should happen next for Nate Diaz?

Nate Diaz expressed his frustration this past week via social media, imploring the UFC to get him a fight as soon as possible – or to go ahead and release him.

The tweet is positive news for fight fans. Diaz (20-13 MMA, 15-11 UFC) knows he is not getting his release, and he likely doesn't even want one. He is angling for something and, clearly, does not feel he is being heard by Hunter Campbell, who is UFC's executive vice president and the chief business officer, and Dana White. Using history as our guide, every time Diaz gets noisy like this, he typically has a fight being booked. And clearly he wants a fight. Even though he is no longer one of the UFC's most elite fighters, Diaz remains an incredible draw – for ticket sales and pay-per-view buys.

Dustin Poirier makes sense as a Diaz opponent. That bout would represent a huge fight for Poirier, who is currently out of the mix for the lightweight title after losing to reigning champ Charles Oliveira. It would also allow to put an end to any talk of stepping in the cage with Colby Covington, a fight with far more risk involved than any potential reward.

Covington is seeking a big name to fight, and Poirier certainly fits that description. But they compete in different weight classes. Taking a fight at 170 against Covington would be a real gamble for Poirier. It is an example of clout-chasing for Covington, which isn't necessarily a bad move for him, as Poirier represents the biggest name he could have a chance of beating instead of challenging someone who is actually in the upper echelon of his division. Now the same argument could be made with Poirier, as Diaz has fought his past five bouts at welterweight – but he formerly did compete in the lightweight division. And, unlike Covington, Poirier holds enough equity to make this bout a reality.

But back to the original point: Diaz's return is near. And that is great news for fight fans.

The Pick 'Em Section:

After an extremely entertaining slate of fights last weekend, the focus this weekend is on Cage Warriors 135 and 136, which take place over the next two days on UFC Fight Pass.

Cage Warriors 135 welterweight main event: Daniel Skibiński vs. Justin Burlinson

  • Pick: Burlinson

Cage Warriors 135 middleweight bout: Hugo Pereira vs. Matthew Bonner

  • Pick: Bonner

Cage Warriors 135 bantamweight bout: Edward Walls vs. Liam Gittins

  • Pick: Gittins

Cage Warriors 136 middleweight main event: Djati Mélan vs. Christian Leroy Duncan

  • Pick: Duncan

Cage Warriors 136 flyweight bout: Aaron Aby vs. Gerardo Fanny

  • Pick: Fanny

Last week: 4-1

2022 record: 40-15

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