Robbery Review: Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan at UFC 273


Few things infuriate MMA fans more than a fight being scored incorrectly, though the term “robbery” tends to be thrown around carelessly and is often steeped in bias. With Robbery Review, we’ll take a look back at controversial fights and determine whether the judges were rightly criticized for their decision or if pundits need to examine their own knee-jerk reactions.

Given how their first meeting ended, you sensed that the second fight between Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan wasn’t going to be a neat and tidy affair.

What we got in Saturday’s UFC 273 co-main event was an excellent bantamweight title clash, one that erased any doubt that these two deserve to be called best in their division. However, with one fight ending in a split call and the other ending in a disqualification, you get the sense that not everyone is in agreement as to who has truly earned the No. 1 spot.

Both men flexed their strongest skills as Sterling dominated early stretches of the fight with his grappling, while Yan stormed back with his striking in the championship rounds. The outcome was in doubt until the final scorecard was read and any result seemed possible, including a draw if any of the judges decided to sprinkle a 10-8 into the mix.

UFC President Dana White chimed in at the post-fight press conference saying that “the judges blew that one” and that he saw it three rounds to two in Yan’s favor. Former bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo and veteran Matt Brown also disagreed with the decision.

And Yan? He said in his post-fight interview that he was “robbed” and demanded another rematch.

This debate isn’t going to end anytime soon, but perhaps a trip to the Robbery Review lab can bring some order to the discussion. Let’s go to the tape.

What was the official result?

Aljamain Sterling def. Petr Yan via split decision.

How did the fight go?

Round 1 turned out to be the decider on the scorecards, so let’s really break that one down.

Sterling lands a sharp kick to the body right off the bat, then follows with a glancing kick to the same area. He scores again with an outside leg kick as Yan methodically moves forward looking to cut off the cage. Sterling dances on the outside of Yan’s range, utilizing a lot of lateral movement. Another leg kick lands for Sterling, but the follow-up shot is stuffed by Yan, who misses with a winging left hand as they separate. Yan connects with a body kick. Both fighters continue to search for angles, with Sterling again going to the body and then following with a straight right to the chin that’s on the mark. Yan hits a lightning quick right jab. Other than that, Sterling was doing a good job of staying at the edge of Yan’s punches. Sterling makes good use of a front kick to the body to keep Yan back. Yan answers with a solid body kick of his own. Sterling with a high punch-body kick combo that lands.

Through half a round, there isn’t much output from Yan. He seems focused on figuring out the rhythm of the circling Sterling rather than throwing out feeler strikes. There’s an outside leg kick for Yan with two minutes to go. Sterling leans back to block a 1-2 combo with his shoulder. Yan checks a body kick, but whiffs on a series of punches. Now it’s Sterling missing an uppercut. Sterling probing with his jab and Yan catches him with an overhand left. Sterling hits another body kick. Yan pursues but can’t get a solid punch to land. Sterling bounces a step-in elbow off of Yan’s forehead. Yan with a kick to the body and a glancing left. Sterling throws pitter-patter punches to the body to set up a takedown attempt, stuffed again. They connect with big punches at the buzzer simultaneously, though Yan looks to have gotten the better of that exchange.

The action clearly tilted in Sterling’s favor in Round 2. He came out aggressive with more kicks to the body before going for a couple of takedown attempts. The second, a single-leg, caught Yan off-balance and Sterling drove him to the fence and immediately crawled into full mount. Yan turned over and then it was human backpack time. This position lasted for the rest of the round, during which Sterling maintained a body triangle, threw punches to the body and the side of the head, and threatened with a rear-naked choke. With about 90 seconds left in the round, Sterling landed several heavy punches from top position. Yan turtled up but a lot of those shots made it through.

How dominant of a round was that for Sterling? Let’s check in with his coach Ray Longo.

Round 3 was more of the same. Yan came out throwing, but Sterling hit a good counter left and perfectly timed a single leg before transitioning to a double to get the takedown. He immediately moved to back control again. Yan did a much better job of defending in Round 3, avoiding getting hit with any big shots on the ground.

Mostly untouched up to that point, Sterling was feeling himself.

But you knew that Yan wasn’t going quietly. He would not be taken down again and he kicked off Round 4 by chasing Sterling down with a rapid punch combination. Sterling ate a knee to the body going for Yan’s legs and you could see Yan’s confidence growing. He hit a sharp outside leg kick and instantly recovered his stance to block a takedown attempt despite Sterling timing it perfectly. Wow. Yan hit Sterling with a short jumping knee and he was cooking at that point. Sterling stayed in the center with him and he connected with a quick uppercut. Yan’s defense continued to hold up and he avoided both a back take and a triangle attempt from Sterling. Yan couldn’t do much in Sterling’s guard, but he didn’t give Sterling any room to work either. Yan’s best ground shot came during a Sterling scramble. He stayed heavy on top and scored with low-risk, but effective ground strikes.

