The first thing you have to do is look at a guy like Artur Mirzakhanyan.
Go ahead, watch the video. It's hard not to sympathize for the poor guy. For starters, his opponent is a good deal larger than he is. A punch splays Mirzakhanyan across the mat early despite it being a short shot thrown off the back foot. Then you watch his opponent rip his arm free of a submission attempt, only to bring that same arm, maybe half a second later, down between his eyes.
It was over in less than a round. Mirzakhanyan was not the first guy to get his backside fed to him by Petr Yan. He also wasn't the last.
Saturday at UFC 238, the 26-year-old Yan goes for a landmark win when he faces New Jersey native and rugged counter-boxer Jimmie Rivera. It will be Yan's first appointment on a UFC pay-per-view.
Rivera wouldn't be just another line item on Yan's resume, though. For years, dating back to his time when Yan was greener than pea shoots and knocking around the Mirzakhanyans of the world, MMA prospect hunters have been aware of his promise and heralded him as the sport's top bantamweight prospect.
He's no UFC noob, as Saturday marks Yan's fifth contest under that banner. Yan was almost five years into his career before the UFC finally called him up, and he's made up for lost time with four UFC wins in less than one calendar year.
Rivera's on the boundary of contender status (No. 7 on the UFC's official rankings) and is the biggest name Yan's faced to date. A win would definitively convert all of Yan's potential energy into a kinetic force pointed toward the division's top echelon.
In other words, this is Yan's coming-out party.
Why is Yan so highly regarded? His 12-1 record, including that 4-0 mark in the UFC, largely speaks for itself. Five of his wins came by knockout, including a rare corner stoppage TKO over Douglas Silva de Andrade at UFC 232 in December. If you ever see a corner wave off the action on behalf of its fighter, you can have confidence the action was brutal.
After facing down and then melting down the super-aggressive Andrade with early punch and kick combinations, Yan took his opponent to the mat—you know, just for giggles, as Andrade had been trying to do that for much of the fight. Yan then put Andrade in a different mental zip code with some evil-minded ground-and-pound elbows. The bully had been bullied.
Don't forget that Andrade was 25-2 (1) coming into the contest. This was no slouch.
His name value isn't near that of Rivera's, however. Can Yan do it again? He's favored to do so, with oddsmakers seeing Yan as a -330 favorite (wager $330 to win $100) in the bout, per Caesars.
What makes his game so potent, even at the highest levels? Yan's approach hinges on pressure—the kind that's difficult to stand up to. When he pushes forward, he pushes opponents out of their comfort zones, then attacks with laser precision and a deep arsenal of strikes. When he hits, he hits hard and with volume, all with the unsettlingly taciturn demeanor of a certain compatriot named Fedor Emelianenko. You may remember the name.
The promise of that approach became evident years ago to MMA prospect watchers. More than three years ago, my former colleague Patrick Wyman and I ranked Yan No. 9 in our list of the top 25 prospects of 2016. According to Mr. Wyman, despite being "a complete unknown" at the time, Yan was still worthy of blue-chip status:
"Clean, technically sound punching combinations are Yan's bread and butter. He circles smoothly at range, picking and choosing his angles with care and then leaping into shifting sequences of hard punches. Brutal kicks at all levels add another level of danger, and he melds them beautifully with his punches. Flashing hands distract from crushing low kicks, and a body disguises the punching combination that follows.
"The occasional spinning kick or flying knee adds a bit of flash to a powerful, fast but technically sound striking game. The Russian is lethal from both stances and could already compete with some of the division's elite on the feet."
That "bit of flash" carries a lot of water in Yan's game. For all that placidity, Yan knows how to bring a crowd to its feet. He makes a conscious effort to break the other man, and it's a riveting thing to watch. That aforementioned size advantage bears out in a UFC context as much as it does on the overseas circuits; as a thumbnail illustration, the 5'7" Yan will have a notable size advantage over the 5'4" Rivera, just as he did over the 5'3" John Dodson in the fall.
That advantage in height and length, combined with his technique and power, are a great recipe for violence. Even a hip toss is infused with bad intentions. He, without a doubt, has one-punch knockout power. It's hard to stand up to him, plain and simple.
There's more. As shown against Andrade, Yan has evolved beyond standup, even if it understandably remains his stock-in-trade. He earned a Master of Sport designation—roughly equivalent to All-American or national champion status—through the Russian government for both MMA and karate. He knows how to get a fight to the canvas and can prevent such a development just as easily.
The Andrade fight signaled that Yan wasn't going anywhere, but it still didn't quite reach the level of a coming-out party. Neither did any of his previous three UFC contests.
His first-round smearing of fun but flagging prospect Teruto Ishihara wasn't enough to ring any bells outside the hardcore fan set. Not many people saw his Fight of the Night master class over Jin Soo Son on the low-wattage undercard of low-wattage UFC Fight Night 136. After Andrade, UFC matchmakers rewarded Yan with Dodson—a solid name but one who dropped to 2-4 after a decision loss to Yan.
Rivera—who defeated Dodson himself in September—will be a new stylistic test for Yan. Rivera is a counter-fighter who will want to make Yan pay for excessive forward pressure. While Yan has shown good fight IQ and an ability to stick to a tailored game plan, his pressure tends to be something he commits to. If he overcommits against an equally smart fighter in Rivera, everyone will understand the mistake in short order.
To top it all off, Yan already has a tasty potential matchup on this horizon should he defeat Rivera. A dustup with contender Pedro Munhoz during UFC 238 fight week saw to that.
If the odds bear out, Yan will find a way to solve Rivera's challenge. The smart money (not to mention history) also dictates that he will do so in impressive fashion.
For years now, Yan has been held up as the next big thing at bantamweight, an electric bit of dynamite to the division. He's equal parts showman and yeoman, and his charismatic in-cage approach will get him over the hump and then some if he takes care of business Saturday.