As Petr Yan prepared for his Zoom interview, the UFC bantamweight champion kept getting up and moving around until he found the right spot. The background he finally settled on — sun-drenched palm trees and sparkling ocean water — could not have been more different from the surroundings planned for him just a few months earlier.
Yan was scheduled to make his first title defense against Aljamain Sterling in December, and his training camp was going to take place where he and his family live in Yekaterinburg, Siberia. Yan usually trains in Thailand, but pandemic-related travel restrictions forced an audible.
Plans hit another snag when the fight was postponed because of what Yan described as “personal reasons.” Yan said since the fight would be in the U.S., and he knew American Top Team in Coconut Creek, Florida, had plenty of sparring partners at his weight, he made the “spontaneous” decision to move his camp to South Florida.
Fighters don’t like to change routines before bouts, especially when this much is at stake. What impact the change has had on Yan will play out Saturday night at UFC 259, where his title defense against Sterling is expected to vie for fight-of-the-night honors on a stacked card.
The last four weeks in South Florida have been filled with new experiences for Yan. Over the last month, Yan worked with a new Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach in ATT’s Marcos “Parrumpa” DaMatta, celebrated his 28th birthday on a 90-foot yacht, drove around in Italian sports cars and became proficient at chess. Quite a change for someone whose passion back home is fishing in the shadows of the Ural Mountains.
But what may have seemed like a whirlwind adventure, based on Yan’s social media posts, was put in a different context by a fighter whose lifestyle is as simple as his straight-ahead fighting approach.
“I was like, ‘Man, what the f—? You come here and you rule the place,'” DaMatta said. “He said, ‘Coach, I just like to fish.'”
Petru Grati met Yan after his win over Jimmie Rivera at UFC 238 in June 2019. A native of Moldova, Grati caught Yan’s attention by speaking Russian.
The two didn’t stay in contact, but when Grati, who owns an exotic car rental business in Miami, saw on Instagram that Yan was in the area, he sent him a message. In a folder with 20,000 unread messages, Yan saw Grati’s, and the two connected.
To Grati, it seemed like a lay-up. A young, successful athlete is getting his first taste of South Florida, so set him up with a fancy car. Yan was hesitant initially, but he ultimately agreed to try out a souped-up Lamborghini Urus. After taking it out for a spin, Yan kept the car for the rest of his Florida stay.
“I said, ‘Look, you are the UFC champion,'” Grati said. “But he said, ‘You know what, I come from a poor family. I’m OK. I just want to see how it drives.'”
“He said he would keep it for one day. I told him, ‘Enjoy it while you’re here. Miami is something exotic — you need to drive an exotic car.'”
For most fighters, training camps are anything but exotic, and for the most part, it wasn’t any different for Yan, who spent most of his hours training.
Yan lived in a rental home in Pompano Beach with his coach, John Hutchinson, and a couple of training partners. During their time off, they hit the beaches for some tanning or drove a few miles south to visit Russian bathhouses in Sunny Isles, which has a large Russian population.
Yan also took up another interest that doesn’t exactly scream exotic adventure.
“We play chess,” Yan told ESPN during the Zoom interview, which was conducted in Russian. “It’s a great game. It makes you think, although the head hurts sometimes, too.
“Basically, this is how our days unfold. When we’re not training, and we have a day off, we either go to the beach or play chess. …. Everything is calm, without any excesses. As far as anything memorable, I can’t think of it, because here everything is boring, very disciplined — the training, the time off, the food.”
It wasn’t all disciplined and boring. Grati helped rent a 90-foot yacht to celebrate Yan’s birthday. Grati’s wife ordered a custom cake, with Yan’s likeness on the side and an eight-sided ring on top. But even on a day that was supposed to be for relaxation, Yan still got in some shadow boxing on the second deck.
“Petr Yan is the hardest-working athlete out there,” Hutchinson said.
There is a 10-hour time difference between Pompano Beach and Yekaterinburg, where Yan’s wife, Julia, and two young children remained during his camp.
“Sometimes I try to wait until they wake up, so we can chat for a half hour, and then I can go to bed,” Yan said.
If there are advantages to being in sunny South Florida, the distance from his family was perhaps the biggest challenge.
“It’s hard for him,” Grati said. “He’s not telling you, but I see it when he’s talking to his wife on FaceTime. … I’m looking at his face. He’s missing them. He’s a family guy.
“He’s telling me, ‘My kids are going to grow up and what are they going to remember? Me home or somewhere else?'”
Yan acknowledged that he was homesick, but he did what he could to remain focused before facing a difficult challenge in Sterling. Caesars Sportsbook by William Hill has Yan as the slightest of favorites at -115, so there wasn’t time to be distracted during camp.
“I haven’t had [culture shock] in that direct sense,” Yan said. “But it is a new place. Everything is interesting: the people, the lifestyle, the architecture. … I want to say again, right now there is no time to investigate, explore and see it all, but I think I would like to come back and have more free time to do it.”
In the meantime, he’s looking forward to returning to Russia as soon as possible after Saturday’s fight.
“I would rather be back in my native cold weather and be with [family],” Yan said. “On fight night, it will have been exactly two months [since he saw his family]”.
DaMatta, who has previously worked with Yan’s manager, Daniel Rubenstein, said he was initially worried about the arrangement of having Yan train at ATT. Yan is an established UFC champion with his own team.
DaMatta was in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, coaching fighters on UFC cards for three weeks before he could meet Yan back in Florida. DaMatta and Yan spoke on the phone while DaMatta was overseas, but it wasn’t very productive.
“I’m like, man, I don’t know if this is going to work,” DaMatta said. “He’s just giving me yes or no [answers].”
When DaMatta got back to ATT and met Yan in person, the relationship blossomed. He was impressed by how quickly Yan picked up his grappling principles.
Sterling is a great wrestler with a dangerous submission game. Yan is very competent on the ground, but DaMatta doesn’t want the champion to engage the challenger down there.
The focus has been on takedown defense, getting back to the feet after a takedown and staying safe on the mat if things end up there. In sparring, Yan was taking his partners down and DaMatta had to dial him back.
“It’s OK [in the gym], but [in the Octagon] I don’t want you to do none of that s—,” DaMatta said. “If he takes you down and he tries to engage, you’re prepared. But our Plan A is you demolishing him standing up.”
But sometimes plans change, requiring the ability to find a new comfort level, whether in front of a laptop for an interview, in an unfamiliar gym near the beach or in the Octagon. For Petr Yan, this training camp has been about finding the right spot.