Ask anyone in the know and they would have told you that Petr Yan’s ascent to a UFC title bout wasn’t so much a matter of ‘if’, but ‘when’.
The former ACB bantamweight champion will attempt to upgrade that championship to its UFC equivalent in a little less than a month when he fights Aldo in the UFC’s maiden ‘Fight Island’ card in Abu Dhabi, and speaking to RT Sport’s Darren Russell, he says he is more than ready for the challenge.
Yan’s path to title contention, while seemingly inevitable, was fast-tracked by the surprise retirement of former champ Henry Cejudo following his win against Dominick Cruz last month. Yan soon found himself at the top of the queue in what is the deepest UFC 135lb division in years.
“Well, basically [Henry] Cejudo retired and the belt became vacant and then they announced that Petr’s going to be the first to challenge for it,” Yan said to RT Sport though his manager, Sayat Abdrakhmanov.
“And then we were just waiting for the news as to who’s going to be the opponent, and they said it’s got to be Aldo.
“To be honest, I didn’t expect it’s going to be Aldo but obviously because Aldo was supposed to fight for a title in May then that’s why they gave him to this another opportunity and if you if you watch the fight with [Marlon] Moraes, I think he wants that fight too.”
The five-round title bout won’t be the first time that the two top contenders have locked horns in battle. Yan was invited by Aldo to be one of his sparring partners ahead of his UFC 200 fight with Frankie Edgar shortly after Yan had won the ACB bantamweight Grand Prix in late 2015.
While it appears that Yan subscribes to the ‘what happens in camp stays in camp’ maxim, he says that he has improved greatly in the years which have followed – but he doesn’t expect similar growth from the Brazilian former featherweight champion.
“Yeah, yeah, it was part of his camp for about 40 days,” Yan says. “We used to spar with each other. We used to wrestle and grapple together. So yeah, I’ve been a part of his camp.
“I gained more experience since that time. I’ve got more skills now than before. I don’t say he has become better since that time. Maybe he’s still the same but for sure not better.”
The fight will represent Yan’s first five-round bout in the UFC, having gone the 25-minute distance in two fights (a win and a loss against Magomed Magomedov) in ACB, but the 27-year-old says that he doesn’t expect the judges to be required when he steps into the cage next month.
“To be honest, I don’t think it’s going to go the full distance anyway,” he says. “But I will be ready for five rounds and I believe actually I’m gonna feel good in five rounds. You know I did it before and I feel good about it.”
The win and accompanying championship belt, should he achieve it, will be the pinnacle of the Russian fighter’s career to date – but there appears to be disappointment bubbling under the surface when it comes to Cejudo’s retirement. However, Yan made clear his position on the Olympic gold medalist once the conversation circled back to the former champion.
“I thought he was bluffing at first,” he says of Cejudo’s retirement announcement. “I thought it was some kind of negotiation tactics. But then when I realized he left, I kind of feel he left because, you know, our division is on fire now it’s most exciting division, you see, and I think he left because he’s afraid to be beaten.
“I think my style [would] match up well against his. Yes, he’s a mentally tough guy. He is a specialist in some areas, but when I watch him fight I see a lot of holes in his game. And I want to explore these holes.“
So if not Cejudo, who would be next for a victorious Petr Yan? One name seems to have stood out from the crowd: Aljamain Sterling.
“I think he took the most of the opportunity [against Cory Sandhagen],” Yan explains. “He took Cory down when they were dry, and it was easy to control him and sink in the choke. Maybe if the fight went three rounds, Cory would have been a winner, but Aljamain took his opportunity and got the win. I congratulate him.
“He’s going to be next and I think he deserves it, and I will be glad to face him.”
However, before any talk of title defences must come an appreciation of the challenge he faces on July 11. Jose Aldo, who once went on a decade-long unbeaten run, and has appeared in incredible 15 world title fights throughout his runs in the UFC and WEC.
Yan, for his part, has just 15 career bouts total.
Aldo’s storied history demands respect, Yan says, but only after the job he has been hired to do is finished.
“I think it’s gonna be very interesting, competitive fight, because there’s the belt on the line a lot on the line and we’re not going to back down and I think the fight’s not going to go the distance,” he says. “I believe and I hope I’m going to win the belt and I’m going to knock him out and after that I’m going to shake his hand.”