As he continues to heal from major neck surgery, Sterling is targeting an early 2022 return to action. But in his absence, the UFC will hand out an interim title to the winner of the upcoming fight between Petr Yan and Cory Sandhagen.
Despite Sterling only getting the title back in March, he didn’t have any issue with the UFC seeking to crown an interim champion after he was forced off the upcoming card on Oct. 27. Ideally, Sterling would be competing this weekend, but since he can’t, there’s no ill will towards the UFC for introducing the interim title in the meantime.
“It didn’t bother me at all,” Sterling said while co-hosting MMA Fighting’s Fighter vs. Writer podcast. “I think it makes for a bigger fight. Obviously, I’m not going to be out longer than a year. I’m going to be out for just about a year, so for them to keep the division moving — we had situation before with Dominick Cruz when he was hurt and he was out for almost four years, I feel like. They kept the belt for him. They made the interim, [Renan] Barao won the interim title over [Urijah] Faber and kept the division moving before they actually made Barao the undisputed inaugural champion.
“It’s just one of those situations. It’s a difficult situation but it doesn’t bother me.”
Of course, Sterling has history with both fighters competing this weekend. He submitted Sandhagen in less than 90 seconds when they met in June 2020, then he earned a victory against Yan after the Russian was disqualified for throwing an illegal knee in their fight back in March.
While the rivalry with Yan has definitely grown more personal since then, Sterling can’t help but offer his honest analysis regarding the upcoming fight — and he expects Sandhagen to give the former bantamweight champion everything he can handle and more.
“I do think Sandhagen gives him a ton of trouble on the feet, and I think that’s what is going to make this very, very difficult [for Petr Yan],” Sterling explained. “Because Yan kind of stands there, kind of plods forward, and he’s just looking for that big shot, hopefully can catch you. It’s one of those things where a guy like myself, a guy like Sandhagen, a guy like [T.J.] Dillashaw, anyone that has any kind of real footwork, he’s going to have a really hard time with those guys trying to find them. Sandhagen’s real tall, he’s really rangy. You watch the fight with him and Marlon [Moraes] — Marlon couldn’t touch him. He was throwing kicks, swinging and missing. He looked like he was at the batting cage and couldn’t find connection at all. That’s what it looked like and that’s what Sandhagen does. He’s that good.
“That’s why I had to put the pressure on him the way I did because if I give that guy space, that’s a dangerous, dangerous fight and I knew that going in. The same way I know the rematch [against Sandhagen] is going to be very, very dangerous, but I know if I can do the same thing, which is get my hands connected on that man, I’m taking him out again.”
While Yan has best been known for his blistering power on the feet, he also averages over two takedowns per fight, and Sterling fully expects him to employ that kind of strategy after Sandhagen proves that he’s the superior striker.
“I wouldn’t be surprised if Yan gets touched up a little bit, that he looks to go to the wrestling,” Sterling said. “Because again, [Cory Sandhagen is] that dangerous from the outside. It’s not like he has a lot of power but he has fight-ending techniques. Flying knees, spinning elbows, those front kicks that he uses. Even that head kick that he uses and the wheel kick that he uses, he’s got dangerous weapons.
“I guarantee [Yan is] going to try to take him down. If he gets touched up a bit, he’s going to try to take him down. He’s going to try to do what I did and he’s going to realize that sh*t is not easy. I think the fans are going to realize, ‘Maybe Aljo was onto something when he was saying what he was saying.’ I’m just calling it how I see it.”
If the fight does stay standing, Sterling expects it to be fun to watch — but he also expects that to ultimately serve as diminishing returns for Yan, who he said just doesn’t have the same striking chops as Sandhagen.
“[Sandhagen] is not like Yan, where he’s throwing combinations and he’s falling into his punches to get a lot more punching power behind it,” Sterling said. “It’s two completely different styles but I like what Sandhagen does and I think that’s what’s going to get him the win.”
Of course, Sterling’s prediction will be met with skepticism, as if he’s only picking Sandhagen because he already holds a win over him and he’d rather not see Yan standing across the cage from him again.
But that couldn’t be further from the truth, because Sterling said he actually considers Sandhagen to be the tougher rematch should he become interim champion.
“If you ask me who I’d rather fight, I would rather fight Petr Yan,” Sterling said. “Because Sandhagen is that dangerous, in my opinion. People might think, ‘Oh, you steamrolled him.’ That was a calculated fight to the tee.
“If I was off even a split second, I could have been on my back and I could have been the guy who’s taking a nap looking up at the lights. That’s a reality that I knew going into that fight and I had to make sure I was on-point.”
No matter the result on Saturday, Sterling says he’s already reached out to the UFC to request a chance to revisit the fight with Yan at some point in the future because they’ve got unfinished business to handle even if the bantamweight title isn’t on the line.
“I told the matchmakers already — we’re going to fight again,” Sterling said about Yan. “We have to fight again. There’s no way that story could end the way it did. There has to be an ending to this book. We’ve got to have the season finale. That’s the way I look at it. I want to give the fans the fight that they should have gotten the first time where I’m actually feeling good and not coming in depleted.
“If he’s better than me, then he’s better than me. But I really, truly feel in my body that guy is not the better fighter. I can’t wait to prove it no matter what, whether it’s for the title or not. Contender fight. No matter what it is, we’re going to have to run it back at some point.”