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Aljamain Sterling prepares to fight TJ Dillashaw in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 280 event at Etihad Arena on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Aljamain Sterling Driven To Make History

Bantamweight Champion Discusses His Motivations To Get Back In The Octagon May 6

Aljamain Sterling’s first title fight took place at the UFC APEX, a year into the global coronavirus pandemic, when a victory by disqualification made him the UFC bantamweight champion.

His first title defense came 13 months later in Jacksonville, Florida, in a rematch with Petr Yan. This time, Sterling won by split decision, edging out the Russian interim titleholder in the first round on two of the three scorecards before dominating the second and third to build an insurmountable lead. His second title defense came last fall in Abu Dhabi, where he collected a second-round stoppage win over another former champion, TJ Dillashaw.

Saturday night, Sterling finally gets a home game of sorts when he welcomes Henry Cejudo, the former two-division world champion, back to action in the main event of UFC 288.

How To Watch UFC 288 In Your Country

“I pretty much carved out my name on the regional circuit in New Jersey, so this is pretty much a homecoming for me in the Tri-State area and a short drive over the bridge for my friends and family to come and watch,” Sterling says of the pay-per-view clash at Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.

Aljamain Sterling Sits Down With Megan Olivi | UFC 288
Aljamain Sterling Sits Down With Megan Olivi | UFC 288

Born and raised in Uniondale, New York, six of Sterling’s first eight victories came across the bridge, and after making his UFC debut in Las Vegas, his next two trips into the Octagon took place there, as well, with his third-round submission win over Japanese veteran Takeya Mizugaki taking place in the same venue where he’ll meet Cejudo on Saturday.

In all, Sterling is 9-0 as a professional fighter in New Jersey, and while he’s not superstitious or bolstered by the fact that he’s had success at “The Rock” in the past, the reigning bantamweight champion does acknowledge that this one means a little more and has him excited.

“Three champions from Long Island and we never had an opportunity to have a homecoming like this,” says Sterling, a member of the Serra-Longo Fight Team that produced the state’s first two UFC titleholders in his longtime coach Matt Serra and close friend Chris Weidman. “I know Weidman fought predominantly in Las Vegas as the champion, and Matt Serra, I think he had the rematch with GSP in Montreal. Al (Iaquinta) fought on 24-hours’ notice against Khabib at the Barclays Center, but we never had anyone with the belt, defending it on their home turf.

UFC 288 Fight By Fight Preview

“I do know what this means and I do know what the crowd is going to look like, sound like,” he adds with a smile, seated in the basement of his home, a little more than a week out from returning to action. “It’s not every day you get to defend a world title pretty much on your home turf, have the home crowd advantage.

“I’m just hoping Long Island shows out, New York shows out, the Tri-State area shows out and boos the crap out of this man when he walks into the arena.”

Aljamain Sterling is seen on stage during the UFC 280 press conference at Etihad Arena on October 20, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Aljamain Sterling is seen on stage during the UFC 280 press conference at Etihad Arena on October 20, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Sterling laughs at the idea of Cejudo being showered with boos and jeers as he walks to the Octagon for the first time in three years this weekend; a building full of people from the Tri-State area unapologetically backing their guy and burying his opponent too amusing not to garner a smile.

UFC 288 FREE FIGHTS: Belal Muhammad vs Sean Brady | Gilbert Burns vs Jorge Masvidal | Aljamain Sterling vs Cory Sandhagen | Aljamain Sterling vs TJ Dillashaw | Henry Cejudo vs Dominick Cruz | Henry Cejudo vs Marlon Moraes

“This is it — this is what dreams are made of,” he adds. “It’s not every day you have this opportunity and that gives me perspective, gives me a reality check of what it all means to me. It’s another fight, but it’s going to be a special one; something I’m definitely not going to forget for years to come.”

Main Event Preview | UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo
Main Event Preview | UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo

Saturday’s main event will be Sterling’s 18th bout in the UFC. He’s 14-3 overall inside the Octagon and enters on an eight-fight winning streak.

After facing unranked opponents in each of his first two outings, he’s faced fighters with a number next to their name in all but one of his last 15 appearances, which is a definite point of pride for the current champion.

“I think I’ve only had three fights in my UFC career against opponents that were not ranked, and I’m super-proud of that because I see a lot of guys that have all these wins, but it’s a lot of wins over unranked opponents, guys who are no longer in the UFC,” offers Sterling. “I fought some of the stiffest competition and against guys that are still around, and that says something. I’m very proud of that accolade.”

RELATED: Elite MMA Coaches Break Down Sterling vs Cejudo Main Event

As he readies for UFC 288, Sterling is currently tied with Dillashaw for the most wins in UFC bantamweight division history with 13 — his victory over former champ Renan Barao came at a 140-pound catchweight — and in a four-way tie with Dillashaw, Barao, and Dominick Cruz for the most consecutive successful title defenses, each of them having defended their belt twice before either being defeated or relinquishing the title, as Cruz did during his first of two title reigns.

