In theory, no sport should have less controversy than mixed martial arts. Most of the widely agreed-upon best mixed martial artists compete in the Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC), and unlike in a complex game such as football or basketball, even the untrained eye should generally be able to discern who is better in a fight between two individuals. However, several facets of the sport, such as questionable judging and arbitrary matchmaking, have consistently stirred, especially regarding the question of whether a current UFC champion “deserves” their belt.
At UFC 259, the promotion’s most recent pay-per-view event, bantamweight contender Aljamain Sterling won the title from Petr Yan in arguably the most controversial manner to date. Although the fight had shifted in Yan’s favor, Yan threw a knee to Sterling’s head with the latter’s knees clearly still on the floor. This resulted in Yan’s disqualification, as the UFC forbids knees to the head of a “grounded” opponent, meaning that the opponent’s hands and knees must be above the ground.
Since this fight was for the bantamweight title, Yan’s loss meant that Sterling had won the title from him, but given the momentum of the fight and the way it finished, few fans or fellow fighters acknowledged Sterling’s performance as a real win, arguing that Yan had clearly proven himself as the better fighter that night.
When Yan threw the knee, referee Herb Dean immediately called a halt to the action, during which time he asked Sterling if he was ready to continue. Per the rules, Sterling was given five minutes to recover from the strike; however, Sterling’s reactions led the UFC medical team to deem him concussed and therefore unfit to continue. Fans, however, lambasted Sterling and claimed that he over-exaggerated the degree to which he was compromised in order to deliberately end the fight and win the belt via Yan’s disqualification.
Furthermore, when UFC president Dana White wrapped the belt around Sterling’s waist, Sterling immediately threw down the belt in protest, clearly signifying that even he did not view his win as legitimate. In an emotional post-fight interview, Sterling again emphasized this sentiment, and while some fans still criticized Sterling, the majority of vitriol at this point was aimed toward Yan for the illegal knee. Public perception shifted rapidly, however, when pictures of Sterling celebrating with friends and taking pictures with the belt surfaced on the Internet.
Even though Sterling had become somewhat of a sympathetic figure in the fight’s immediate aftermath, fans and fellow fighters publicly ridiculed Sterling for taking pictures with the belt that, just hours before, he had refused to accept. For one, fans argued that since Sterling was on track to lose the fight, he should not have publicly celebrated this win. In addition, his abrupt shift in attitude incurred strong disapproval from many pundits within the industry, and surprisingly, the public began to sympathize more with Yan, who many still consider the real champion who made a foolish mistake in the heat of the moment.
In response to this criticism, Sterling defended his actions in and out of the cage. With regards to accusations that he exaggerated the damage from the knee, Sterling explained that since he did not expect Yan to throw a knee in that position, he had no time to brace for impact, and as a result, the knee did even more damage than it would have otherwise. Sterling maintained that although he tried to keep fighting, he had sustained too much damage from the blow to continue. He also addressed the pictures of him with the belt, claiming that while his friends and family wanted to take pictures with him, Sterling himself would not post pictures or recognize himself as the true champion before a rematch with Yan.
Unfortunately, Sterling quickly went back on his word in a number of ways. First, he began posting pictures of himself with his belt on Instagram. He also teased a face-off between himself and former champion Henry Cejudo, despite the widespread public demand for an immediate rematch between Sterling and Yan. During this sequence of events, commentator and former fighter Daniel Cormier, normally sympathetic to most fighters, issued criticism toward Sterling and advised him to celebrate in private. Sterling then gave an emotional interview in which he attacked his critics and questioned their knowledge of mixed martial arts, which only further exacerbated public criticism toward him.
Even though Sterling handled the situation poorly in terms of public relations, most fans have lost sight of why Sterling’s actions are largely justified. On a fundamental level, Yan’s knee absolutely compromised Sterling in an unfair manner, and the disqualification was the correct response to the issue. Although no disqualification had ever occurred in a championship fight before, the rules should not have been altered simply because of the prize associated with this particular fight.
In addition, regardless of how he obtained it, Sterling has forever etched his name among a select few athletes to win the UFC title and ought to have the freedom to celebrate as he wishes. Finally, his gestures toward Cejudo do not appear to be serious given the latter’s retirement, and thus fans should not take them as seriously as they have.
For both athletes, an immediate rematch will hopefully provide much-needed closure on this extended controversy. Yan will look to build on the success he already had in the first fight but ensure that he stays within the ruleset. Sterling now has time to assess the mistakes he made in the first fight and adapt, all while enjoying the increased financial compensation that comes with the UFC title. For the fans, whether they agree or disagree with Sterling’s actions, their input does not change the fact that Sterling has earned the UFC belt and will have the opportunity to defend it when the UFC schedules his next fight.