UFC Vegas 71: It's personal between Petr Yan and Merab Dvalishvili in key bantamweight scrap
There are a lot of so-called feuds in mixed martial arts, but rare is the one in which the two fighters intensely dislike each other. Usually, what's at stake in a bout is enough to spur the athletes to peak performance.
And there is plenty at stake for both former bantamweight champion Petr Yan and his rival, Merab Dvalishvili, when they meet Saturday (6 p.m. ET, ESPN+) at the Virgin Hotel in Las Vegas in the main event of UFC Vegas 71. The bantamweight division is crowded with elite contenders who want a shot at champion Aljamain Sterling, including former champion Henry Cejudo, Sean O'Malley, Marlon Vera and Cory Sandhagen, among others.
The winner on Saturday will remain in prime position for a title shot. The loser will drop a few notches and have plenty of star fighters between them and the title.
This, though, is one of those rare cases where the fighters actually do not like each other and have a significant personal beef. That should add an edge to what is already shaping up as a fascinating fight to watch.
"Every fight in the UFC is very important," Dvalishvili said.
But there was more. He only needed to be nudged just a wee bit to open up and discuss his issues with Yan. Winning the fight is important because of the rankings, but it's also important for numerous personal reasons.
His first issue is because of Russia's political position in the world. Yan is Russian and Dvalishvili is from Georgia. The countries have had a difficult history, though it's clearly not the fault of either fighter.
It was, though, the first thing Dvalishvili touched upon.
“This fight is not only a fight; it’s personal to me," Dvalishvili said. "He’s from Russia, I’m from Georgia. We all know Russia what they’re doing to Ukraine now, [and] what they did to Georgia. Russia is not a democratic country. I know I want to win for my people. I have so much support from my country and so much support from Ukraine, too.
“Petr is a great fighter. He is a former champion. We all know he’s tough. As a fighter, he’s a great fighter. He’s dangerous. He doesn’t have holes anywhere. He’s a good striker. He is a good striker. He defends wrestling good. His cardio is good. This is my toughest fight. And I have other reasons. I think he’s a great fighter, a good family guy, but he’s not a humble guy. He’s not a great human. It doesn’t matter how good of a fighter you are, you have to be a good person."
Dvalishvili went on to call Yan a cheater and said Yan didn't "do great things" when he was champion such as charity work.
"I don't think he's a good guy," said Dvalishvili, who is Sterling's friend and teammate. "Maybe he is for his family, but other than that, what is he doing?"
As a former champion, Yan is the bigger name and so he was dismissive of Dvalishvili. He said Dvalishvili was trying to ride on his coattails and garner attention. He said essentially that Dvalishvili is two-faced and speaks out when there are cameras and media around but does not talk to him man-to-man.
He simply shrugged off Dvalishvili's comments as insignificant.
"He doesn’t have any other way to bring attention to himself,” Yan said. “He cannot do it with his fights. In his fights, all he does is, like a dog, take the leg and push his opponents up against the cage. So he’s just trying to get a little attention or something. No one is interested in him."
And so their fight, which is hugely significant in the division, gets a little extra bite. Yan is a -250 favorite at BetMGM, with Dvalishvili at +200. But Yan has lost two in a row and three of his last four, though the first of those losses was a disqualification when he hit Sterling with an illegal knee. Dvalishvili has reeled off eight consecutive wins over nearly four years, to move himself into contender status.
To keep the momentum rolling, though, he'll need at least one more victory. That, he said, will be a pleasure.
Yan needs a win, too, given his recent losses, so there is extra incentive on both sides.
"A win in the UFC is important for me, even when I was fighting on the first fight on the card or even when you're on the pay-per-view," he said. "Every fight in the UFC is important and I have to make sure I win this fight."