The UFC bantamweight fight the world needed to see was undoubtedly the championship rematch between Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan.
The controversial nature of their first fight, which saw Sterling crowned the new undisputed champion after Yan was disqualified for an illegal knee to a downed opponent, meant the rematch was an essential fight booking.
But, with Sterling suffering from persistent back issues, the champion was forced off the card, leaving the UFC with a dilemma.
Keeping Yan on the card certainly made sense, especially with the event taking place in Abu Dhabi, much closer to Yan’s home in Russia. But what sort of fight could keep “No Mercy” interested considering he’d just lost out on the title rematch he desperately wanted?
An interim title fight seemed the natural solution, but with former champion T.J. Dillashaw – who had defeated Cory Sandhagen on his octagon return from a USADA suspension – ruled out through injury, the UFC turned to Sandhagen to step up.
What it means is we have a co-main event bout for the interim bantamweight title that features two fighters who are both coming into the bout off losses in their most recent outings.
However, despite the unusual form for a title fight, there is no doubt that this matchup features the two best active and available bantamweights in the UFC.
Yan’s only career defeats have come with noticeable asterisks. His split-decision loss to Magomed Magomedov in ACB came after a highly debatable late point deduction for a headbutt in a fight he would otherwise have won, while the second loss came against Sterling, where he appeared to ask his corner for advice on whether he could strike his downed opponent, then followed up on that advice and was subsequently disqualified.
Sandhagen, meanwhile, is a man who looks more than capable of defeating any 135er in the world on his day. His stunning back-to-back finishes of Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar showed that he has the ability to end a fight in an instant. He looked good against Dillashaw, too, only for a couple of lower-paced rounds to cost him in the final reckoning.
Both men are legitimately world class, and both are more than talented enough to rule the division. But only one can win the interim strap and cement themselves in a unification bout with Sterling in 2022.
Will it be Yan, who plans on leaving no doubt when he eventually shares a cage with “The Funkmaster” again? Or will it be “The Sandman,” whose physical gifts and penchant for the spectacular make him one of the most dangerous men in the world at 135 pounds?
It should make for an enthralling matchup at the Etihad Arena on Saturday night.