Aljamain Sterling, oozing with star potential, prepared for UFC bantamweight takeover

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Aljamain Sterling (Getty Images)

Aljamain Sterling opens the door to his girlfriend’s Long Island, New York home, rocking a black UFC hoodie, sweatpants and sneakers and flashing his megawatt smile. He is momentarily comfortable.

That’s because the 29-year-old sees daylight in front of his career — even on this dreary afternoon — after finally getting some much-needed clarity.

After months of uncertainty in the bantamweight division, as a result of Henry Cejudo’s knockout of TJ Dillashaw in January and Dillashaw’s subsequent two-year doping suspension earlier this month, Sterling has just been granted a fight against Pedro Munhoz at UFC 238 in Chicago on June 8.

With Sterling being the No. 3-ranked bantamweight and Munhoz No. 4, their fight figures to declare the No. 1 contender for the vacant bantamweight title, which will be decided by Cejudo and Marlon Moraes clashing as the headliners on the same card.

The way Sterling sees it, a convincing victory over Munhoz and he’ll have his world title shot against Cejudo or Moraes later this year. But he is prepared to speak that possibility into existence if he has to, as well.

“I might have to do a little s— talking,” Sterling tells Sporting News while inching forward on a couch in the living room and stroking his beard with his index finger and thumb, further plotting his upward trajectory. “If that’s what you gotta do to get the fight you want to change your life, that’s what I’m going to have to do.”

It shouldn’t have to be that way, as Sterling is already oozing with untapped star potential yearning to be realized by the UFC. With his solid wrestling and MMA skills as a foundation, Sterling delivers personality for days, whether it is celebrating victories by dancing in the Octagon, his Instagram exploits or his “The Weekly Scraps Podcast,” in which he lets listeners know “What’s Scrappening” around the MMA current events — most recently referring to Dillashaw as “Pillashaw” and “Dillafraud” for his failed drug test.

That, and he is not shy about sharing his opinions of his bantamweight counterparts, already providing plenty of wide-eyed emoji-worthy soundbites.

On Cejudo’s KO of an emaciated Dillashaw, leading to a shot at the vacant bantamweight title, Sterling tells SN: “It’s a little annoying when guys get to cut the line and not handle business in their weight class. We’re starting to see this trend in MMA of the ‘Champ Champ’ — which is cool and all — but when you got a lot of guys who are in the trenches and taking out these tough competitors and you got guys that come up with one win in their weight class and think they’re hot s—, that kind of rubs me the wrong way.”

Sterling is equally opinionated when addressing Dillashaw’s failed drug test for using EPO ahead of his flyweight fight against Cejudo in January.

“To know that maybe his entire legacy is a fraud … that doesn’t sit right with me,” Sterling says. “This is a guy who has gone in there and beat the crap out of some people. Lord knows how long he has been on it. He has ended careers, he has changed the trajectory of people’s careers.

“So that could have been me, so I look at it like a cheater is a cheater at the end of the day. I can’t say it was for every single fight, but lord knows how many of those fights he was doing what he was doing.”

While the dust is finally settling on the fallout from Cejudo eviscerating Dillashaw and Dillashaw’s suspension, Sterling has been shoring up his fight game to even reach this point, having built a three-bout winning streak after suffering a brutal loss to Moraes in December 2017.

That fight had Moraes attempting a head kick but connecting on a knee that instantly slept Sterling, leaving the Uniondale, Long Island, N.Y., native frozen in time with his left arm stuck in an “infamous dab,” as he calls it.

The stinging loss not only set his career back, but Sterling was forced to reassess his mindset and rededicate himself to the mixed martial arts craft.

“When I came into that fight, I gave Marlon no respect, man. I really didn’t,” he admits. “I came in there, I thought I had the fight won already. I started to believe in my own hype, and once you start to do that, it’s a dangerous thing.

“That (loss) kind of reset the focus, and now, I’ve been a lot more dialed in. Every fight’s dangerous again.”

It’s not just talk. Sterling put in overtime at the Longo-Weidman MMA gym in Garden City, N.Y., as part of the homegrown Serra-Longo Fighting Team, and he has seen the results. Sterling’s three-fight winning streak has seen him record one strong performance after another.

There was the unanimous decision he posted over Brett Johns last April, followed by the second-round submission win against Cody Stamann (via Suloev stretch) in September and a unanimous decision over Jimmie Rivera in February.

