When Aljamain Sterling entered the UFC’s Octagon for the first time in February 2014, the hype surrounding the “Funk Master” entered with him. Through the first two years, and the first four fights — victories over Cody Gibson, along with three straight finishes over Hugo Viana, Takeya Mizugaki and Johnny Eduardo — Sterling was delivering the goods.
As a bantamweight title shot was in his sights, the then 25-year-old would suffer the first setback of his professional mixed martial arts career, losing a split decision to Bryan Caraway at UFC Fight Night 88 in May 2016. Sterling was overly excited for the showdown with Caraway, to the point of doing multiple workouts the day of the fight. Seven months later, Sterling would lose another split decision to perennial contender Raphael Assuncao. Thus presenting the first losing streak of his career.
For these special individuals who get in a cage and fight for glory, to put food on the table, and for the entertainment of those watching and judging from afar, there are a lot of ups and downs that come with the territory. For Aljamain Sterling, it has been quite a rollercoaster ride to get to this point.
In a recent interview with The Body Lock, the man who many in his division felt, at one time, didn’t have it any more details his road to redemption and becoming the top contender in the UFC bantamweight division.
The showcase win that opened up all eyes
To start this journey, we will begin with the win that made MMA fans around the world true believers. It just happens to be Sterling’s recent Octagon appearance. At UFC 238 in June, Sterling took on the surging Pedro Munhoz during the ESPN preliminary card. Of course, how can we forget the remarkable finish to Munhoz’s prior fight with Cody Garbrandt — finishing the former champion with a vicious array of strikes in the first round.
There seemed to be a lot of bad blood heading into that fight, mostly from Munhoz’s side of the equation. Sterling ignored the noise for the most part and did his talking in the Octagon. In a fight many feel was “Funk Master’s” best performance of his career, Sterling picked up the unanimous decision victory — winning all three rounds in the process.
When you are a fighter, or any line of work one happens to be in, we are all our own worst critics.
“I’m really happy with the performance,” Sterling told The Body Lock. “I still think there were a couple of things that I could’ve done better from the outside looking in. Pedro is just a tough dude and he’s going to give a lot of guys problems in the future. Other than that, I pitched a shutout in terms of the rounds. I definitely think I put out a striking clinic for the rest of the guys in the division to stand on notice.
“The competition is just getting tougher and tougher and I pride myself in being a finisher. Everyone is human and everyone has a breaking point. You just got to push those right buttons and get them there. I’m just assessing everything and trying to see where I can get better and improve. Hopefully, the next time out we get that finish.”
‘The worst thing that could’ve happened to me happened’
To get to the place Sterling is currently at in his career, he would be remiss if he didn’t openly talk about where his road to redemption began — at the lowest of places.
Following the first two losses inside the Octagon, Sterling was able to bounce back with consecutive victories over Augusto Mendes and Renan Barao in the middle of 2017. Sterling had committed himself to going back to his “old school ways” following the close decision loss to Assuncao and the resurgence of “The Back Pack” was upon us. The Serra-Longo trained fighter was scheduled to face submission specialist Rani Yahya at UFC Fight Night 123 in December 2017 before Yahya was forced out of the bout with an injury.
Insert Marlon Moraes, a former, longtime WSOF bantamweight champion that was looking to make his own mark in the UFC. After losing his Octagon debut, also via split decision, to Assuncao, Moraes would pick up his first UFC win in November 2017 over John Dodson. Less than a month later, Moraes would step in on short notice to face Sterling in what would end up being a contrast of trajectories for both 135-pounders.
Moraes would etch himself into the highlight reels with a flying knee knockout beginning a streak of finishes that would set him up for a shot at the UFC bantamweight strap. Sterling would have another winning streak snapped, halting his momentum once more.
As bad as that moment was for Aljamain Sterling to end 2017, it may have been the best thing that could’ve happened to him in the absolute worst of moments.
“I’m gonna say the worst thing that could’ve happened to me happened — which was the knockout (loss to Moraes),” Sterling said.
