"I definitely have what it takes to grind it out and pull out that win, especially when it’s very much needed." - Aljamain Sterling
Ray Longo doesn’t mince words. He doesn’t waste them either, so when his fighter, Aljamain Sterling, came back to the corner after the second round of a close fight with Cody Gibson at UFC 170 in February, there was only one thing to be said.
“Five minutes,” said Longo. “Do you have five minutes?”
“Yeah,” responded Sterling. “Let’s go.”
That was it. Sterling put his mouthpiece in, met Gibson in the middle of the Octagon for the third and final round of their bantamweight bout, and he won it and the fight.
“I just kept telling myself that in the third round. No matter what, I gotta win this five minutes of my life. Just five minutes.”
The win was Sterling’s ninth without a defeat, and his first in the UFC. More importantly, he proved that the lessons he learned on the wrestling mat in college at SUNY Cortland weren’t for naught.
“I lost both of my final matches of my junior year and senior year in college at the national tournament, and I lost to two D1 guys that transferred over,” he recalled. “Before the matches even started, I had a little doubt, and as the match got going, I got taken down, and when I started coming back, I ended up losing both those matches by one point. It made me realize that if I wrestled the way I did at the end of the match, I would have beaten these guys. I kind of put them on a pedestal and I realized that they weren’t different than me. They do the same things I do, practice the same way, and it’s all about the confidence and mindset when you go out there. Are you going to execute, or are you going to doubt what you do and let the other guy end up winning? So when it’s game time, I know how to zone out and go for it.”
That’s just what he did against Gibson, breaking open a close match to win it when it counted. He also picked up a friend in the process, as he and Gibson wound up training together for a week after the bout.
“It was really random,” said Sterling. “We DMed each other (on Twitter). I asked him about the fight and I asked him how close the D’arce choke was. He told me it was close, but he thought it was going to be like his last fight, where the guy gassed himself out and he had just had to stick through it. Long story short, I hit him up and told him I had Spring Break coming up and I would love to come out to Cali. I always wanted to visit out there and it would be awesome to get some training in. It went from there.”
You don’t see this in other combat sports, but in MMA, one-time combatants usually become fast friends once the final bell sounds, something that still baffles some folks, but not Sterling.
“With any fight, especially in MMA, once you get it all out, it’s just different,” he said. “Once you fight, I pretty much said anything I wanted to say through the fight. After that, we can be cool now.”
In addition to his work with Gibson, it was business as usual back in Long Island, New York, as Sterling put in the hours with the Serra-Longo Fight Team that is putting together one of the top squads in MMA today, with Sterling, Chris Weidman, Al Iaquinta, and Eddie Gordon leading the charge. Tomorrow in Atlantic City, the “Funk Master” would like to add to the summer winning streak started by Weidman and Gordon when he faces Brazil’s Hugo “Wolverine” Viana, a four-fight UFC vet whose only Octagon loss came to current bantamweight champ TJ Dillashaw in April of 2013.
“It’s hard for me to gauge where he’s at from a technical standpoint,” said Sterling of Viana. “From what I see, he throws a lot of bombs and he doesn’t seem to like the ground game too much, so I’m going to fight him wherever the fight goes, and hopefully I can exploit some type of weakness. Of course I think every opponent has that puncher’s chance to land that one big shot, but I just think I’ve got a lot of tools that work against him with my movement, my takedowns, and my jiu-jitsu, and once I get his back, I’m not gonna let him go.”
But if the going does get tough, the 24-year-old Sterling proved that he’s ready for that too, even if it comes down to the last five minutes.
“I definitely have what it takes to grind it out and pull out that win, especially when it’s very much needed,” he said. “And that’s the thing; with pressure a lot of people either crack or rise to the occasion and I wanted to show that I could be one of those guys and that I am one of those guys who rise to the occasion no matter what’s riding on the table. I’m confident no matter what.”