It’s strange hearing someone that won championship gold in 2021 speak eagerly about putting the year behind them, but it makes perfect sense when you remember the look on Aljamain Sterling’s face as Dana White wrapped the UFC bantamweight title around his waist in March.
Disappointment radiated from his eyes as his long-time head coach Ray Longo stood by his side, a hand on Sterling’s shoulder, steadying him as the official result of his highly anticipated clash with Petr Yan was announced.
An illegal knee late in the fourth round brought the fight to a premature halt and resulted in the title changing hands. Sterling was crestfallen — a crowning achievement turned sour by an undesired result; the moment experienced in a haze.
“I’m kind of over it; I’m over the year,” began Sterling as we chatted just prior to Christmas about a year that started with such promise, went sideways, and never got back on track. “But I’m super-excited to get back out there, man. I’m hoping that we have a fight date soon and we can silence the noise; that’s really all I can do now.”
Sterling entered the fight feeling ill, having not eaten the day of the fight, and had gone through training camp with a lingering neck issue that he ultimately had repaired following the contest. Nonetheless, he started well in the UFC 259 matchup with Yan, bringing the fight to the champion in the first two rounds, before beginning to slow in the third and fourth.
Officially, he was down 2-1 on two scorecards before the finish, but he had seen a lot of positive takeaways from the effort he was able to put forth despite coming in at less than 100 percent.
“I know what I’m capable of, I know the opponent that stood in front of me, and if he felt that I was that weak, he would have tried to run through me and march forward the same way he did against every single other person that he’s fought,” Sterling said of Yan, who claimed the interim bantamweight title with a victory over Cory Sandhagen in October with Sterling still recovering from the surgical procedure he underwent following their meeting in March. “If that was his best on my worst day, then I like my chances when I’m on.”
The way the fight ended and Sterling’s subsequent stay on the sidelines has obscured the fact that “The Funkmaster” entered the contest on a five-fight winning streak, capped by a rapid first-round submission win over Sandhagen the previous summer.
In advance of the contest, he’d relocated to Las Vegas and began training at Xtreme Couture, getting additional looks and bodies to work with as he geared up for the biggest opportunity of his career.
While the night didn’t go as planned, the foundational pieces of the fight camp were solid, giving Sterling plenty of reasons to be optimistic about how things will play out when he and Yan share the Octagon again in 2022.
“It’s been really good,” he said of the move to Las Vegas. “The most important piece of that is that I’ve got different eyes looking at me, and different bodies to work with.
“There are so many talented guys over there to train with and I think I benefit a lot from getting to see where everybody else is at in comparison to where my skills are at. I think that has only helped to give me more confidence that I am exactly where I belong.
“Good things happen if you put the time in, put the work in, and I’m just going to make sure I show that on the day,” he added. “I know he’s a tough dude, but he’s just another man. Sandhagen showed that he can bleed, I showed that he can slow down, and I can’t wait to shut him up and be done with this guy so I can move on to the next.”
After being unable to make their October 30 meeting in Abu Dhabi, the 32-year-old New Yorker believes the title unification bout will transpire in the opening three months of the year. Having entered last year with designs on winning the title in March and defending it multiple times during the remaining nine months, Sterling wants nothing more than the opportunity to accomplish that feat this year instead.
“First quarter for sure, 100 percent,” he said confidently when asked for his thoughts on when the rematch with Yan may transpire. “I tried to come back and it just wasn’t happening.
“I’m in a much better spot now, physically, so I’m excited to show what I’ve always been able to do when the gas tank is on full. People are going to say, ‘I forgot he did that against Pedro Munhoz. I forget what he did to everybody else.’ They’re going to see I wasn’t myself when I was in there that day.
“I’m not worried, man,” he added with a chuckle. “It’s another fight. I know Yan is tough — he’s really good, and I’m not dismissing him; I just really do think I’m better.”
And now, he’s simply waiting for the opportunity to prove that to the masses and earn the kind of championship victory he’s envisioned having since the start of his career.
“It will mean the world,” he said of beating Yan to become the undisputed UFC bantamweight champion. “I’ve had this thing written down on my goal sheet since I first started in this sport — to eventually become a world champ — and that was not the way I envisioned it happening.
“It would mean the world to me to get it done the way I want to get it done — in dominant fashion, to prove to myself that I am as good as I say I am.
“I’m excited to get back,” he added. “It’s been a long time; a long, long time.”