Aljamain Sterling has no reason to hang his head. He has no reason to be embarrassed by the way he won the UFC bantamweight championship on Saturday at Apex.
He has nothing to apologize for and he owes nobody, particularly not Petr Yan, a thing.
Yan committed one of the most egregious fouls in UFC history on Saturday when he kneed Sterling in the head late in the fourth round of their title fight while Sterling’s knee was on the canvas. Under the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts, which the Nevada Athletic Commission observes, knees to the head of a downed opponent are illegal.
Demetrious Johnson, the legendary former UFC flyweight champion who will fight Adriano Moraes for the One Championship bantamweight title on April 7 on TNT, believes that knees to a grounded opponent should be legal.
And perhaps he’s correct. That’s an argument for another time, however. Under the rules as they are written, Yan’s knee was illegal.
He was rightly disqualified by referee Mark Smith and lost his championship.
“I won the belt based on the rules,” Sterling told Yahoo Sports on Monday. “I didn’t do anything wrong on my end. I played by the rules. I played fair. I came to win. I pushed the pace the entire time. If he got frustrated and decided to go the illegal route, that’s on him for whatever reason. You don’t become a champion by not knowing the rules. I would imagine that that’s as intentional as it gets.”
It was calculated and intentional as could be, which is why Yan doesn’t really deserve the rematch he’s going to get. When Paul Daley hit Josh Koscheck after the bell of their welterweight bout in Montreal in 2010, UFC president Dana White angrily cut Daley and vowed he’d never again fight in the UFC. And he did not.
White was correct in that case to take swift action, though it’s hard to agree a lifetime ban was the appropriate punishment. But if life was the penalty for what Daley did, how does Yan get treated so much differently?
By no means do I believe he should be banned for life, but he committed a brutal foul that had the potential to end Sterling’s career. Sterling was defenseless and unprepared for the knee because he knew the rule and he knew that Yan couldn’t knee him.
Yan still hasn’t answered the question of why, but he hauled off and delivered a devastating blow which probably cost him a win and that could have seriously injured Sterling. Thankfully, Sterling was cleared and released after undergoing tests late Saturday at a local hospital.
Yan should forfeit his place in line given the egregious nature of the foul. He robbed the fans of a logical conclusion to what had been a compelling fight. He put Sterling’s health at risk and then put him in an extraordinarily difficult position of trying to defend having won a belt by disqualification.
White said at the post-fight news conference that Sterling and Yan would rematch as soon as possible. Title shots are a precious commodity in the UFC and Sterling waited a long time to get his. The bantamweight division over which he reigns now is deep and talented and second-ranked Cory Sandhagen sits there awaiting a shot.
Sterling dropped the belt to the ground in the cage on Saturday, because he didn’t much feel like a champion and didn’t want to win that way. But if Yan had been disqualified for, say, repeated low blows, would he have felt differently?
He doesn’t believe Yan deserves the shot, but wants to fight him nonetheless because he doesn’t think he proved himself to the public. But he wouldn’t argue if the UFC opted to go in a different direction.
“I thought about it a little later and based on the way he did everything, a situation like that where it was intentional, and when something is that blatant, I don’t see how it could be deemed anything else other than fully intentional,” Sterling said. “I know the fans want the rematch and I want a rematch because we didn’t really have a finish. But I wouldn’t be opposed if they decided to go with somebody else. I wouldn’t care.”
Yan’s actions remain mystifying, and the last thing he should be doing is taunting Sterling on social media. His actions, not Sterling’s, caused the end to the fight and the end to his title reign.
Sterling said he was disappointed with how he performed and said he didn’t fight as well as he’d trained. He said he was having trouble getting his footing at Apex, but noted that Yan had the same issue.
He shouldn’t, though, feel like less of a champion. He did what he had to do, he put on a good show even though he wasn’t at his best and his opponent got frustrated and committed a significant foul.
Sterling is the champion, fair and square, and has no need to apologize to anyone for the way the fight played out.
More from Yahoo Sports: