Aljamain Sterling may be young in years, but he certainly understands the game he’s playing.
The 26-year-old, undefeated bantamweight has put himself on the radar with three consecutive victories inside the Octagon, but the Serra-Longo product knows simply winning isn’t enough to move the proverbial needle these days. In the current era of mixed martial arts, it’s the fighters who draw attention who get the biggest push, and Sterling’s 2015 campaign has been a non-stop flow of soundbites and headlines around the MMA sphere.
After his impressive finish over gritty veteran Takeya Mizugaki back in April in a fight where Sterling put away the scrappy Japanese fighter with a rare positional submission, the New York native was surprised there wasn’t more made of how he got the job done. That said, rather than sulk about bonus checks or accolades that didn’t come pouring in, Sterling set about putting the entire bantamweight division on blast in a series of call outs.
In what is quickly becoming his signature calling card, the up-and-coming talent used a colorful array of deliveries which included freestyle raps and Vine videos to issue his challenges. And while it took a few months for someone to finally step up and sign on the dotted line, “The Funk Master” was elated when Johnny Eduardo became the man who answered the call to action. There has been no shortage of verbal jabs launched between the two in the lead-up to their showdown at Fight Night: Namajunas vs. VanZant on December 10, and the Long Islander is absolutely hyped to show and prove once again inside the Octagon.
“When the fight became official I felt like there was a hole finally sealed up,” Sterling said. “I’ve never been one to struggle, but having a fight lined up makes you stop wondering how long your money is going to last you for. And that’s not what I want to focus on. I want to focus on greatness and my pursuit of becoming a champion. To go out there and perform and do something I love to do is a dream come true, but to actually make money doing it is something beyond words. It’s a beautiful thing.
“It’s always easier to train when you know someone else is also in the gym training to try to take your head off,” he added. “Johnny Eduardo has already been out there talking mess, saying he’s going to go out there and break my jaw and I’d like to invite him to try to do that. We already have a date to dance and it makes me that much more motivated because I know I’m getting in there with someone who wants it just as much as I do. That’s all the extra motivation I need. I will not lose to this guy.”
Perception is a fickle thing, and fight fans’ expectation of what constitutes a “great fight” has always been a particular topic of debate among competitors. The quest to be what the passionate fan base deems to be an exciting fighter has pushed combatants away from their strengths for years in order to put on some type of show that will resonate with those in attendance and others watching at home.
While traveling this route can pay dividends if the chips fall just the right way, Sterling doesn’t believe there is anything in that equation worth the risk. Winning fights is what is always going to matter at the end of the day because no progression can be made toward the bigger achievements, ultimate goals and exponentially better paydays without a constant string of notches in the win column.
Therefore, Sterling is going to do what he does best, and he’s confident the fans who don’t already appreciate what he does now will come to love him once they see his dominance unfold at a consistent clip.
“I’m going to stay the course and fight the way I fight,” Sterling said. “ I’m going to get him down and strangle him, or if I can take a limb to get the job done, I’ll do that too. The funny part is people don’t think I have a stand-up game. They can think that all they want, but I’m a fighter who is going to work my strengths first and foremost. If Eduardo thinks he can keep me off of him he’s crazy. I’m going to be on his back like the ‘Human Jansport’ in no time. If he can keep me from doing that, then people are going to get to see my striking more than they have in the past and that’s okay with me too because I’m comfortable wherever this fight goes.
“I go to my wrestling because it’s easier. Why get involved in these 15 minute stand-up wars where any random punch can get you knocked out when I can just as easily take my opponent to the ground and strangle them until they go to sleep? Why would I choose a path that’s more difficult for me? I know fans want to see these sloppy slugfests where two guys are just throwing haymakers, but I’m a technician. I work with precision and I execute without mercy. I don’t play that rock em’ sock em’ s**t. I want to be remembered as a guy who went out there and made it look easy and dominated every fight he was in.”
You can’t speak with Sterling long before the theme of greatness enters the conversation, but it’s a topic that comes with an added element of a little something different. While he was enamored by the man who is widely regarded as the best basketball player of all-time, Michael Jordan, Sterling is quick to admit there weren’t many other athletes he truly looked up to growing up.
Instead, his attention was drawn to the showmanship from people like Stone Cold Steve Austin and Hunter Hearst Helmsley, the wrestler more commonly known to the masses as “Triple H.” Sterling has always held an affinity for what he sees as superstars with larger than life personas, and it’s in that vein where he’s found lifeblood in mixed martial arts. That’s the reason he’s quickly challenging Apollo Creed for the most nicknames attached to a fighter, as the man once known as “The Funk Master,” then “The Human Anaconda,” has moved to “The Human Jansport” in less than two years’ time under the UFC banner.
It’s about making a name and standing out for Sterling, and he’s determined to do everything in his power to make sure he’s a fighter fans can’t look away from.
“I’m so tired of these fighters who say the same s**t over and over and do nothing to make themselves stand out from the next guy,” Sterling said. “There are so many fighters on the roster that you have to be different. What is going to make you someone people are going to care about and want to watch fight? It’s one of those things where people think they need to be proper or fake because they are supposed to fit some kind of mold, but what does that do for you? I have been genuine every minute I’ve been in the UFC and people are taking notice of that. I say what I feel and people are relating to it.”