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Aljamain Sterling interacts with media during the UFC 259 press conference at UFC APEX on March 04, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Aljamain Sterling Put Everything Together At The Right Time

An Up-And-Down Road Built Aljamain Sterling Into The Fierce Title Challenger He Is Heading Into UFC 259.

Few fighters have been as big of an advocate for the depth of the bantamweight division for as long as Aljamain Sterling. Both on his way up the 135-pound ladder and while he waited for his shot at Petr Yan and the bantamweight title, the “Funk Master” has only wanted the top of the division to have consistent activity, so it’s safe to assume Sterling might welcome a busy schedule should he take the belt off the Russian this Saturday night. 

None of that has entered his mind just yet, though. Beating Yan is a task nobody has accomplished in the Octagon thus far, so when Sterling makes that title-challenging walk, his mindset is going to be one of recognition for the moment.

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“I’m going to be thinking, ‘Baby, we’re here,’” Sterling told “’We’re doing this. This is a real thing. This is five rounds, UFC gold on the line, a life-changing opportunity, and everything I’ve ever wanted and worked for. It’s right there in front of me, I just got to go out there and take it,’ and I think that’s what I’m thinking about.”

The Challenger: Aljamain Sterling
The Challenger: Aljamain Sterling

This title shot does feel like a bit of a culmination of Sterling’s time in the UFC. After making his debut in 2014 as an undefeated 24-year-old, he racked up four wins, three by finish, before suffering a pair of split decision losses. It seemed like Sterling regained that momentum with a pair of unanimous decision wins, but a first-round knockout loss to Marlon Moraes stunted that path up the division. 

Sterling regrouped well, though, racking up solid wins while displaying advancements in his striking, his Fight IQ and overall approach to the game. Another four-fight winning streak put him in a No. 1 contender contest against Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250. It was a fight Sterling believes should’ve been for the then-vacant title, and he shined his brightest, locking up a submission win in less than 90 seconds. It was a stunning performance against one of the division’s best, and it was further evidence of Sterling’s self-proclaimed moniker as the “Human Backpack.”

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“If you leave something out for me, I’m going to snatch it up,” Sterling said. “That’s just what I do in the training room, so I’m super comfortable when it comes to grappling, and striking is just a new element to my game, so I think it showed that I’m just dangerous no matter where the fight goes. People think that if I can’t get the takedown, I can’t strike, but I think they’ve seen in my previous fights now that I can stand up with some of the elite strikers in the division. Yan is going to be no different, and if I get the fight down to the ground, I think he knows it’s going to be a long night for him.”

Aljamain Sterling | Top Finishes
Aljamain Sterling | Top Finishes

While Yan’s standout trait is his striking, “No Mercy” has shown crafty grappling of his own. In Sterling’s eyes, Yan impressed him with his “grit” and “demeanor” in the Octagon. It’s often that Yan starts a fight patiently before pouncing on his opponent late in the frame. Once he turns the tide, he’ll stalk forward and suck the life out of his foe. 

But given Sterling’s quickness, footwork and wrestling acumen, it leaves the challenger curious as to what version of the Russian he’ll see from the outset. 

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“You know he’s a gamer,” Sterling said. “You know he’s tough. You know he’s durable. He’s going to bring the pace, and I think that’s what makes this fight super intriguing because what’s his approach going to be? Is he going to be looking to be the bully and march forward, where if you close the distance, that opens up a lot of opportunities for me, and that’s what I like. I like when guys get overzealous and give me an opportunity to tie them up.”

The two have enjoyed some competitive trash talk through the media and online, and both have expressed their general enjoyment of the pre-fight chatter. There might not be your traditional animosity in this fight, but as the two top fighters in the division, a brewing tension is expected. 

“I’ve got to take what this guy has and, unfortunately, it’s just how the game goes,” Sterling said. “Being a title challenger, you just gotta go out there and be a dog. That’s really the only way I can explain it. I just gotta go out there and be a dog and grind out every single position that I can and every single takedown that I can, every single striking exchange, and just go out there and get my hand raised at all costs.”

On the whole, Sterling seems like a fighter experiencing that vaunted “putting it all together” moment at the exact right time. From a physical and mental standpoint, he is in the best form of his career, and having experienced the lows of the fight game, he believes this chance is coming at the correct moment, even if he thought he was going to reach it several years ago.

“Reality kicked me down a couple times,” Sterling said. “I had a couple of stumbling, life lessons, and I’ve learned throughout my time being in the Octagon. It’s helped get me to where I am today, so I’m super excited about the opportunity. I’m anxious and I’m a little nervous, obviously. You should be nervous. You’re going into a fist fight where anything can happen. I’m always going to prepare for the worst but, at the end of the day, anything can happen in there. I’ve learned that first-hand. I think my opponent knows that as well. I’m just excited to be here, and I’m going to make the most of this opportunity.”