By the time Aljamain Sterling steps into the Octagon this weekend, it will have been 400 days since his first battle with Petr Yan for the UFC bantamweight title, and for most of the time between their initial encounter at UFC 259 and Saturday’s rematch at UFC 273 in Jacksonville, Florida, the champion has been thinking about running this one back.
“I was more annoyed that I couldn’t get right back in there in a couple months and just silence everybody,” said Sterling, when asked about the mental challenges he’s faced during his extended hiatus. “It’s been a long year with people having post notifications on so they can write clown emojis.”
Sterling’s annoyance is understandable.
In their first meeting, the talented New Yorker came out hot, taking the fight to Yan and working at a torrid clip. He pushed the pace, looking to build a lead against the Russian champion, who has a tendency to take his time settling into fights and then turn things up in the later rounds.
Initially, Sterling found success, but as his gas tank started to run low, Yan started his customary late push, closing the distance and seemingly grabbing the momentum as the fight moved towards the close of the fourth round. That’s when things went sideways.
With Sterling on his knees in the center of the Octagon, Yan belted Sterling with a powerful knee to the forehead, sending the challenger tumbling to the canvas. The blow was unquestionably illegal and the fight was paused while the referee checked on Sterling, who clearly was in no shape to continue.
Almost immediately, questions about whether Sterling was faking or playing up the impact of the blow flooded Twitter.
Yan was ultimately disqualified and the bantamweight title changed hands. Sterling was the new champion, though the frustrated and dazed look on his face as he was presented with his first UFC title told you how he felt about the circumstances of his championship victory.
The speculation about the impact of the blow persisted and dovetailed nicely with the upcoming Academy Awards, with Yan leading the cavalcade of people suggesting Sterling should win the Best Actor category.
Despite doing nothing wrong, Sterling was vilified and mocked, called a “fake champ” and “paper champion” at every turn by fans who were appalled that the protocol for handling that type of situation was followed to the letter and Sterling was awarded a victory and the belt.
“People are upset that I have the belt, but by the rule set, I should have the belt,” said Sterling, who underwent neck surgery after the first fight and did not receive clearance to return when he and Yan were slated to run it back in October, prompting the creation of an interim title, which the Russian standout claimed with a unanimous decision win over Cory Sandhagen in Abu Dhabi.
“People want to say, ‘fake champ’ or ‘paper champ,’ but I have the belt, so what are we even talking about here?
“At the end of the day, I walked away with the win. Whether people want to say it was an honorable win or not, he has a loss in his column, I have a win in my column, and we get to do it again, which is the beautiful thing about it.”
While the snarky comments on social media, persistent questions about the how the first fight played out, and everything else over the last year has rankled Sterling, what has bothered the bantamweight titleholder the most are the mistakes he made the first time around.
In addition to the lingering neck issue that prompted his post-fight surgery, Sterling admittedly panicked when he felt unusual after eating breakfast following his morning shakeout on the day of the fight.
Unsure what his energy levels would be like once he stepped into the Octagon that evening, the standout grappler made the decision to try and sprint out to an early lead and then hold on down the stretch, believing he could bank the first three rounds and then grind out the final 10 minutes to earn a decision win.
“I felt like I was still cutting weight the day of the fight, after the morning shakeout, and that just really comes down to nutrition,” said Sterling, who completed the first part of his training camp in Las Vegas before returning home to Long Island to close things out with the Serra-Longo Fight Team. “After doing my 20-minute hard workout, I felt untouchable, but shortly after that, I ate and it wasn’t enough to put back enough fuel from when I ate at 10:30 in the morning to when I actually fought at 8:30 at night.
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“I really felt like the lack of food that I ate — which was two eggs and two pancakes — is what sabotaged my entire fight camp.
“I came up with the worst game plan possible, which was to gas-pedal him for three rounds, and hopefully that would be enough for me to stall the last 10 minutes and win the fight that way,” he added. “I kind of got in my own way, and my game plan that I switched to wasn’t an indicator of what I had done the entire training camp. It is what it is and I think it’s a learning experience. I should have felt comfortable consulting with my team so we could come up with a game plan that would have been the best approach in that short turnaround situation.”
Aljamain Sterling Reflects On Becoming UFC Champion
Aljamain Sterling Reflects On Becoming UFC Champion
Hindsight has given Sterling clarity on how he should have approached the situation differently, but the way he acquitted himself inside the Octagon at UFC 259 has provided him with increased confidence as he readies to step in and face Yan for a second time this weekend.
“Petr Yan is good — don’t get me wrong — I just think I’m the best guy, and when I saw what he was actually bringing to the table, if I would have slowed it down, even with that compromised gas tank, I really think I could have won a decision by fighting strategically smarter,” he said. “With everything that I’ve just said, I don’t think that performance was that God-awful based on that criteria.
“I think when you break it down and really assess what you have in front of you, I learned a lot from it, and I just want to see how I do and how good he really is when we’re both at our best, because that’s when we can compare apples to apples.
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“I’m not saying the guy — he did his job, I didn’t do mine, and on that day, that night, he was better,” continued the 32-year-old fighter. “Even on my worst day, I hung in there with a guy that people tout as the best guy in the world, so let’s see how good the best guy in the world does with a guy who really believes he’s the best guy when he’s actually at his best.”
That’s honestly all Sterling has been after this whole time.
In spite of all the social media sniping back and forth between him and the interim champion, and the pushing back at fans and critics that question his standing atop the division, all the talented bantamweight has sought was a chance to test himself against the Russian when he’s at full strength.
“At the end of the day, I’m human, I make mistakes, and I made a mistake in the last fight,” he said. “Now here’s my opportunity to right the ship, right the wrong, and really show the world that I am who I say I am.
“This is Yan’s chance to do the same thing — for him to prove to people that he is who he says he is, too,” he quickly added. “I think the pressure is on him, to be honest. Everyone is already counting me out.
“I’m a huge underdog, which doesn’t bother me one bit. I’ve been in this situation before — maybe not this big of an underdog — but with ‘He can’t strike with Pedro Munhoz’ or ‘He can’t strike with Cory Sandhagen.’ It goes on and on with the doubt that people have had in me, but I think that’s what makes sports so great because the competitors get to decide who is who when they get in there and settle it.
“What it all comes down to is those 25 minutes, who’s the man on April 9th.”
After more than a year of chatter, frustration, and feeling like a caged animal, Sterling is finally on the cusp of being able to step back into the Octagon and mix it up with Yan for a second time.
Only this time, he’s fully healthy, and fully prepared for any last-minute curveballs that might come his way.
At this point, he’s waited too long — nearly 400 days — to get the kind of championship victory he’s always dreamed about, and prove to people that he deserves to stand atop the UFC bantamweight division as its undisputed ruler.
“When your hands are tied and you can’t do anything because you’re physically unable to for a period, it gets very, very frustrating,” he said. “But, at the end of the day, going out there, righting the wrong, it’s going to be very, very satisfying.
“I’ve said (that I’m the better fighter), I’ve believed this for a very long time, and now people are going to see what I’ve been talking about for the past year.”
May the best man win.
UFC 273: Volkanovski vs The Korean Zombie took place on Saturday, April 9, 2022, live from a sold out VyStar Veterans Memorial Arena in Jacksonville, Florida. See the Final Results, Official Scorecards and Who Won Bonuses — and relive the action on UFC Fight Pass!