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LI’s Aljamain Sterling, Ryan LaFlare look to rebound in Atlantic City

UFC fighter Aljamain Sterling teaches a mixed martial

UFC fighter Aljamain Sterling teaches a mixed martial arts class on Wednesday, April 11, 2018, at LAW MMA in Garden City. Credit: Newsday / Ryan Gerbosi

What’s it like to be knocked out?

Before their previous bouts, Long Island fighters Aljamain Sterling and Ryan LaFlare couldn’t answer that question, avoiding the big shots and small mistakes that lead to devastating finishes inside the cage.

But one punch changed that for LaFlare last July against Alex Oliveira, and a single knee did the same for Sterling against Marlon Moraes in December.

Now, both men hope to prove that those blows were just flashes of misfortune when they make their return to the cage Saturday at UFC Fight Night 128 in Atlantic City. Sterling (14-3, 6-3 UFC) will face unbeaten British prospect Brett Johns (15-0, 3-0 UFC) in a matchup of rising bantamweights, while LaFlare (13-2, 6-2 UFC) meets veteran Alex Garcia (15-4, 5-3 UFC) in a welterweight bout.

“It was a fluke thing, but it was more so what I did. He didn’t do anything special,” said Sterling, a Serra-Longo protégé from Uniondale. “He threw a switch kick and I literally ran into his knee. There’s nothing you can take away from that besides being patient and actually setting up your takedowns. I shot from Guam, I didn’t set that up whatsoever. I got kind of excited when I had the submission attempt, it felt pretty close. I got up and wanted to get him back down as soon as possible. I felt like I could’ve got him out of there in the first round, instead he got me out of there in the first round.”

Sterling said he woke up from the knockout in the cage but didn’t fully come to until he reached the hospital, his brother telling him he asked the same questions over again until getting his wits about him.

“He said I was really out of it, so I have no idea, I came to in the hospital and I gave him a step-by-step play-by-play of everything that happened,” Sterling said. “I even told him I saw the knee at the very last second, but there was nothing I could do to stop it. At that point, as soon as I saw it on impact I was out. I just remember coming to in the hospital.”

Lindenhurst’s LaFlare said he knew exactly what happened immediately when he awoke in the cage shortly after taking a brutal check right hook.

“Obviously, it affects you, but I think it affected the people around me more than it affected me,” LaFlare said of the KO. “Whatever, I knew what happened. I was fine, I wasn’t like in a whole ‘nother world afterward, I went out and had a couple beers. I was more happy it was over to be honest, I just wanted to move on and go on to the next.”

LaFlare’s last fight came in the UFC’s Long Island debut at NYCB Live’s Nassau Coliseum. He said the stresses of competing here, additional media obligations and other factors had him doubting his future in the sport beforehand.

“I just opened another gym, it was the middle of the summer and I have two kids. It was on Long Island, I was selling T-shirts, I had so much different things going on. I was so burned out from the fight I remember saying to my coaches, ‘I don’t even want to do this anymore,’” LaFlare said. “Regardless if I won or lost, I said this stuff before the fight, I was like, ‘I’m burned out, I need to clear my mind from this for a couple of months.’ And I did, and now I’m having the best training I’ve ever had in my life. I’m enjoying every time I’m coming in there, I’m enjoying training, I’m enjoying picking up new things, I’m trying to get better, and that’s what you need to be a champ and to be the best, that’s what’s happening.”

Sterling also took some time after his knockout, but in his case, it was about not rushing the recovery process. The bantamweight spoke to his coaches and several area fighters, including Chris Weidman, Gian Villante and Al Iaquinta, to come up with the best rehab plan.

“Obviously longevity is a big thing for me, but I don’t plan on being in this sport until I’m 40 anyway, but I want to be able to preserve my body and my brain,” Sterling said. “So I made sure I did no contact at first, I took some time off, I think about three-to-four weeks of no training whatsoever, then I came back started training more cardio, more lifting, the whole-nine of wrestling, jiujitsu. Then I kind of got back into the contact sparring maybe 4 ½-to-5 weeks ago, so very little, man, and it’s only once a week. And I do the hitting, I don’t get hit very often.

“It really depends on how you’re feeling. I didn’t have any symptoms the night of, the day after, the following weeks, there was no post-concussion symptoms whatsoever.”

Both men have put their bad nights behind them and are focused on what’s to come in Atlantic City. LaFlare believes he’ll have the advantage anywhere the fight goes against Garcia.

“I think Garcia is a very good matchup for me. I think he’s extremely explosive, very strong. I think he prides himself as being a wrestler, which is good for me because I think I’m a more scrappy, scrambling wrester,” LaFlare said. “I think I set up my takedowns better than he does. He looks like he’s pretty decent on the ground, but I don’t think that’s anything that’s going to threaten me.”

As for Sterling, he sees this fight with Johns as a chance to seal his status in a competitive bantamweight division.

“If I’m being completely honest, he’s not the toughest guy I’ve faced in terms of skill set on paper,” Sterling said. “In terms of heart and everything else, he may be tougher in that department, but outside of that, on paper, he’s not the toughest I’ve faced. But every fight is different. I think it’s a huge opportunity for him, he’s looking at it as a steppingstone, I’m looking at it as a way to cement my name still within the top 10. I’ve gotta go out there and do my job, beat him up, get him out of there and show him that it’s not his turn yet. He’s gotta wait in line and it’s still my time to shine. I’m coming for that bantamweight title.”

New York Sports