“At that point, I realized what it was. Marlon threw the kick as I was shooting, it happened. It just happened to be, at that point in time, where my chin was and where his knee was. When I reassessed that and I look at my preparation, it was a short notice fight, I didn’t do as much studying as I normally do. I was coming off the biggest win of my career against Renan Barao — the former champion — at the time who I dominated after he lost to Jeremy Stephens and I was really confident heading into that one.
“I went out for the fight with Marlon and I felt like I was a little overconfident. I felt like I was going out there… I’m not going to say like it was a walk in the park, but it felt like a regular, casual day. It didn’t feel like it was fight day. I didn’t have the emotions, I wasn’t nervous at all. When I got clipped and got dropped behind the ear, I was like, ‘s**t, I’m in a f****n fight right now.
“My emotions just kind of went through the roof. I went on autopilot with the jiu-jitsu and that’s like second nature to me. When it comes to being in a fist fight, it’s a different mindset you’ve got to be in. I wasn’t there. As soon as I got up, it was more of an emotional thing, I just dive right in on a takedown and got put out.”
“I think that was the worst thing that could’ve happened to me, but it also brought me back to my old school ways as far as taking everybody seriously. Everybody’s a threat, a fight’s a fight and anything can happen out there. I learned the hardest way you can learn that and never gone into a fight like that again. I’m always nervous going into a fight, even if I know I’m that much better, I just need to make sure my nerves are where they need to be. At the end of the day, we never know what’s going to happen. It could be their night, every dog has its day.
“At the same time, those nerves help you fire on all cylinders and it heightens your senses. I just wasn’t there for that Marlon fight and ever since then, I make sure I put myself in that place and found my competitive edge, and that’s where I used to be all the time. If I’m there, and I show up to work, I truly believe that no matter who I’m sharing the Octagon with that it’s going to be a good night for me. That’s just the confidence that comes from my training and the belief in my skillset.”
The road to redemption: from the hunter to the hunted
It is not easy to bounce back from a loss in mixed martial arts, especially a loss like Sterling suffered at the hands of Moraes. Sterling knew that it would be a long, grinding road to get back to the place he wanted to be.
The changing of the guard was becoming apparent in the bantamweight division. The long title run of Dominick Cruz had come to an end, the Cody Garbrandt vs. TJ Dillashaw rivalry had a long boil, and new, up and coming contenders began to emerge.
Sterling knew that to get back to the upper echelon of a loaded division, it was time to embrace who he is as a fighter and making that turn on the road to redemption — starting with the highly touted prospects, to a long-awaited regional rivalry, to solidification.
“My first fight back (following the Moraes loss) was against a guy that everyone was super high on in Brett Johns,” Sterling explained.
“He was undefeated, just beat Joe Soto in the craziest way you could ever think possible with a calf slicer. Just to give you a background: Joe Soto tooled me when I went out there to train with Cody Gibson after we fought (in my UFC debut). He took us to Joe Soto’s gym and we grappled. I had no idea about leg locks and he smashed me. To see that Brett Johns was able to dispatch a leg lock on a guy like that, it really gave it some perspective that this dude is f****n legit. He’s good. He only lost to two guys, myself and Pedro Munoz, and there’s no shame in that.
“Then I battled Cody Stamman who is another hot prospect, then Jimmie Rivera, a guy that I’ve had beef with for a very long time and top-five in the world. I beat him, shut him out all three rounds, same with Pedro Munhoz, who I also shut out for all three rounds, who was coming off a huge knockout over a former champion who schooled Dominick Cruz. I’m taking out guys with tough resumes and I was calling for these fights and I didn’t have a problem doing that.”
Sterling has never had an issue asking for what he wanted. He wanted to test himself against the very best fighters in the world. No longer the hunter, Sterling — with his recent surge — is becoming the hunted. It is not the first time Sterling has been in this position, although prior to being in his current position, he was getting his name thrown around quite a bit. But it wasn’t for the reasons he had always envisioned.
“It’s funny, after I got knocked out, I had a lot of guys calling me out thinking I didn’t have it anymore. They didn’t think I had the goods. To come back like I did and, like I said, find my balls and show the world who I am. That’s a tough thing. Not a lot of guys have done that. After guys get knocked out like that, they don’t come back like I have.
‘Now I have Petr Yan calling me out’
Another bantamweight showdown was on display at UFC 238 as Petr Yan, a 26-year-old surging contender riding a seven-fight winning streak, took on Jimmie Rivera. Yan would extend his victory streak to eight fights picking up a unanimous decision against the veteran to pick up the biggest win of his career.
Later on that night, Henry Cejudo would finish Marlon Moraes in the main event to become the UFC bantamweight champion, along with already being the flyweight champion. “The Messenger” recently had shoulder surgery and, according to reports, could be sidelined for the remainder of 2019.
Ever since UFC 238, Yan has focused his attention on Sterling to line up a #1 contender fight in the future. Sterling, who is never one to turn down a fight, is in a unique position as the top contender in the division. The soon-to-be 30-year-old wants to enjoy his summer, heal up a nagging injury and get back into shape before making his next move.
Sterling will be happy to share the Octagon with Yan, although he wants to make one thing perfectly clear.
“That is a possibility,” Sterling said of a potential fight with Yan. “I think it all depends on when I want to fight next. First thing’s first, I’m enjoying my Long Island summer. We don’t really have summers. That’s a must. I’m hanging out. I’m still training, but doing more lifting right now because I have a few partial tears on my thumb. It should be another week or so and I should be good to go to start hitting pads again, getting back into shape, and getting my abs again — they’re on vacation right now for a little bit.
“I can fight whenever I want if I have to but the guys I really want to fight are hurt. I’m not going to take a stupid, stay busy fight. But if it makes sense, if there’s going to be a new contract, we’ll do something. But if it’s going to be a rush back for no reason and it’s not a title fight then it doesn’t make a whole lot of sense to me. I think I’ve earned my keep. I put on the performance of a lifetime in terms of my career and I think the UFC brass realizes that. They were very impressed, very happy with my performance and my development over the years. It may have taken a while, but we’re finally here.
“That’s where my mindset is. It could be Petr Yan. But if it is Petr Yan, it’s for a belt. It’s not a ‘hey, we’re fighting to be the number one contender.’ I am the number one contender. You beat my leftovers. You beat a guy I dominated. I can’t really see how that makes a whole lot of sense.”
The next step to redemption: ‘realizing a dream’
It is clear that Aljamain Sterling has done enough to fight for a world title in his next fight. The recent string of performances has solidified that position. There is a lot of depth at 135-pounds, which is currently topped by one of the sport’s outspoken and rising stars in Cejudo.
For Sterling, he has a dream — a dream he is on the doorstep of achieving. Accomplishing that dream will certainly lift him to a place he’s always wanted to be in. From beginning his MMA career as a college student, to competing for the likes of regional promotions like Raging Wolf and Extreme Fight Club, to Ring of Combat and Cage Fury Fighting Championships, to the ups and downs of being in the world’s most premiere fighting organization, to now being on the cusp of becoming a UFC world champion — the road to redemption continues.
As wonderful as being a world champion will be for Aljamain Sterling, he’s always been someone who has wanted more, strived for greater things.
“I’m very proud of my career, Sterling explained. “People calling me out now is more flattering to me then anything. I’ve earned my spot. Hopefully, I don’t have to wait too long to realize a dream. At the end of the day, I don’t care who it is. I think people know I’ll fight whoever. I don’t want to say I’m like Donald Cerrone but I fight whoever, whenever.”
“At the end of the day, I always said that one of the things I wanted to do was be one of those fighters that will be remembered for his work of art,” Sterling continued. “I pride myself on that. I want to be that guy who will forever be a staple in the history books. This is what I do it for, I don’t know what everyone else does it for. The money is definitely nice. Before, when I was making $500 as a college kid I thought I struck gold. As the paydays starting going up, I thought I could actually start doing this for a living.
“Now, taking into account all of these things and I’m at the top of the sport, I’ve earned my title shot. I don’t think anyone has a bigger redemption story than myself and the way that it happened is infamous because of my m.o. of the dancing guy who does all of these new school dances, and then does them on international TV, and then I have to go out there, find my balls, sack up and say ‘this is me. This is who I am.'”