The former UFC bantamweight champion returns Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 267 to fight for the first time since dropping his belt in controversial fashion to Aljamain Sterling in March. With Sterling still sidelined due to injury for the foreseeable future, an interim bantamweight title will be up for grabs in Abu Dhabi. And Yan knows well enough that the unusual circumstances around the current 135-pound title picture give his showdown with Sandhagen quite a bit more significance than the UFC’s normal interim title bouts.
“I beat [Sandhagen] on Saturday, every guy will know who here is really champ,” Yan said in English without the help of a translator on Monday’s episode of The MMA Hour.
The 135-pound division has been stuck in neutral since Yan collided with Sterling at UFC 259. Back in March, Yan was ahead on the scorecards and had seized momentum late in the fourth round when he unloaded an illegal knee to Sterling’s head while the American was a grounded fighter. The incident lead to a DQ win for Sterling and caused Yan to become the only athlete in UFC history to lose a title by disqualification.
Sterling underwent neck surgery following the incident and remains medically unfit to compete. He was supposed to rematch Yan at UFC 267 but ended up withdrawing last month due to lingering issues and ultimately was replaced on short notice by Sandhagen.
The situation between Sterling and Yan has been litigated and relitigated hundreds of times since March, and Yan insisted that he won’t do it again this week with a tough challenge like Sandhagen sitting in front of him. But Yan also made it clear that he puts the blame on Sterling as to why the UFC bantamweight division finds itself in the mess it’s in now.
“It’s just his decision to make this surgery right now,” Yan said through a translator. “I don’t know why he hadn’t done it earlier or maybe later in his career, but now the whole division is in a mess. When people have neck pain, I don’t see them sparring without any headgear. It’s just ridiculous.”
Despite his convoluted history with Sterling, Yan said he will “1,000 percent” consider himself to be the true UFC bantamweight champion with a win on Saturday.
But he’s also not there just yet.
“I don’t want to consider myself as a champion,” Yan said. “I don’t have a belt. Right now I’m the No. 1-ranked bantamweight in the division and I’m ready to prove that I’m the best in the division.
“The only thing I lost [after UFC 259] was maybe money, but everything else is still with me — desire to win the belt, desire to move forward to winning, and I’m still hungry. So everything else is the same.”
Altogether, Yan was in good spirits Monday night in Abu Dhabi. He indicated that he’s content with where things ended up despite his long road since March’s loss. He felt that the judges were correct to award T.J. Dillashaw a win over Sandhagen in July’s controversial split decision between the two bantamweights, but he knows that Sandhagen was still the best option available for UFC 267 considering Dillashaw’s own injury woes.
Yan also scoffed at the public attempts of bantamweight prospect Sean O’Malley to secure the interim title fight before the UFC settled on Sandhagen.
“Right now he knows it’s impossible for him to get this fight, so everything he says now is just for attention. It’s just to be in media,” Yan said of O’Malley. “But the only reason why he’s in the media is only the color of his hair.
“It’s the main reason he gets attention, his crazy hair and his crazy talk. He’s not even in the top 15.”
As for Sandhagen, the American has won seven of his nine UFC appearances and remains one of the most well-rounded contenders at 135 pounds. The 29-year-old has been hailed by many observers as a future champion of the division. But even if Saturday’s matchup looks daunting, Yan hasn’t found much to be concerned about when he sees his foe.
“He’s a very good and versatile fighter. He’s good everywhere. But in every aspect that he’s good at, I am better than him,” Yan said. “So in wrestling or striking, I’m ready to surprise him.
“My style is to always go in there and look for the finish, and I don’t think he’s the one who drag me into the deep waters. I’m the one who’s going to drag him into the deep waters. And five rounds is my distance.”