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Antagonistic Sterling puts belt on the line at UFC 273

Updated April 8, 2022 - 8:42 pm

Perhaps no fighter has been reminded so often of his biggest mistake in the cage as interim bantamweight champion Petr Yan.

He finally will get a chance to put it behind him when he faces champion Aljamain Sterling in the co-main event of UFC 273 on Saturday in Jacksonville, Florida.

The event, which will be headlined by a featherweight title bout between “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung and champion Alexander Volkanovski, also features undefeated emerging superstar Khamzat Chimaev.

On the organization’s most loaded pay-per-view lineup in some time, the most tension is between Yan and Sterling. It mostly dates to their first meeting in March 2021.

Yan had started to take control of the fight when late in the fourth round, the then-bantamweight champion ceded his belt by disqualification when he inexplicably cracked Sterling with an illegal knee.

Sterling couldn’t continue after the blow. Yan has taken exception to how much Sterling has celebrated the fact that he has been champion ever since that day, though he has yet to put the title on the line because of neck surgery that kept him out of action.

Even though he couldn’t compete, Sterling has done plenty to antagonize his rival. He has posted several videos explaining the rules of mixed martial arts and on Thursday wore a Jaguars helmet to the news conference, “just in case (Yan) decided to throw something illegal.”

Sterling also posed with his teammates in front of a Ukrainian flag, which Yan took as a jab at him as a Russian even though he publicly has denounced the war.

Yan isn’t known as the joking type. The no-nonsense Russian said earlier in the week he would fight anyone from Sterling’s camp should they cross paths at the fighter hotel or out and about in Jacksonville, though he clarified Thursday that he would wait until the bell rings.

“I kill him on Saturday,” said Yan, who claimed the interim belt with a win over Cory Sandhagen in October during Sterling’s absence.

Yan will have one potential complication to overcome when he enters the cage Saturday. His cornermen were denied visas to enter the country from Russia, which is under strong sanctions from the U.S. government. Several fighters publicly volunteered to work with Yan before ultimately backing out, so the interim champ still is sorting through options.

Sterling has soaked up every bit of attention he has received for the controversial way he won the belt but said he is looking forward to silencing not only Yan but also those who deem his title reign as anything less than legitimate.

“I finally get to shut this (expletive) up,” Sterling said Thursday in front of a large news conference crowd that didn’t seem to be on his side. “It’s going to be so sweet. I guarantee everybody here is going to be cheering and all of a sudden, they’re going to be back on the bandwagon. So that’s the way the fans are, but I’m just glad the fans are going to tune in.”

They will have plenty of reasons to watch the event beyond that championship grudge match.

Volkanovski, a former professional rugby player, will put his belt and a 20-fight win streak on the line in search of a third consecutive title defense.

Jung shouldn’t be overwhelmed but might not be as equipped for the kind of pressure the champion is likely to generate as he was earlier in his career.

He last fought for a belt in 2013, a loss that was followed by Jung serving a four-year military commitment in his native South Korea.

Even with no belt on the line, the welterweight bout between Chimaev and Gilbert Burns might be the most intriguing. Chimaev has overwhelmed all four opponents he has faced in the UFC. The betting odds (minus-500) suggest that again will be the case as he takes a major step up in competition against a legitimate contender in Burns.

“I’m going to smash that guy, knock him out in one minute (or) less,” Chimaev said. “I promise you. He’s too little. He’s a scared boy.

“I’m gonna kill that guy. I have power in my hands. I don’t care what I’m going to do. I’m going to jump in the cage and smash that guy. I don’t care. He will be down and I will smash his face. If it will be standup, I will knock him out. I don’t care.”

Also on the 7 p.m. main card, jiu-jitsu ace Mackenzie Dern will look to bounce back from her second pro loss when she takes on women’s strawweight contender Tecia Torres.

Preliminary card bouts will stream on ESPN-Plus starting at 3 p.m., with four fights airing on ESPN at 5.

Contact Adam Hill at ahill@reviewjournal.com. Follow @AdamHillLVRJ on Twitter.

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