With Petr Yan largely in control as the fight moved into the fourth round, the Russian was starting to really tee off with his strikes, which had Sterling in obvious trouble. Disaster struck when Sterling was down on the ground and Yan unloaded a massive knee strike that snapped his opponent’s head back and sent him crashing to the canvas.
Just before Yan threw the knee, referee Mark Smith warned him that Sterling was a downed fighter with at least one knee on the canvas, which meant the strike was considered a deliberate foul.
Sterling stayed down on the canvas for several minutes after the knee landed and after the ringside physician came into check on him, the referee decided he could no longer allow the fight to continue. An emotional Sterling doubled over in tears on the mat, obviously overcome with emotion following the stoppage due to an illegal strike.
Because the knee strike was deemed intentional, Yan was disqualified and Sterling was declared the winner and the new 135-pound UFC champion. As soon as UFC president Dana White wrapped the belt around his waist, Sterling immediately took it off and left in the cage as he left with his coaches assisting him out of the octagon.
“Everything I worked for to this point and to have the fight go like that,” Sterling said after the fight was over. “I thought the fight was very close. I thought I was down two rounds. That’s not the way I wanted to win. That’s not the way I envisioned this.
“I just took the f*king belt off. I was trying to continue even being all f*cked up like that. I was in bad shape. It would have just been ego taking over. It’s f*cking bullsh*t”
According to UFC commentator Jon Anik, the judges had the fight scored 29-28 on two cards for Yan with the third scorecard reading 29-28 for Sterling after three rounds.
None of that matters now, however as Yan was disqualified for the intentional foul, which has cost him the UFC bantamweight title. It’s also the first time a UFC title has changed hands by disqualification in the history of the promotion.
Obviously considering the way the fight ended, it’s likely the UFC will look to rebook Sterling against Yan in the near future with the bantamweight title going up for grabs yet again but the timing might depend on how long it takes the New York native to recover after suffering the after effects of that brutal finish.