Urijah Faber has fought the greatest bantamweights and featherweights in MMA history, and he built a Hall of Fame career on his ability to avoid taking excessive punishment.
Never in his lengthy, storied career did Faber look like he did after exiting the Octagon following his bout with Petr Yan, a little-known Russian to those outside the MMA bubble who on Dec. 14 in Las Vegas established beyond a doubt that he was a threat to everyone in the UFC’s bantamweight division.
Yan knocked Faber out at UFC 245 with a head kick after beating on him throughout the fight. But the 27-year-old Russian, who is affable and easy-going outside the cage, took apart his legendary opponent with laser focus.
That led him to Fight Island, where he’ll challenge another legend of the sport, Jose Aldo for the vacant bantamweight title in the first of three championship fights on the main card of UFC 251 in Abu Dhabi.
Yan is not among those who questions whether Aldo, who lost to Marlon Moraes in his last fight, deserves the title shot. Many, including Yahoo Sports, had Aldo winning the bout, but he’s officially lost two in a row and hasn’t won a fight in the division in which he’s competing for the title.
That won’t matter to Yan, who took a shot at former champion Henry Cejudo, who retired after a victory in May over Dominick Cruz, while defending Aldo.
“Aldo is a legend of this sport and he’s been on the top level for a long time,” Yan told Yahoo Sports. “He is a versatile fighter. He’s dangerous. I don’t think of him or look at him as old. He is here because he deserves it and my goal is to win the championship. I wanted to fight [Cejudo], but he ran away.
“I think [Cejudo] looked at me and all the other top contenders in this division and he knew he wasn’t going to be the champion much longer, and he decided the task was too hard for him. But it doesn’t matter to me who I fight [for the title]. It’s the belt that matters. Ever since I started that has been my one goal.”
Yan has held steady as a little better than a 2-to-1 favorite at the MGM Grand sports book. After both he and Aldo made weight on Friday, Yan was a -220 favorite. Aldo, the former featherweight champion, is +180.
UFC president Dana White is often quick to sound the horn for rising talents, especially those as ruthless and promising as Yan appears to be. Yan is 6-0 with three finishes in the UFC and has won 14 of his 15 pro fights overall.
Perhaps because of the criticism of Aldo getting the fight, White didn’t go over the top in discussing Yan.
“We’ll find out what Petr Yan has,” White said. “Everybody is fixated on the fact that Aldo lost his last fight, but Marlon Moraes first of all is an extremely bad dude, and so many people felt that Aldo won that fight. Cejudo wanted to fight [Aldo] and so we offered him the fight, because we didn’t know [Cejudo] was going to retire [following his UFC 249 win over Cruz]. So after we offered [Aldo] the fight, it wasn’t right to yank him from the fight. We don’t do that.
“So, Yan has this opportunity. There is a lot of hype around him and people are excited about him. We’ll find out after 25 minutes in the cage with Jose Aldo what he’s all about.”
He’s got an intimidating visage in the ring, much like the legendary Russian heavyweight Fedor Emelianenko did. Dominating the sport in the early years of his century, Emelianenko never changed his expression no matter what was going on.
Many fighters, including Hall of Famer Mark Coleman, have talked about how just that aspect of Emelianenko was intimidating.
“You’d look at Fedor in the corner before he’d fight, and it looked like he was struggling to stay awake,” said UFC broadcaster Laura Sanko, a former Invicta atomweight fighter.
Yan has many of those same qualities. Now, he’s not going to defeat Aldo by the way he stares at him, but if he does to Aldo what he did to Faber, that’s a much different story.
Yan said he’s worked his entire career for this moment.
“There is no reason to do this if you aren’t trying to prove you are the best,” he said. “I’ve always been confident in myself and believed I’d get to this point eventually. There are always [obstacles] in the path you have to overcome, but I feel like I am where I was meant to be and I’m going to get that title.”
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