He can break both of those records with a victory on Saturday and, in doing so, would have to be in the running — if not the clubhouse leader — in the conversation about the best UFC bantamweight of all time.

Aljamain Sterling punches Petr Yan of Russia in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 273 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 09, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Aljamain Sterling punches Petr Yan of Russia in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 273 event at VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena on April 09, 2022 in Jacksonville, Florida. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

But just as he’s not superstitious and buoyed by his history in New Jersey, the 33-year-old isn’t one to get too wrapped up in the pantheon-level narrative debates that consume MMA fans and media alike, opting instead to simply acknowledge that a win would set a high bar for future generations looking to replicate or surpass his achievements.

“I’m looking to be the winningest bantamweight in UFC history,” the champion offers, fixing the Yankees cap on his head. "I’m looking to be the first three-time defending bantamweight champion, and even with the wins in the UFC, this would be the most wins within the Top 5.

“If I go out there, win, and dominate the way that I think I will dominate — I know Henry is tough, but I feel like it’s my time,” he continues. “I feel like I’m coming into my own. I feel like this is my prime, where the mental meets the physical and I’m doing everything correctly.

“If I dial it in for 25 minutes or less, this puts me in a position that is going to be hard to touch for a very long time.”

Order UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo

Part of what makes Sterling so proud of his accomplishments and so aware of where he fits historically, at least from a numbers perspective, is that there have been times when reaching these heights seemed unlikely and that continuing to compete was in question.

The bantamweight champion has been plagued by injuries throughout his career, the most prominent of which was the neck injury that required surgery following his DQ win over Yan and delayed their inevitable rematch. In addition to the neck issue and the customary bumps, bruises, knocks, and aches that every athlete accumulates over the course of a training camp and a career, Sterling admits that he went through the last two training camps dealing with a torn bicep tendon, and that ahead of this fight, he made some life choices designed to help maximize his ability to continue competing for the next several years.

RELATED: Henry Cejudo Found The Fire To Fuel His Return | Aljo Chats With Megan Olivi

“This is the first training camp where I haven’t drank as a pro, which is crazy, but it’s very different for me,” offers Sterling. “I like to enjoy my life and enjoy training, and if training wasn’t fun and I couldn’t do the things I enjoy in life, to do such a hard sport that is so demanding in terms of sacrifices, I don’t think I could do it.

“Win or lose, I’m gonna get crazy after the fight,” he notes with a laugh. “But this is what it’s all about, man — chasing opportunities and trying to make a name for yourself. For me, I feel like I’m just living a dream to where sometimes I still wonder if this is my life, you know?”

This was always the dream — achieving championship success and reaching elite status, earning strong paydays that allow him to not only be comfortable himself, but to provide for others, as well — but it’s been a long road to get here, and reaching this point is never guaranteed.

Countless highly regarded prospects topped out before reaching the summit of their given weight classes, and innumerable talents failed to produce the kind of results that many anticipated through some combination of bad luck, bad timing, or bad decisions, while other still simply didn’t have the work ethic, drive, or motivation to make the countless sacrifices needed in order to ascend to the summit and stand alone atop their division.

Sterling has done that, even if it still doesn’t always seem real to him.

How To Watch UFC 288 In Your Country

“It just seeing what you always believed could be your reality coming true,” he says, reflecting on the twists and turns that carried him from upstart with championship potential to reigning bantamweight champion. “Like I said, sometimes I wake up and see all the things I’ve accomplished — checking my bank account, checking the houses that I have, seeing my mom is okay. There are a lot of things that I’ve been able to do and provide, and it makes me truly blessed and fortunate to be in a position to do these things.

“I’m happy about that and that’s what pushes me to keep wanting more,” he adds, grinning like the Cheshire Cat. “I’m content in everything I have. I could stop and be fine, but the hunger to want more, to provide more, to know how far I can go is what keeps me going. To be in this position, knowing I’m on the cusp of attaining something that is clearly difficult for anyone to achieve (is what drives me).”

Aljamain Sterling Fight Week Interview | UFC 288
Aljamain Sterling Fight Week Interview | UFC 288

And this weekend, he’s driven to make history and make good on everything he’s said he wants to do.

“MMA is only getting more complicated and more difficult, and if I can go out there and do it one more time against another tough dude,” he says before pausing to convey his message as clearly as possible.

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“I’m not fighting an unranked guy; I’m fighting another killer — that’s what gets me excited to get in there and prove the things I’m saying are true.”

UFC 288: Sterling vs Cejudo took place live from the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey on May 6, 2023. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses - and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass