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The Great Divide: Should T.J. Dillashaw challenge Aljamain Sterling next instead of Petr Yan?

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MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA – news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

Heading into UFC 259, we anticipated that the event’s three title fights would generate intriguing storylines: Would Israel Adesanya become a two-division champion and continue his pursuit of Jon Jones? Or was it Jan Blachowicz who would establish himself as the man to beat at 205 pounds? And what would be left of the featherweight division if Amanda Nunes easily disposed of another challenger?

What we couldn’t have guessed is that the highly-anticipated bantamweight title bout between champion Petr Yan and challenger Aljamain Sterling would result in the most controversial title fight finish in UFC history and that the ripples of a belt changing hands by disqualification would dominate the headlines for the past seven days and counting. Everyone and their mother has weighed in on Yan’s foul, Sterling’s reaction, and the ensuing post-fight fallout, but at some point we’ll have to move on to what’s next for the division. An immediate rematch seems like the move to make, but the shadow of a two-time champion looms large over the discussion.

In this edition of The Great Divide, MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew debate whether Yan deserves a chance to erase his mistake or whether T.J. Dillashaw should immediately step back into the title picture as he returns from a two-year USADA suspension.

The case for Yan

Lee: As someone who argued earlier this week that Sterling deserves to have UFC gold around his waist, I feel just as strongly that the man who accidentally put it there has to get a chance to win it back. And soon.

Alongside the perennially loaded lightweight division, the bantamweight roster is the hottest collection of talent in the UFC right now. There are half a dozen names you could throw into a title shot right now that would make for a compelling challenge for Sterling, and another half dozen that project as surefire contenders down the line. A rematch with Yan makes everyone else have to wait at least another six months for their crack at a world championship and that sucks, but it’s a lot better than making them wait for Dillashaw.

I don’t know if Yan is destined to be a longtime champion. Heck, I picked Sterling to upset him and end the Russian’s reign before it began. But he looked like the better fighter last Saturday before committing the brain fart of all brain farts. Two of the judges had the fight in his favor and even Sterling’s coach Eric Nicksick thought that Yan was ahead after three rounds. Maybe it wasn’t the one-sided performance that Yan supporters were hoping for, but he looked strong in a championship contest against a true No. 1 contender.

He hasn’t made excuses either. As disgruntled as he might be with Sterling’s reaction to the illegal blow and his activity on social media afterwards (Yan isn’t the only one to complain about this), the one thing Yan hasn’t done is blame anyone else for the timing of his illegal blow. Not Sterling, not referee Mark Smith, and not even his corner who were shouting confusing instructions at him moments before the fateful knee was fired. Even with his first title defense fizzling out, Yan is carrying himself like a champion and that should be respected.

Barring any health-related issues (Sterling received a two-month medical suspension, while Yan reportedly has a clean bill of health), there’s just no reason why these two should be booked to fight again any later than this summer. While Sterling can certainly entertain matchups with Dillashaw, Cory Sandhagen, or (gulp) Henry Cejudo, in his heart he has to know that the only way to make things right is to push for another fight with Yan.

We can joke all we want about Sterling going full heel and embracing the hate, but I don’t believe that’s a character he can comfortably play. Any popularity he has comes from both his exciting fighting style and his authenticity (to a fault, at times) and trying to put on a persona would be disastrous for him. There’s only one Chael Sonnen and the thought of Sterling even attempting to emulate that shtick has my eyes preemptively rolling.

Let him tease other fights all he wants, his first defense has to be against Yan. Sterling has the skills of a champion and a compelling backstory, but I can’t imagine anyone making the argument that he is the undisputed top dog at 135 pounds right now. To cement his reputation, he needs this fight as much as Yan does. Probably more.

Addressing the Dillashaw issue directly, his name shouldn’t even be in the conversation for a title shot in his return even if the UFC 259 controversy didn’t exist. I get it. He’s a marquee name. He hasn’t lost at bantamweight in five years. He’s arguably the greatest bantamweight ever.

But he’s also a tarnished name. He cost himself two years of his career because he tested positive for EPO, a banned substance that was used by disgraced cycling star Lance Armstrong. A drug that just so happens to benefit an athlete’s stamina, one of the traits that made Dillashaw such an indomitable fighter. In fairness, Dillashaw’s failed test was tied specifically to his most recent fight against then-flyweight champion Cejudo, and there is no evidence that he had used PEDs prior to that contest, but one high-profile drug test failure should be more than enough to remove you from contention.

He hasn’t won at bantamweight in two and a half years. As fun as his rivalry with former Alpha Male teammate Cody Garbrandt was, it feels even farther in the past when measured in MMA years, and while the bantamweight division has unfortunately developed a reputation for handing title opportunities to fighters based more on their past accomplishments than their recent ones (Jose Aldo at least fought once at 135 before challenging Yan for a vacant belt and Dominick Cruz walked right into a title shot coming off of a lengthy layoff, not a drug suspension), surely we have to draw a line at some point. Making Dillashaw earn his shot is a good place to start.

And if he’s truly the greatest bantamweight ever, no one should have an issue with that. Yes, Dillashaw just turned 35, so the clock is ticking on how many high-level fights he has left in him. Still, it’s nobody’s fault but his own that he spent the past two years on the sidelines. He’s done his time, but that was the bare minimum expected of him. He doesn’t deserve special treatment for serving a suspension and the UFC owes him nothing.

Least of all a shot at what will be one of the most hotly contested titles for the foreseeable future. A lot of talented fighters are lining up for their shot at the bantamweight championship and many will end up going hungry when it’s all said and done. None of those names should have to take a backseat to Dillashaw, especially Yan.

So do the right thing, Dana. Stick to your word. Make things easy on yourself and the matchmakers and book Sterling vs. Yan 2. The sooner these two can settle the score, the sooner we can all put this regrettable moment in MMA history behind us.

The case for Dillashaw

Meshew: Simply put, the idea that Yan deserves an immediate rematch rests on the illegitimacy of Sterling’s win, but that is a false narrative. In a vacuum where title fights occur only between the two best fighters in the world, then yes, Yan deserves the first crack at Sterling’s belt. He is probably the best active bantamweight in the UFC right now. However, UFC title fights do not occur in a vacuum, and given all the context surrounding the current bantamweight title picture, Yan does not deserve the next 135-pound title shot.

At the most basic level, immediate title rematches are reserved for either longtime, dominant champions or controversial outcomes, and this fight has neither. Though Yan was the legitimate bantamweight champion (insofar as he held the title that the UFC recognized) the man’s claim to the throne was historically weak (he won a twice-vacant title against an... older fighter — frankly, the UFC could have just given him the belt and saved the time) and though many will cry about it, the outcome of this fight was not controversial. Sterling was the rightful winner.

(An aside: I’d like to get this out of the way early, I believe the grounded fighter rule is the dumbest rule in all of professional sports, even more idiotic than drug testing. The legality of a strike should be determined by the strike itself and/or where it lands on the body, not the position of the body when it lands. But even though I firmly disagree with it, rules are rules and without them we live with the animals.)

Go re-watch the whole sequence and there’s no world in which Yan’s knee can ever be considered acceptable. Mark Smith declares ‘grounded’ when he first drops down (I am at least willing to acknowledge the language barrier here as a legitimate point) but even setting that aside, Sterling is in the weird kneeling position for a six or seven seconds before Yan throws the knee. That is several seconds where Yan correctly identifies that he cannot do this and so instead leans his weight on Sterling. It was smart, tactical, and deliberate—in essence it was a very Petr Yan thing to do—and then he hauls off and does the exact opposite.

Yan is a professional fighter—a champion!—and he knows (or should know) the rules of the sport in which he competes. His excuse that, ‘Oh, I was confused because his hands were up’ at best strains credulity and at worst is an overt attempt to deceive (Sterling’s hands were not on the mat for most of the sequence when Yan wasn’t kneeing him in the head, just saying). Though the rules around what constitutes a grounded fighter are not “unified” at all, there is no rule set that allows you to knee the head of a fighter who himself has a knee on the canvas. This is some real ‘Sorry officer, I didn’t know I couldn’t do that’ energy from Yan.

To be clear, I don’t think Yan intended to throw an illegal strike. Sometimes you just f*ck up. However, whether it was intentional or not shouldn’t make a difference (if Yan intended to throw an illegal strike, he should be kicked out of the UFC in the same way Paul Daley was for after-the-bell punches on Josh Koscheck). Yan intentionally threw a strike, that strike was illegal, and it caused the end of the fight. That’s a DQ and it’s his own damn fault. He could have easily done any number of other things and instead, he did that. He made that bed, now he has to lie in it.

And so when you accept the fact that Yan’s loss was as legitimate as Megan Anderson’s or Israel Adesanya’s, the idea that he should get an immediate rematch makes substantially less sense. Furthermore, letting Yan run it right back has two glaring issues.

First, it functionally hand-waves away what he did by attempting to “correct” the result immediately. When your excuse for failure basically boils down to “I’m a colossal moron,” you probably shouldn’t get an immediate title fight! Especially when that’s your excuse and you are still acting like an ass about it even though you are clearly 100 percent in the wrong. Yan has shown zero contrition for his actions and in fact, has spent most of the aftermath blaming Smith and Sterling, and suggesting Sterling was faking his injury. To be frank, that some bush league nonsense and it shouldn’t be rewarded with a chance to reclaim the belt.

Second, if you remove his title from the equation (one of the more specious championships in UFC history) Yan’s resume does not demand a title shot. He has a loss to the champion and wins over Jose Aldo, Uriah Faber, Jimmie Rivera, and John Dodson. If this were 2016, that would be incredible. Instead, it’s 2021 and most of those are better in name than in actuality. Contrast that with Sterling who has wins over 1, 2, 8, 11, and 13 in the current rankings and you start to think, “Huh, Yan was just kind of anointed, wasn’t he? Maybe he should have to earn this.”

Finally, there’s an entirely different reason why Yan shouldn’t get the next title fight and it comes in the form of Dillashaw (and to a lesser extent, Henry Cejudo). Dillashaw is the most recent, true bantamweight champion. He was suspended for two years after failing a drug test for EPO and he vacated his title which was then won by Cejudo and while the rules discussion above applies fully to Dillashaw (PEDs aren’t allowed, he did them and thus his suspension is legitimate) it’s important to note that Dillashaw has no history of PED usage as it relates to his bantamweight title reign (it also should be noted that Yan’s own argument of “I’ve been punished enough” also directly translates to Dillashaw’s situation, arguably more so).

After admitting guilt, Dillashaw said that he took the EPO to assist with his drop to flyweight to challenge Cejudo and has denied using PEDs during his bantamweight run. Many (most?) don’t seem to believe this but we have no real reason not to. From 2015 through 2018 (his bantamweight run), Dillashaw was tested 37 times without a miss. If he was on the gear that whole time and the USADA didn’t catch him, then what the hell are we even doing with drug testing in the first place?

(Another aside: It’s here that I will also note that Dillashaw’s two wins over Garbrandt are better than any Yan has, both by ranking and subjectively.)

As the old saying in combat sports goes, to be the man you’ve got to beat the man. No bantamweight has defeated Dillashaw and you can reasonably argue that the champions that came after his suspension lack legitimacy because of that (Yan and Sterling even more so because they are actually twice-removed from the lineal title given Cejudo’s vacant title win and subsequent retirement). The simplest way to restore legitimacy to the current bantamweight title is to have the top guy in the division fight the most recent lineal champion. Would it be the most popular decision? Probably not. But it would restore continuity and stability to a title that has spent the last two years in confusion. The UFC made Sterling wait nearly two years for his shot at the title in their haste to crown Yan. Now Yan can wait too.

Poll

Who should be Aljamain Sterling’s first title challenger?

This poll is closed

  • 73%
    Petr Yan
    (704 votes)
  • 12%
    T.J. Dillashaw
    (116 votes)
  • 12%
    Cory Sandhagen
    (124 votes)
  • 1%
    Other (leave comment below)
    (19 votes)
963 votes total Vote Now