“I had to battle my way back from one of the most humiliating knockouts that you could possibly have,” Sterling further says about the Moraes loss, which he since relegates to nothing more a “fluke.”

“It made me stronger and it helped propel my game a little bit further.”

“Funk Master” sincerely believes it is his time to take over the bantamweight division, but he insists he is not overlooking Munhoz en route of accomplishing that; Sterling (17-3) is just confident that his complex wrestling style, in which he slows his opponents down with superior grappling, will give him his fourth consecutive win in the Octagon.

“I think he’s a tough competitor in the jiu-jitsu department just like I am. I think the difference is the wrestling — the wrestling pedigree that I possess that I don’t think he does,” Sterling says, comparing himself to Munhoz (18-3-1 No-Contest). “I know he’s been wrestling and doing the wrestling training, but it’s not the same when you’ve kind of grown up doing it in high school and college. He’ll take a couple of punches to land a couple of calf kicks, and I think the difference is I’m not going to be there to be hit.”

He adds: “You haven’t seen some of my other tricks. I think this next one is going to be the icing on the cake. It’s going to be that real breakout party for me.”

Still, Sterling enters this bout having to weed out distractions, even ones that are ultra personal in nature.

“My parents are going through a divorce,” he says. “There’s a whole lot of mess in the back scenes that people don’t know about and they don’t give a s— about, and we got to take all that extra baggage with us into the Octagon.”

And possibly take it all out on Munhoz.

Hunched forward with his hands interlocked resting over his thighs, Sterling envisions a dominating win over Munhoz and Cejudo edging out Moraes to line up a clash with Cejudo later this year with the bantamweight title on the line. But even if it’s a rematch with Moraes, Sterling believes his point will be made.

“At the end of the day, I think all truths will be revealed,” he says. “I think I’m the best guy in the division, and I will prove it come June 8, and after that, I’ll be fighting for the belt — the UFC world title.”

Aljamain Sterling

Sterling’s path to the bantamweight championship is clear now. But back when he was a kid, Sterling remembers striving for a different kind of title — a makeshift strap in one of his siblings’ many homemade Tables, Ladders and Chairs matches, WWE style.

“We’d put the beds together and put the comforter underneath the mattress and boxspring. We’d put pillows underneath,” Sterling explains. “We’d have brothers versus the girls or one girl, one boy on one team against another team. We’d tape paper to the ceiling and that would be the belt and we’d have a Tables, Ladders and Chairs match.”

Sterling grew up on Long Island as one of 20 — yes, twenty — brothers and sisters, as a result of his mother and father each meeting with 10 children apiece. The busy household made Sterling tough quickly.

“I had to learn to toughen up and fend for myself,” says Sterling, who is of Jamaican dissent. “You’d think when you have a lot of brothers and sisters, they’d come to your aid and rescue you a lot of times, but for us it wasn’t really like that. It was tough love. Now that we’re older and mature, everyone is looking out for each other and making sure that we’re steering the younger ones into the right directions.”

Coming out of that environment, Sterling further blazed the trail to his MMA career at SUNY Morrisville, where none other than Jon Jones was honing his craft and helped mentor a younger Aljamain.

Even when Sterling transferred to SUNY Cortland a year later, his path was intertwined with Jones because the latter was training just down the block from the school, allowing them to re-connect and for Sterling to soak up some more game from the man who grew into arguably the greatest MMA fighter of all time.

Sterling says he credits his upbringing and meeting Jones for his becoming of an MMA fighter. And then, there was his first amateur MMA fight itself that got him hooked at the age of 20.

“I won, I threw the first right hand, cracked him and I split his eye open,” Sterling remembers. “And dude … when I saw the blood coming out — and I submitted him in the second round — I was like, ‘I think I could be good at this.'”

His intuition was right. Sterling grinded around the MMA circuit, eventually working his way up to the UFC, making his debut with the Las Vegas-based company in February 2014. And he hasn’t looked back.

Now, staring down No. 1 contender status in the bantamweight division and knocking on 30’s door, Sterling knows the time to make serious moves is now. And he is confident about laying the groundwork to do just that.

“I learned all these things on the journey, on the ride and I’m taking all these lessons into my 30’s,” Sterling says, “and I think the 30s are going to be the best years of my life.”