Despite having a day named after him in Nassau County on Monday, UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling admits that getting property taxes and gas prices lowered in his hometown is taking a little longer than expected.
“We're still working on it,” laughed Sterling, who wondered whether someone was playing a trick on him when it was announced by Nassau County Executive Bruce Blakeman that May 23rd was “Aljamain Sterling Day.”
“I didn't know what to believe, honestly,” said the champ. “I thought it was kinda fake until I saw a big motorcade that actually came out and we got to the place. (Laughs) I was like, oh, this is actually happening. This is a real thing. It was really cool. I had no idea what to expect and I don't think anybody did. It was a great time.”
It was a well-deserved moment for the 32-year-old, who had a long road to this moment both in and out of the Octagon. And while he took the 135-pound title from Petr Yan in March 2021, it was only after he successfully defended it against Yan last month that he truly began to enjoy his reign.
“A hundred percent it feels better as a defending champ,” said Sterling, who had a rough year, not just recovering from neck surgery, but from dealing with barbs from Yan and internet trolls who criticized him for not continuing in their first bout after receiving an illegal knee to the head while downed. The foul cost Yan his belt, and though Sterling received the title via disqualification, it was the new champion who got roasted on social media.
“I kinda brushed it off as best as I can,” said Sterling. “I would be lying, though, if I said that some moments didn't bother me. But for the most part, I kept it in perspective. These people don't know who I am, clearly don't care about the fighter's safety whatsoever, and they've never been hit with an illegal strike that you don't see coming. So, for people to judge my character based on all the things I've done, how am I to let these people get under my skin and change my enjoyment of day-to-day life based on one moment in time from another man's actions that I had no control over? I think that was the best way to handle that; just keep it in perspective, have fun with it and continue to be me. I think that's what helped me sleep at night - just being myself and rolling with it. I think some people tend to get all bent out of shape about certain things, but people are gonna be people and you're gonna drive yourself crazy trying to apologize to everybody. So, live the best you can for yourself and your family and other people that you love.”
Sterling didn’t have to apologize for anything, but the competitor in him wanted to leave no doubt that the man with the belt was the one who was supposed to have it. And in their UFC 273 rematch, he cemented his place on the throne with a close, but fair, split decision victory. Then it was time to truly celebrate, and while he could have gone on an extended “I told you so” tour, he kept it short and sweet.
“I kinda wanted to go on and on about it a little bit more, but I was over this chapter in my life,” he said. “I've been ready to move on for the past few months, so it's nice to stick it to 'em for a little bit and move on to the next chapter in this story. It was a big relief. I didn't care how the fight ended in terms of the result; I just wanted to make sure I had a good performance.”
He did, with two dominant rounds in the second and third frames being the lasting memory of a fight that we will likely see again down the road.
“I thought I definitely won the fight clearly, so to almost have it taken away from me because one judge doesn't know what they're looking at, or maybe they had the bias in their head that they thought this is what Petr Yan does versus what we actually score in the fight, which is strikes and damage,” said Sterling. “I almost had the first round taken away from me, which would have made no sense whatsoever. But I'm glad the right guy won and we can continue this story and move on to the next chapter. I'm so glad that I'm finally not gonna see this potato head Yan for at least another year or two before we have to face each other again for the trilogy.”
In the meantime, Sterling has plenty of intriguing and deserving challengers waiting for their shot at the belt. But don’t think that the “Funk Master” is the one waiting with a target on his back. This champion is one who enjoys being the hunter.
“Heavy is the head that wears the crown,” he said. “And I know I've got a lot of work to do. There's a lot of young talent coming up and these guys are good. They're getting younger and they're hungry, so I gotta keep trying to take these guys out one by one. I do hope that at some point I can eventually make my way up to featherweight and maybe contend there for a couple good fights before I call it a career. I'm 32, turning 33 in July, and for this division I'm getting up there, so I gotta make sure I get those next few wins and solidify my name in the history books for the rest of my life and the rest of UFC bantamweight history. But I'm just taking it one fight at a time. There's a lot of young bucks coming up and I've got my eye on all these guys. I still watch these guys and do my analysis on my Weekly Scraps podcast on YouTube and all the streaming platforms. So I like to look at that as me being a student of the game and still keeping my eye on all these guys.”
So, is it safe to say 2022 has already been a better year for Aljamain Sterling than 2021 was?
“2022 is a great year for me so far and I just want to keep the good times rolling in and continue to cement my name in the history books,” he said. “I'm just grateful for everything. It's a big year, I'm happy and I'm blessed to be in this position. Obviously, you want to make money, but I'm here to make money, cement my name and change the lives of those closest to me.”