In the basement of Uniondale High School, Aljamain Sterling, 26, pins Najee Hall's head down on a tattered black wrestling mat. Hall, 16, grunts and tells Sterling he's weak. Sterling smiles.
Sterling, an undefeated professional fighter in the world's largest mixed martial arts organization -- the Ultimate Fighting Championship -- for the past two years has juggled fighting in a cage with coaching the wrestling team of Uniondale High School.
Sterling says he sees it as a higher calling: mentoring students in the Uniondale Knights wrestling room and helping to shape boys at risk of falling through society's cracks into young men with promising futures.
"The joking keeps the atmosphere light," said Sterling, who grew up in the community and graduated in 2007 from Uniondale High School. "It keeps everyone happy even if it's a grueling workout."
While the Uniondale wrestlers value having a professional athlete coaching them, they also see Sterling, who has an 11-0 fighting record, as one of their own.
"He's weird, he's not like a normal coach," Hall said. "He's more like somebody we know because he's close to our age."
Sterling, known as "Aljo" by his nearly 35 high school wrestlers, lives about a three-minute drive from the school. To his students, and their parents, his coaching role is vital.
Hall's father, Richard Hall, said the discipline of wrestling has kept his son on the high school honor roll and in pursuit of a college wrestling scholarship. "He has taken school more seriously," Hall, 42, said about his son. Najee Hall is entering his junior year and has goals to study education and to participate in the wrestling program at SUNY Cortland where Sterling graduated as a two-time Division III All-American wrestler.
"He realized that if he puts hard work into anything, the better results he'll get," Richard Hall said.
With the right coaches, other sports such as basketball and football also help develop young players. Jonathan Jefferson, the Uniondale school district's athletic director, said wrestling truly tests a person's resolve.
"There is a separation [from other sports] in the fact that it's so extraordinarily grueling," said Jefferson, 46. "You're out there one on one and you might get pinned in front of a crowd. It's a grueling sport and it takes a certain personality to handle that kind of rigor."
Sterling said he discovered wrestling in the 10th grade and the sport became his obsession, helping him avoid joining a gang like one of his older brothers.
"I just want to pay it forward," Sterling said, wearing a blue shirt with his fighting nickname, "Funk Master," brandished in white on the front. Under it are logos of five sponsors supporting his fighting career.
"I wouldn't feel right unless I was working with the kids and giving back to those guys to let them know what it feels like to have someone by your side, behind you, backing you and pushing you the entire time," he said.
Carlos Hernandez, 14, said Sterling motivates him to excel both in and outside the gym. Hernandez has improved his grades since joining Sterling's team last year when he started high school. He said he barely passed eighth grade.
"I was always getting into trouble in class and wrestling changed me," Hernandez said. "Before, I thought I really didn't need to go to college. But now I think college can get me far in life."
Sterling also has someone who pushes him: Ray Longo, 57, his mixed martial arts trainer. Longo, a Syosset resident, said Sterling relieves stress after enduring brutal training sessions by coaching the Uniondale wrestlers. "There is life after mixed martial arts as much as we don't want to think about it and you better be prepared for it," he said.
Sterling takes his wrestlers to train at Longo's mixed martial arts gym in Garden City on Fridays.
As the high school wrestlers prepare for the coming season, which starts in November, Sterling has goals of his own. He hopes to win the UFC championship next year and not let it affect his time guiding his students to titles of their own.
"At the end of the day, I know I'm not Superman," Sterling said. "I try to at least allow myself to get pulled in different directions, to lend an ear to some of my kids and do the best I can to help those guys out."