Sterling spammed takedowns in Round 5 to no avail. Yan blocked every attempt and used dirty boxing to score points in close. A jumping knee was blocked, but Yan got a left hand off of it. Another left, then a kick to the body as Sterling shot in. Yan took control on the ground and rifled in punches. Sterling wanted a takedown, but Yan’s balance and defense were just incredible. Ironically, it’s Yan who ended the fight hanging off of Sterling’s back.

There was a nice show of respect between the rivals at the end.

What did the judges say?

Sal D’Amato scored it 48-47 Sterling.

Christopher Lee scored it 48-47 Yan.

Eliseo Rodriguez scored it 48-47 Sterling.

As you can guess, D’Amato and Rodriguez scored Round 1 for Sterling. The judges were in agreement on all the other rounds, giving Rounds 2 and 3 to Sterling and Rounds 4 and 5 to Yan.

No 10-8s were utilized.

What did the numbers say?

(Statistics per UFC Stats)

Again, the numbers reflect how close the fight was as Sterling and Yan were separated by just one significant strike with Yan winning 63-62. Both fighters were effective going to the head, with Yan winning 32-29 there. Sterling won the body strike battle 26-17, while Yan was a perfect 14-for-14 on leg kicks to double up Sterling in that category.

In the disputed opening round, Sterling had a 19-13 edge in significant strikes. Surprisingly, Yan actually won 8-6 in that same category in Round 3, though none should argue that those numbers accurately tell the story there.

Neither man scored a knockdown in the fight.

Sterling scored takedowns in Rounds 2 and 3. In the second round, he was credited with 14 ground strikes. Yan managed nine total ground strikes in Rounds 4 and 5 after gaining control despite not initiating any takedowns.

What did the media say?

On MMA Decisions, 10 of the 17 media scores listed are in Sterling’s favor, with Drake Riggs of MMA Mania and MMA Fighting going as far as to score it 48-45 (indicating 10-8s for Rounds 2 and 3) for the defending champion. Only two scored the fight for Yan, while five others scored the bout a 47-47 draw.

What did the people say?

(Data derived from MMA Decisions and Verdict MMA)

A large portion of fans on MMA Decisions are calling this one a robbery as of this writing. At the top of the fan vote is 48-47 Yan with a whopping 46.4 percent. There is strong support for a Sterling win though if you combine the other results with 48-46 Sterling at 18.1 percent and 48-47 Sterling at 16.1 percent. Draw comes in at 12.8 percent, meaning that 47 percent actually didn’t score it for Yan.

Regarding Round 1, 10-9 Yan registered at 61.6 percent.

Over on the Verdict MMA app, the fighters are locked in a virtual tie.

That scoring system takes the cumulative total of every submitted fan score (filtering out aberrant scores like random 10-7s if they comprise less than one percent of the total) in every round and divides by the amount of submitted scores to determine the winner of each round and also in totality.

Sterling and Yan are separated by one one-hundredth of a point with Sterling at 47.27 and Yan at 47.26. The dominance that Sterling showed in Rounds 2 and 3 made the difference, but this was essentially a coin toss in the Verdict MMA community.

MMA Fighting’s poll, which was taken immediately after the end of the contest and asked fans only to pick a winner or draw, doesn’t provide much clarity either.

Yan won with 44.6 percent of the vote, just ahead of Sterling at 41.3 percent. Add in draw at 14.1 percent and you can see why this fight is the definition of controversial.

Let me add that while there were fighters on both sides that were vocal about the decision, I have to show respect to Lando Vannata for sharing his opinion of the fight along with a breakdown of how he reached his score.

Utilize the criteria!

How did I score it?

My first viewing of the first round was not particularly conclusive, but my initial instinct was to score it for Sterling. I also gave Sterling a 10-8 in Round 2.

Upon review, I actually feel even more confident about giving Sterling the first round even though Yan connected with several hard punches. He made Yan miss and his body work was consequential, though I understand why viewers would favor Yan’s head shots. I just don’t think Yan landed enough of them to convincingly take the round.

As for the 10-8, Sterling had dominance, duration, and damage in that round in my opinion. I’ve seen lots of chatter on social media arguing that the latter criteria wasn’t fulfilled, but I would implore people to rewatch Sterling’s ground-and-pound with 90 seconds remaining in the round. That is the definition of damage for me and while I understand people wanting to see more sustained offense, those punches combined with him completely neutralizing Yan put it past the 10-9 range for me.

Here’s a refresher on what constitutes a 10-8, courtesy of our pal Damon Martin:

48-46 Sterling on my card.

Was it a robbery?

Even if you give Yan Rounds 1, 4, and 5, I feel so strongly about giving Sterling a 10-8 that I’m more convinced of a draw than I am a Yan victory. Consider how Yan may have edged out Round 1 and it feels wrong to give Round 2 the same score, doesn’t it?

Yan unquestionably performed better in the later rounds and people tend to gravitate towards the fighter who finished strong. Add in the fact that he appeared to be winning their first fight before getting himself disqualified and you can see how easy it is to want to view the rematch in his favor even if a close look at the action shows us how little separates these elite bantamweights.

In the end, there’s absolutely a case to be made to give the first round to Sterling and an even better case to give him a 10-8 in the second. Add those factors together and we have our answer.

The final verdict

Not a robbery.