An underwhelming couple of fights at the top of the UFC 259 card were overshadowed on Saturday night by the unprecedented and uncomfortable way that Aljamain Sterling claimed the bantamweight title from Petr Yan. By taking a brutal illegal knee to the head from Yan while on the ground in the fourth round, Sterling became the new champion via a disqualification, despite being down on the scorecards when the fight ended.
The knee and its entire aftermath can be seen in the video below. Though Dana White later told TMZ that “there’s nothing wrong with” Sterling, and that he’d been cleared by doctors at the hospital, everybody watching the PPV in real time had to believe they were watching a man try to struggle through a concussion while lying on the mat. Mercifully, after three minutes of discussion between Sterling, a doctor, and the referee, the fight was called, and Yan lost his belt.
Inexplicably, Sterling was allowed to talk with UFC commentator Joe Rogan before seeking further medical attention. In the interview, he tried to fight back tears as he described the ending as “fucking bullshit” and said that this was not how he wanted to win the championship. (To emphasize that point, Sterling took off the belt and left it in the Octagon as he exited.)
In a normal sport, the fact that viewers were treated to such an up close and personal look at Sterling’s pain would be a PR disaster. But the controversy, instead, has annoyingly become about whether or not Sterling was “faking it” by appearing hurt after, um, taking an illegal knee shot flush to the head from the world champion.
Yan, most obviously, played up the heel act almost immediately by raising his own fist as the result was announced. And though he did apologize for the knee on Twitter afterwards, he also seemed bothered by the fact that the new champion was, I guess, standing upright and getting his picture taken instead of dealing with serious brain damage.
Yan understandably would be feeling some frustration after losing the belt in this manner, particularly if his own corner screwed him with bad advice. But a bunch of other fighters whose tempers should not be running so hot also decided that Twitter this weekend was a good place and time to question Sterling’s honor. Chief among these dicks was UFC legend and previous bantamweight champ Henry Cejudo, who shared a crude meme calling Sterling an actor.
Not everybody was echoing these thoughts—Jon Jones sent out a full-throated congrats to the new champ—but what an infuriating position to be put into by your own peers if you’re Sterling. You suffer a jarring, vicious illegal blow that puts you flat on your back for minutes while a doctor tries to make sense of just how rocked you are. Then it’s correctly decided that it would be beyond stupid to stand you up and let Yan continue to hurt you. You’re crushed by the anticlimax that accompanies your first-ever UFC title fight at 31 years old. And then you get branded as a coward online, with no real objective way to convince people otherwise.
Anyway, a rematch will almost definitely happen later this year, and it will be a hugely anticipated bout with a tremendously compelling story behind it. So even though this should all be pretty embarrassing for the sport, I’m not sure it could have gone any better for Dana White.