"I’m going to go out there and do my thing and I’m not going to treat it like anything different." - Aljamain Sterling
For nearly two and a half minutes in 2011, Sterling was forced to defend submission after submission from Joel Roberts during a Bellator tryout.
“I really couldn’t do anything against the guy,” Sterling said of grappling with the jiu-jitsu black belt. “He pretty much got the best of me, but I defended all his submission attempts.”
Long Island’s Sterling was just 1-0 as a pro at the time, and he would go on to add six more wins without a loss to his record before a torn labrum that required surgery put him on the shelf for nearly 15 months. He admits that there were times when he wondered whether he would still be the same fighter he was when he returned.
“That crossed my mind a lot actually,” said Sterling. “But you have to fight those negative doubts and keep them out of your mind. Otherwise it can really start to bring you down. I talked to a couple people who had similar surgeries and they told me to keep positive, and if there was anybody they knew who could recover from it, it was me.”
He did recover, and after a brutal rehab process, Sterling was cleared to return to active duty for a November 2, 2013 fight.
His opponent? Joel Roberts.
So not only does Sterling have to deal with the inevitable doubts that come in your first fight after surgery, but he has to face someone who got the better of him in their grapping session two years prior.
The result? Sterling took less than two minutes to submit Roberts via rear naked choke and move to 8-0 as a pro. He was back.
“I was on Cloud 9,” he said. “I know Roberts is a tough guy. When we fought I got the better of him in the stand-up. Then I ended up falling and I got the better of him on the ground. It just let me know how much I’ve come along in my game, and it gave me that much more confidence to know that I can go with those guys that are black belts and grapple and strike with the best.”
As for that YouTube video, he doesn’t care that it’s still up there.
“It’s okay,” he laughs. “If you’re not improving as an individual, then that becomes an issue because you’re going to be the same guy and it’s easy to figure you out. But if you’re improving and you’re showing that you’re evolving every time you step into that cage, then it doesn’t really make a difference whether they scout you or not. It’s kind of like what we say in wrestling. If a guy knows you’re gonna hit a blast double or high crotch, it doesn’t matter. If you’re that good at it, you’re that good at it. It doesn’t matter and he won’t be able to stop you. And that’s how I look at it.”
Unstoppable thus far, Sterling was a no-brainer pick to eventually become a member of the UFC’s bantamweight roster. But when he did get the call in late January to replace the injured Bryan Caraway against Lucas Martins, it was a bit of a surprise.
“I thought I had at least one more fight before I got called,” he said. “I wasn’t expecting to possibly try to get in until the Summertime.”
Not that it mattered. After a bit of screaming when he got the news, he immediately said ‘yes’ to the offer and didn’t think about who or when he was fighting until afterward. And that initial opponent would change when Martins got injured, prompting the arrival of another UFC newcomer, Cody Gibson to face him this Saturday at UFC 170 in Las Vegas.
Now it was time to get to work, something certainly not foreign to the 24-year-old, who began pursuing his MMA dreams during college at SUNY Cortland, where he picked up All-American honors twice. While there, he got in touch with a friend he met at his previous school, Morrisville State College: future UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones.
Jones and Sterling would work out together at Ithaca, New York’s Bombsquad Gym, and Sterling got hooked on the sport, taking whatever money he had to spend on food and gas for the trips to the gym. And Jones’ eventual success steeled his resolve to make it big in MMA even more.
“It let me know that anything is possible,” he said. “It’s not hard to achieve your goals if you actually set your mind to something and focus on it a hundred percent. That’s pretty much what I’ve been doing. Going through college, I pretty much knew that I wanted to do this, so during my sophomore year, that spring I had my first amateur fight, a month after the wrestling season was over, and after that one fight, I said ‘this is what I’m gonna do.’”
And now he’s here, in the big show, the latest member of the growing Long Island contingent in the UFC while he continues his MMA education as a member of the Serra-Longo Fight Team.
“I just think we’re a bunch of strong, savvy guys,” Sterling said of the Long Islanders in the UFC. “We’re a different breed over here. We’re just hard working, tough guys.”
They’re also guys with a sense of humor, as Sterling recalls the advice UFC light heavyweight Gian Villante gave him about fighting in the Octagon.
“Villante told me you’ve got to get used to giving out your signature and figure out a way to do them fast,” he laughs. “I’ve got a long name and then I’ve got to sign my nickname. He said you’ve got to just pick something and bang ‘em out.”
So how’s that working out for the “Funk Master?”
“I’ve been practicing a lot. We had the grand reopening of the gym and I had a chance to see what it feels like. So I sat down for a couple hours, signing shirts, hats, and a couple posters. So that was a good experience.”
But what about the fighting part on Saturday night? Sterling’s got that covered as well.
“I’ve got all these guys around me who were at the big show and they fought on the biggest stages,” he said. “I’m training with them, I know how well I do with them, and I think it’s just another day at the office. I’m going to go out there and do my thing and I’m not going to treat it like anything different. I’ve been on the big stage before in wrestling tournaments and I made sure I didn’t freeze up. I went out there and just told myself ‘why not me?’ I did all the hard work; it’s time to go out there and have fun.”