For the first three years of her UFC tenure, life was good for Yan Xiaonan. Through six trips to the octagon, Xiaonan was perfect with six unanimous decision victories, and she displayed slick, Sanda-based striking that helped her defeat the likes of Claudia Gadelha, Angela Hill and Karolina Kowalkiewicz. When she squared off against the surging Carla Esparza, a title shot wasn't too far away, and a statement win over the UFC's inaugural strawweight champ would bode well.
At fight's end, however, Esparza was the one making a definitive statement, handing Yan her first UFC loss via second-round TKO. For Yan, although the loss was an obvious setback, it was also an opportunity to take stock of herself and address some weaknesses her overall quality had hidden to that point.
"I recognized my weakness through my last fight," Yan said through a translator. "I know where I should improve my overall skills. Both mentally and physically, I got stronger from the last fight."
Namely, that meant improving her defensive grappling. Granted, few strawweights have the wrestling acumen of Esparza, and Yan's next opponent, Marina Rodriguez, would much rather keep the fight standing at UFC 272.
Regardless, Yan relished the opportunity to have a bit more of an elaborate preparation for this fight compared to her last camp that saw her split time between the UFC Performance Institutes in Shanghai and Las Vegas.
"This time, I had a longer fight camp," she said. "I am more ready than last time. We did analysis on my opponent, where she is dangerous, where she is weaker, and the same with me. Where is my advantage, where is my weakness? So, I'm more ready this time."
While this fight projects as a battle between two high-level strikers, Yan explained the differences between their two approaches succinctly. Yan is more Sanda-based in her kickboxing while Rodriguez comes from a muay Thai background, which means Yan's speed, footwork and ability to pick opponents apart from the outside is key.
Rodriguez comes into the fight in great form, as well. Since her own loss to Esparza in July 2020 (her only professional loss to date), Rodriguez rolled off three straight wins consisting of a second-round stoppage win over Amanda Ribas and a pair of main event victories over Michelle Waterson and Mackenzie Dern.
For Yan, the fight not only presents a chance to bounce back from a loss but also a chance to hop right back into the thick of the title picture at 115 pounds as the division waits to see who Rose Namajunas defends her belt against next. Yan believes the winner of this fight gets that inside track, so coming out victorious is all that matters to her right now.
"I think if I can showcase my level, my skill, I can win this fight," Yan said. "I think the pace of the fight is the key. I'm faster than her, so that's the key to victory for me."
Reflecting on her time in the UFC thus far, Yan said she is reassured about the fact that she is putting in the correct kinds of work and performances to one day become the UFC champion. The shot is within touching distance, and she knows it, so the excitement around this matchup is palpable.
Yan is also eager to fight in front of a capacity crowd for the first time since June 2019. The spotlight is something she relishes, and on a card loaded with intriguing matchups, Yan's bout against Rodriguez is one of the most intriguing with some of the highest stakes, which is just the way she likes it.
"I never thought I could fight in such a huge promotion like the UFC before I got into the UFC," Yan said. "I think the UFC gives me a huge platform to let a lot of people get to know me and make my family, my parents very proud of me."
This story first first published at UFC.com.