Uniondale's Aljamain Sterling trains for his UFC debut
Outside, snow fell. Inside, sweat dripped.
While another winter storm happened upon Long Island late last Sunday night, a different sort of storm ripped its way through the leg muscles of Uniondale's Aljamain Sterling. Preparing for his UFC debut, Sterling alternated between sprinting on a treadmill and pushing a weighted conditioning sled up and down the length of Power MMA in Garden City.
The determination on his face was visible. Covered by a shirt and shorts, the anguish in his body was understood.
"Let's go, 'Funkmaster,' your UFC debut," bellowed Matt Serra, a former champion and Sterling's Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor, as head trainer Ray Longo watched. "You gotta make an impression."
Sterling thrives on the motivation as he gets ready to fight fellow newcomer Cody Gibson (11-3) at UFC 170 on Saturday in Las Vegas.
"My legs feel like cinder blocks," Sterling said. "Like I'm walking through mud, but just keep going, keep pushing. He really drives me, like the Energizer Bunny."
Serra's unmistakable voice motivates from the outside. But it's Sterling's inner voice that never shuts up. That's the one that thinks about everything, the one that questions if he's good enough, the one that convinces him that, yes, he is a good mixed martial artist.
An 8-0 pro record and three straight defenses of his Cage Fury bantamweight title aren't enough for the 24-year-old Cortland graduate. He needs more.
"Before I go out there, I'm like, 'Why not me? Why can't I win?'" Sterling said. "He has two arms, I have two arms. He has two legs, I have two legs. We know the same things. Who's going to go out there and who's going to execute? Who's going to go out there and have the bigger heart?
"I tell myself, 'You're too fast, you're too strong, you're too quick," Sterling continued. "You can't be broken, you can't be beat. If you can't be broken, you can't be beat. And I just beat it into my head."
That's what Sterling said goes through his mind in the moments before he leaves the locker room to walk toward a cage to fight his opponent. And that's after his extraordinarily long pre-fight warm-up, which at times has lasted up to an hour.
It is in the several hours beforehand on fight day when Sterling faces his toughest mental battle.
"I'm like a mixture of confidence and a little uncertainty," Sterling said. "I'm a little nervous and concerned about what might happen, what can happen, the unknown, the question mark . . . I always think about the worst possible scenarios and how can I fix it, change it, turn it around."
Sterling came across one such scenario earlier in his career. The wear and tear of his wrestling and MMA led to a torn labrum in his left shoulder. How did he turn that around?
Sterling had surgery late in 2012 and did not return to the cage until last November, a first-round submission win.
"In that moment, when I woke up and I looked at my shoulder and saw that I was patched up, I was kind of relieved," Sterling said. "I said this is the start of a new beginning. Man, people thought I was OK with one arm, I can't wait to show people what I can do with two good, working arms."