9:32 PM ET
Brett OkamotoESPN Staff Writer
- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for "MMA Live"
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
LAS VEGAS -- They truly do not call Merab Dvalishvili "The Machine" for nothing.
Dvalishvili (16-4) earned the biggest win of his career on Saturday, as he dominated former champion Petr Yan (16-5) in a five-round unanimous decision at UFC Fight Night inside The Theater at Virgin Hotels. All three judges scored the 135-pound bout a 50-45 shutout for Dvalishvili, who came in as a 2-1 betting underdog.
The Georgian bantamweight turned in a historic performance in the victory. He attempted a UFC-record 49 takedowns, shattering the previous record of 33 set by former heavyweight champion Cain Velasquez in 2012, and was successful on 11 of them. According to UFC Stats, Dvalishvili also landed 202 of 401 total strikes compared with 87 of 155 by Yan.
"I said before -- it was personal for me," Dvalishvili said. "I tried to keep it professional. My team was telling me that I was taking this fight different. Thank God, I did professional. He called me a zero. Who's the zero now?"
There was definitely bad blood between the two all fight week. Dvalishvili, who has a Georgian flag tattooed on his chest due to the UFC's recent restriction of fighters walking to the Octagon with their country's flag, made it a point to speak out against Russia's ongoing war with Ukraine. Yan fights out of the Russian city of Yekaterinburg.
A large constituency of Georgia fans turned out for Dvalishvili's performance on Saturday and relished his win over a former UFC champion and pound-for-pound candidate.
"I am so proud, thank you all Georgians who came here and watching from home," Dvalishvili said. "We are only five million, but we are strong. I'm so happy to be here and represent my country."
Even those predicting a Dvalishvili upset would have had a hard time envisioning it like this. Dvalishvili stayed on Yan from bell to bell, constantly shooting single-leg takedowns and crowding him in striking exchanges. He turned every second of the bout into a grinding affair, attacking Yan with leg kicks, jabs, right hands, knees from the clinch and elbows.
He appeared to hurt Yan's lead left leg with a kick in the second round and swelled his right eye with punches midway through the fourth. Yan didn't look terribly fatigued by Dvalishvili's pace, but he looked extremely uncomfortable with the sheer volume that was put on him. It's Yan's fourth loss in his past five appearances after starting his career 15-1.
As for what Saturday's win sets up for Dvalishvili, that part is less clear. He is a close friend and training partner of defending champion Aljamain Sterling, who also defeated Yan twice in a rivalry that took place between 2021 and 2022. Fighting under Ray Longo and Matt Serra, the two friends have made it clear they will not fight each other, even if a belt is on the line.
"He is my brother and the world champion," Dvalishvili said of Sterling, who was in his corner on Saturday. "Whenever he decides to go up in weight class and fight whoever is there, after that, I will fight for the title. Of course I want to be champion."
Sterling is scheduled to defend his title against two-weight champion Henry Cejudo at UFC 288 on May 6 in Newark, New Jersey.