When the UFC bantamweight belt was left on the octagon canvas on Saturday following an unprecedented end to a title fight, it was coach Eric Nicksick who retrieved it.
Forty-eight hours later, Nicksick is still picking up the pieces from a chaotic UFC 259 aftermath.
The Xtreme Couture coach was in the corner of Aljamain Sterling at UFC APEX in Las Vegas, alongside Sterling’s longtime mentor Ray Longo. They had a front row seat to watch Sterling’s spirited challenge of champion Petr Yan that ended in controversial fashion in the fourth round when Yan landed an illegal knee to a grounded Sterling, resulting in Yan being disqualified and the bantamweight title being awarded to Sterling.
It was the first time in UFC history a title changed hands via disqualification.
Opinions and criticisms are being fired from all sides, from the fighters themselves to their peers and rivals and pretty much anyone on social media with a remote interest in MMA. As frantic as the response has been, Nicksick recalls the moment itself as being even more hectic and confusing.
“I was almost disappointed in Yan, like what the hell were you thinking, man?” Nicksick told MMA Fighting during an interview on What the Heck. “It was clear as day. He had him by his head and you know where your weapons are in relation to where your opponent is too, and he was kind of holding him by his head and just drove the knee up the midline. I don’t really know what he was thinking or why he did that and that’s kind of where I was at with it.
“The way it landed, the thud, obviously being in a quiet arena, everybody was just like, ‘Oh, that wasn’t good at all.’ Right away, I just thought, hey, take your time. I didn’t know kind of how Aljo was, if he was out, I couldn’t really tell because I think he went face down.”
Nicksick grew anxious as the decision on how to handle the foul dragged on, though he understood that referee Mark Smith had to go to a replay for clarification. However, he would like to see the process streamlined, especially once a physician is called in and the fighter’s condition can be diagnosed.
With all of that going on, the thought of Sterling potentially becoming a UFC champion was just one of many passing through Nicksick’s mind.
“I wasn’t 100 percent sure if they were going to go to, like, does this go to a scorecard?” Nicksick said. “I knew it would go to a scorecard if it was an unintentional infraction. My gut kind of sank because I knew all parties were gonna lose in this scenario. Everybody. It wasn’t gonna be a clean win, it wasn’t gonna be a clean loss either. So I think my emotions were just kind of mixed in a way and really I just wanted to make sure my guy was alright, to be honest with you.”
One particular point of consternation that Sterling’s critics have picked up on is his decision to do a post-fight interview following the disqualification win. According to Nicksick, there was much discussion in the short amount of time between Sterling exiting the cage and having to head either backstage or to the interview area.
Sterling eventually took a moment to chat with commentator Joe Rogan and Nicksick understands why there has been some backlash to that call.
“So he’s over my shoulder, I have him, I’m walking him down the steps, and then Heidi asks can he do a post-fight interview and I said, ‘No.’ I said, ‘He’s not doing a post-fight interview,’” Nicksick said. “Then I don’t know who—maybe it was Aljo, I don’t remember who—but somebody said, ‘No, no, I think he can do it,’ or maybe he said he could. I don’t know, everybody was talking. But I know they asked if he could do a post-fight interview and I said no. ‘This kid’s not doing—Let’s get him on the gurney and get and get him the hell out of here.’
“I think the perception that might have hurt him in the long run was, ‘You got dropped and now you’re doing a post-fight interview.’ I can’t gauge where he’s at conscious-wise and maybe he doesn’t know any of that being said back and forth, but I definitely understand the perception didn’t look great. You’re able to now go sit down and talk. That’s something you would have to ask Aljo. I said, ‘No. You shouldn’t do a post-fight interview.’”
Nicksick has been fortunate to avoid much of the heat that’s been sent Sterling and Longo’s way, though he also mentioned that if he has been getting any flack from the public then he’s probably just ignored it.
Later on in the evening, with social media already buzzing about what was maybe the most talked-about fight from a card that featured two other championship bouts, Sterling and Nicksick were among friends and family to celebrate the bittersweet title win. Nicksick advised Sterling to “chill out” and stay off of social media for a couple of days, but Sterling raised eyebrows when he was seen smiling with the belt in a picture with friend and teammate Merab Dvalishvili.
“In his defense, he had a lot of family and friends that came to be here to celebrate or to support in any way that they could,” Nicksick said. “We got home about 1:00 in the morning and he had a houseful of people there that wanted to celebrate with him. I advised him not to drink anything because they did give him morphine. They were worried with the concussion and the headache that he was having. So I was like, ‘Hey man, I wouldn’t drink anything or I wouldn’t take anything and I would try to stay up as long as I can without falling asleep and just enjoy the rest of your night.’ I hung out with him for about 20-30 minutes and then I went home.
“So the rest of the stuff I think it’s up to him on the perception that you want to lead, but at the end of the day the rules are the rules, he did win the belt, he wants to celebrate, he did put years of work in, he should be happy. He should be happy for that moment. Business-wise, it is a good move for him. Now he’s a champion, he gets to defend the belt as a champion with championship pay. All in all, he should have a moment to celebrate and relax. He put in a long camp, he put in a long, long road to get here and by these circumstances the belt’s wrapped around him and you should have a little bit of celebration, I would say.”
Sterling and Yan fought for nearly four full rounds before the disqualification occurred, and Nicksick liked what he saw from Sterling even if he felt that they were down on the cards. He had the champion up two rounds to one, erring on the side of caution when it came to coaching Sterling under the assumption that a knockdown gave Yan the first round. On the official scorecard, the judges were split going into the fourth, with two judges having it 29-28 Yan and the other 29-28 Sterling.
Assuming the two fight again, Nicksick has plenty of footage to work with and use to improve Sterling’s chances in the rematch.
“It was a barnburner,” Nicksick said. “We weren’t getting skunked. One judge had us winning, I had it 2-1 Yan. It was a close fight and I think Yan was beginning to take over. I think there’s a lot of really good things that we showed, but I think there’s a lot of things aesthetically that we need to do better. We don’t need to do certain things. I have a whole laundry list of notes that I took and I waited for him to get out of the hospital before I started dropping this stuff on him.
“There’s definitely areas of improvement that I think and also understanding the pace you need to set for a five-round fight, and know that we want to be able to withstand and be there for four and five and still have that same output.”
UFC President Dana White voiced his displeasure at the outcome of the bantamweight championship bout and said post-event that the plan is to pair Sterling and Yan up again as soon as possible.
Until further notice, Sterling is the owner of a UFC belt and Nicksick is looking forward to his first defense.
“The rules are the rules and that’s what it states and unfortunately that’s the way it is,” Nicksick said. “They’re gonna have to run it back and we’ll have to be ready for the next one.”