Exclusive: Ahead of UFC 259, Petr Yan talks about defending his Bantamweight Championship title against Aljamain Sterling
It's been nearly a year since Russian MMA champion, Petr Yan, stepped into the octagon. It was on July 12, 2020, that he defeated UFC Featherweight Champion José Aldo with a technical knockout in the fifth round for the vacant Bantamweight Championship title. Since that phenomenal match, his fans and followers have been waiting to see him back in the ring.
Next weekend, on March 6 (the morning of March 7 in India), Petr aka No Mercy will be defending his Bantamweight Championship title against Aljamain Sterling aka Funk Master at UFC 259 in Las Vegas. There’s not one but several reasons why this is one of the most-awaited matches. The 28-year-old is among the most bankable fighters. Within a span of two years with the UFC, he made a mark by defeating José, a Brazilian, who is one of the most seasoned fighters and is known as the greatest featherweight champion in mixed martial arts history. Petr won the title with his quick and impeccable movements although his start was a little staggered.
Dana White, President of the UFC had announced in October last year that No Mercy will defend his title against the Funk Master before the end of the year. However, with COVID-19, the face-off kept getting delayed. Now that the date is announced, everyone is excited, also because Aljamain is a tough opponent, having won 19 out of the 22 matches that he has fought, and Petr will have to put up a strong front.
But the Russian had been prepping for this match all of last year, and is currently training at the American Top Team in Coconut Creek in Florida. Even before he got back to America, No Mercy, who was in Dagestan, Russia, didn’t stop training, despite extreme weather conditions. An Instagram post of him running in -19 degrees Celsius in Russia during the month of January garnered quite a lot of attention. So it looks like the champ has given it his all. In an interview with MMA Fighting in February this year, Petr had said, “I am not satisfied with just winning the UFC Bantamweight title. I plan on holding the title for a long, long time, while also hoping to mix things up a bit. It will be my first title defense against Aljamain and I am geared to go all out for that fight. I’m training to break him and destroy him. I can’t see what he’s going to offer me and I’m determined to prove to everyone that I deserve to be the champion. I have no doubt in my mind, that I’m going to beat him in every aspect and I believe that these thoughts are materialising. Whatever you think becomes real. I just need to be focused, cold-blooded and go forward to get this thing done.”
This steely determination is what gets him wins. It’s also his backstory and life off-the-ring that seems to have contributed to his grit. In an exclusive interview with Indulge, Petr spoke about his journey as an MMA fighter, stint with the UFC and what keeps him going. Excerpts:
Within two years of competing in the UFC you claimed the Bantamweight Gold. That’s quite a feat. What has your strategy been?
My strategy always stays the same — work hard and believe in yourself. It wasn’t easy but I was able to capture the UFC belt only two years after my debut, I had seven fights, I was always accepting the challenges and I was ready for all opportunities that came my way. I was focused on my goal to win the belt. I knew it won’t be easy winning against Jose, so I had to stay focused and be cold-blooded through the whole fight.
Your parents didn’t really want you to take up fighting sport as a career but today you are one of the most respected fighters globally. Who introduced you to the sport and who was your biggest influence? I followed the footsteps of my older brother who was pursuing boxing. At first, he didn’t want to take me with him to the training, so I had to secretly follow him and sneak into the class. Only after I won my first competition a few weeks later, he admitted to the coach that I’m his brother and that’s where my entire journey began.
From street fighting to winning the UFC Bantamweight Championship, you have come a long way... what has this journey taught you? How have you evolved?
The biggest lesson I learned through my journey is that you have to always believe in yourself, no matter what adversities you are facing. If you won’t believe in yourself, who else will? All the experiences I had in my life brought me to where I am at now.
The Bantamweight division is one of the most stellar rosters, and you are the hottest fighter on the roster...
I believe 135 is the most exciting division in UFC at the moment and I can’t wait to clean out the whole division and rule it for a long time. I want to win each fight that comes my way and stay on top as much as possible.
What do you think of Aljamain Sterling?
Sterling deserves to fight for the belt, he is on a good streak. That’s exactly the opponent that I wanted — a legitimate contender. But I will show him that I’m on a different level.
Do you have any superstitions before a fight? What goes on in your mind just before the fight and while you are fighting?
I don’t have any superstitions, but of course before the fight a lot goes through your mind. And at the end of the day, I tell myself, ‘if you lose to this guy you don’t deserve to be here. You need to go out there and take him out.’ I fight for my family, to provide for them, to make them proud and set a good example.
Which would you describe as the best moments in the UFC?
Every fight was memorable in it’s own way. But nothing beats capturing the UFC gold.
What’s your relationship like with Dana White?
I believe he likes my fighting style and attitude. We will do a lot of business in the future.
You are also championing the cause of Paralympic athletes... what have you learned from them? As a big name in sports, how important is it for you to support these athletes?
I always try to help people in need. I believe Paralympic athletes deserve recognition and they inspire me with their will and strong mentality.
Can you tell us a little about your life outside the ring and away from the public gaze? Do you want your sons to become MMA fighters?
I love to spend time with my family, my wife Julia and my sons Daniil and Konstantin. They are the most important people in my life and my biggest motivation. It will be up to my son if he wants to take a career in fighting, but he will train in martial arts for sure.
What do you do during your downtime? I like active rest, I enjoy being in nature because it gives me a lot of good energy. You have established yourself as a legendary fighter, what is your advice to aspiring fighters?
I don’t consider myself a legend. I want to be remembered and I want to make as much money as I can, so I don’t have to worry about what will happen after I retire. Everything that I have achieved came with hard work. Looking at my journey, you can see that everything is possible but hard work has to follow to reach the top and to stay there.
Whom do you wish to fight the most?
At the end of the day, I will fight all of the top guys, so it doesn’t matter who I will beat first.
What’s your message to your fans and followers?
Thanks for the support, I really appreciate it! It’s only the beginning.
Watch Petr Yan defend his Bantamweight title against Aljamain Sterling at UFC 259 on March 7, 8.30 am. On Sony Ten 2 and Sony Ten 3