LAS VEGAS – Seconds into his pivotal bantamweight clash with Peter Yan, Merab Dvalishvili betrayed his game plan: He pushed at a relentless pace, using superb cardiovascular conditioning, to defeat the former champion and score a dominant victory at The Theater at Virgin Hotel.
Dvalishvili’s nickname is “The Machine,” because he can go hard from start to finish, but he’s taken things to another level.
He went for takedowns all the time, but he also got the best of striking exchanges and just battered Yan from start to finish. It was 50-45 on all three cards and it wasn’t that close.
Dvalishvili had a 147-75 advantage in significant strikes, but it was the wrestling stats that were eye-openers in this fight. Dvalishvili landed 11 shots from a whopping 49 attempts, nearly two a minute, and never stopped going for it. Yan was just 1-of-5 on takedowns.
Dvalishvili’s pace was devastating. He scored 202 of 401 total shots and forced Yan to defend for the entire 25 minutes. Yan’s right eye was swollen shut midway through the third round from the close range elbows Dvalishvili was throwing.
Yan had a few notable moments in the fight, the best of which came as a result of defending shots. His balance and defensive wrestling were, as usual, superb, but he produced very little offense.
Dvalishvili did not give him a moment to catch his breath or distance himself. He was on top of the Russian throughout and Yan just couldn’t keep up with the pace set by Dvalishvili.
Dvalishvili, who is a teammate, training partner and close friend of bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling, beat Yan more clearly than Sterling or Sean O’Malley in Yan’s previous two fights. Yan lost split decisions to both, but had his moments in each.
On Saturday, he had little to offer Dvalishvili, who jumped and danced in the ring like Clay Guida and looked like he could fight 10 rounds at the same pace.
The ease with which Dvalishivili disposed of Yan was no surprise to Sterling, who has fought Yan twice.
“Did that surprise me? Not at all,” Sterling said. “Everybody makes (Yan) out to be a big monster, but he’s not all that.”
Yan was ranked No. 2 and Dvalishvili was ranked No. 3 heading into the fight, and Dvalishvili will clearly move up to No. 2 after this performance. Sterling and former two-time champion Henry Cejudo will fight for the title on May 6 at UFC 288 in Newark, New Jersey.
It might make sense for O’Malley and Dvalishvili to battle it out to determine the No. 1 contender.
But there is no doubt that Dvalishvili is a threat to anyone in the division. Dvalishvili is coming off a one-sided victory over Hall of Famer Jose Aldo, but he didn’t get all the credit for that win at UFC 278 on Aug. 20 because it was Aldo’s final fight.
He clearly established that he is not only an elite competitor in the division, but that he will be a handful that anyone can beat if he fights like he did on Saturday.
He had an emotional fight because he is from the Republic of Georgia and Yan is from Russia and the two countries don’t get along. He put pressure on himself before the fight by talking a lot of nonsense, but he managed to back it up.
He said he was motivated to win for a number of reasons, including as a way to show the support of the Ukrainian people after Russia attacked them last year.
“Russia does not want to be friends with other countries,” Dvalishvili said. “… Russia wants to be alone. They say: ‘If you go to NATO, we will kill you’ and they start throwing bombs.
The pressure on Dvalishvili increased when Yan punched him in the throat at Friday’s weigh-in. He said he called Yan a slur after that, for which he apologized on Saturday, and knew he would have to raise his game.
He did just that with an incredible effort that was clearly of championship caliber.
Afterwards, the world geopolitical situation hung over Dvalishvili. He poured his heart out as he spoke about his country, the support he received from his countrymen and Russia’s relationship with its neighbors.
“We can’t stop Russia, but at least we can beat them in sports,” he said. “…I hope that this war will end and that we can live in this world in peace.”