Merab Dvalishvili has never been Petr Yan’s biggest fan.
Long before Dvalishvili was matched against the former champ at UFC Vegas 71, he was aligned against Yan in the ex-champ’s bout against current UFC bantamweight titleholder Aljamain Sterling. Dvalishvili considers Sterling one of his closest friends and teammates, so it was understandable he would end up in an adversarial position.
But even after Sterling and Yan settled their business in the cage at UFC 273, a random interaction before UFC 280 rubbed Dvalishvili the wrong way.
“When I saw him in Abu Dhabi, he was getting ready for the fight with [Sean] O’Malley – it was like three days before the fight, and I was respectful,” Dvalishvili told MMA Fighting. “I was standing by myself on the other side, but he was talking to Aljo, and I don’t want to go close to him. He had a fight, he was cutting weight. He was just doing his own thing, and I was respectful.
“He pointed at me and he said, ‘He’s small.’ I go and stand [near him] like it was funny, I tried to size him up, and then he pointed to me again and he said I’m a zero.”
With Yan preparing for a fight, Dvalishvili said he didn’t want to escalate things, but the exchange definitely didn’t sit well.
“When he said that, the first time I just laughed and got close and sized him up,” Dvalishvili said. “After that, I just smiled big. I was respectful, and he had a big fight. I don’t want to mess up his fight or his energy or anything.
“It doesn’t matter how stupid he is, he had a big fight, and I don’t want him to deal with anything.”
According to Dvalishvili, there was already a rivalry with Yan after a back-and-forth war of words between the Russian ex-champ and Sterling in the leadup to a pair of fights.
Being insulted — even if perhaps it was just a joke — was just another example why Dvalishvili never had a high opinion of Yan. Under different circumstances, he said he would have let him know that fact rather emphatically.
“If he didn’t have a fight, of course I would slap him,” Dvalishvili said. “Especially he said right before, when he was getting to Aljo, Petr said — I’m just going to repeat his words — ‘When I see Aljo and Aljo’s team, we will kill and smash his team.’ That’s what he mentioned. Like what the f***? I’m his team, I’m Aljo’s team. He wants to smash me.”
In his previous fight, Dvalishvili defeated former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo, and that was a fighter the Georgian absolutely admired. The same couldn’t be said about Yan, he said, because the ex-champ doesn’t exude the same kind of class or respect.
“For Jose Aldo, I had so much respect,” Dvalishvili said. “For this guy, as a fighter, I respect [him], but as a person not that much. But at the end of the day, I’m a professional fighter. It doesn’t matter who I’m fighting, If I’m fighting somebody who’s a legend or somebody who’s an a******, I still have to be professional, and that’s what I’m going to do.
“Just be professional there, and I’m just going to do my best. I’m going to win, and I’m not going to let any other things bother me.”
Dvalishvili had a front row seat to witness Yan’s behavior during his fights with Sterling, and that’s all he needed to know.
“He was fighting my friend ,and he did a knee to his head, and he was still cocky,” Dvalishvili said about Yan. “He was still raising his hand. He would never apologize. He made a tweet and shared my post and made fun of us. He was calling us clowns, and Aljo beat him, and he’s still not humble.
“Most fighters are humble. I don’t think Petr is humble, and he should be more humble. Otherwise, I don’t know. He don’t know the rules. Otherwise, he’s a good fighter, but he’s my opponent now. That’s it.”
All personal grudges will get set aside on March 11 as Dvalishvili seeks to win his first UFC main event while taking out another top ranked bantamweight. If he’s successful, he’ll keep his winning streak alive, while Yan would drop his third straight fight and four of his past five.
“He’s real dangerous, even with Aljo and with O’Malley, he give hard fights,” Dvalishvili said. “Otherwise, he’s good. Every fight, he brings it and he’s dominant. He’s great, one of the best fighters in our weight class. One of the most dangerous. He hits hard, he has good wrestling defense, he even shoots sometimes and takes people down. He’s good.
“I just want to win. Winning is everything for me. All my country is waiting on me to fight him. This is a big fight. A big fight for my country. A big fight for my team. I have to be a professional. I don’t care if I make him humble, I just want to win.
“I don’t want to change him. He is whoever he is. I don’t care about him. I just want to win.”