LAS VEGAS — Aljamain Sterling won the UFC bantamweight title when Petr Yan was disqualified for an illegal knee strike in the fourth round Saturday night (Sunday, Manila time) in the first of three championship fights at UFC 259.
Two-division champion Amanda Nunes also defended her featherweight belt with ease, beating Megan Anderson by submission 2:03 into the first round at the Apex gym on the UFC's corporate campus.
Sterling (20-3) appeared disoriented and disappointed when the belt was wrapped around his waist after a fight he appeared to be losing to Yan (15-2). Sterling threw the belt onto the canvas before he left the octagon.
The fight was stopped with 31 seconds left in the fourth when Yan drove his knee into the face of Sterling, who was kneeling on the canvas in front of him.
Mixed martial arts rules strictly prohibit such blows to a downed opponent, and the knee clearly hurt Sterling, who struggled and failed to get up for several minutes. The bout was called off by referee Mark Smith, who had verbally warned Yan not to throw such a strike a few seconds earlier.
UFC 259 is headlined by middleweight champion Israel Adesanya's attempt to become the fifth fighter to hold two belts simultaneously when he fights light heavyweight champ Jan Blachowicz.
Nunes (21-4) handled her second featherweight title defense with her usual flair, making short work of her Australian challenger while extending her winning streak to 12 fights since 2014.
After peppering Anderson (11-5) with strikes, Nunes jumped on her off-balance challenger and worked her way into a triangle armbar, forcing Anderson to tap out quickly.
The fight was Nunes' first since her wife, fellow UFC fighter Nina Ansaroff, gave birth to their first child. Nunes has been the UFC's bantamweight champion since 2016, and she added the featherweight strap in late 2018.
Yan put on a masterful performance for three rounds in the first defense of his 135-pound belt, weathering his high-intensity opponent's strong start before imposing his physical will from the third round onward.
Yan largely managed to stay upright while avoiding his opponent's strong ground game, at one point responding with two obscene hand gestures when a prone Sterling invited him down to grapple.
Yan appeared to take control of the fight in the third round and early in the fourth against his tiring challenger, but his blatantly illegal strike forced officials to make the unsavory decision to award a title belt by disqualification.
Sterling earned his title shot with five straight victories over the past three years. The Long Island native's creative, athletic fighting style — his nickname is Funk Master — has made him a popular pick as a future UFC champion for several years.
But Sterling was beaten to the belt by Yan, who won the title vacated by Henry Cejudo by knocking out José Aldo last July. The victory punctuated the Siberian powerhouse's 7-0 run since joining the UFC nearly three years ago.
Earlier, Austria's Aleksandar Rakić staked his claim for the next light heavyweight title shot with a unanimous-decision victory over Thiago Santos, who nearly beat Jon Jones two years ago.
Semi-retired UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov then served as the cornerman for longtime teammate Islam Makhachev, who improved to 19-1 with an unorthodox arm triangle submission of Drew Dober in the third round.
Former bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz beat Casey Kenney by split decision for his first victory since June 2016. Cruz, who turns 36 on Tuesday, saw his ascendant career derailed long ago by brutal injury problems, but the San Diego native persevered against a similarly exhausted Kenney to win in just his sixth MMA bout since October 2011.
Three-time flyweight title contender Joseph Benavidez also took his third consecutive loss in a one-sided decision win for Russia's Askar Askarov, who missed weight for the bout.