When the fight started, Aljamain Sterling moved swiftly to the center of the octagon. His opponent, Pedro Munhoz, did much the same. Sterling kicked Munhoz. Munhoz kicked Sterling. Three seconds had elapsed in this critical bantamweight fight at UFC 238 on Saturday night in Chicago.
That snapshot set the tone for the remaining 14 minutes and 57 seconds as Sterling and Munhoz put together a terrific fight full of action. And it was Uniondale’s Sterling who got the best of Munhoz throughout the fight, winning by unanimous decision. All three judges scored it 30-27 for Sterling. It was the ninth win in the UFC bantamweight division for Sterling, fourth-best in the promotion’s history.
“Where’s Sean Shelby? I hope that was exciting enough for you,” Sterling said during his post-fight interview in the cage. “I’m tired of you guys sleeping on me. You can’t keep a star from shining, and my star is gonna shine bright.”
Sterling’s callouts didn’t stop with the UFC matchmaker. He then called for the winner of Henry Cejudo and Marlon Moraes, who fight later in the night for the vacant bantamweight title.
“I think it was an amazing fight and I hope it was good enough to let the UFC know I’m the next guy in line to challenge for the world title, I’m ready,” Sterling said. “I feel I redeemed myself after such a terrible knockout loss. A lot of guys don’t bounce back like that and I think it’s my time to shine.”
Sterling was referring to a knockout loss to Moraes in December 2017. Since then, he has won four straight fights and is ranked third in the bantamweight division.
Sterling (18-3) looked every bit a title contender against the fourth-ranked Munhoz (18-4, 1 no contest). Sterling threw front kicks, calf kicks and leg kicks. He threw lead elbows. He threw spinning back fists. And here’s where he really won the fight: his punches. Sterling continually tagged Munhoz with jabs and hooks throughout the entire fight.
It was a display of the evolution of Sterling’s striking, something he also displayed in his last bout against Jimmie Rivera. Perhaps the “Human backpack, the human JanSport, the human anaconda” needs a new nickname to add to that line, one that involves a little more striking than grappling in its reference.
“That’s what I’ve been waiting for,” trainer Ray Longo said of Sterling’s performance. “And against a super-tough guy.”
Munhoz landed quite a few clean shots and hurt Sterling’s left leg with his calf kicks. Sterling fought much of the fight southpaw, perhaps to guard against more calf kicks to his left leg. At one point in the second round, Sterling fell to the ground after a kick and Munhoz moved in to attempt a guillotine choke, but Sterling quickly escaped and got back to his feet.
Whether it was a scramble back to his feet, or just his punches while standing in front of his opponent, Sterling seemed too fast for Munhoz throughout the fight. He took everything that Munhoz threw at him as the two fighters stood in front of each other most of the bout.
“Pedro Munhoz is a tough dude, he is nonstop pressure, I saw that coming in,” Sterling said. “I knew he was going to slow down from the volume we were both throwing, but he just kept walking forward. I was hoping one of those punches were going to put him down, but he’s got a chin on him.”
The buildup to this fight included its share of back-and-forth verbal activity between the two fighters. The final 20 seconds of the bout included a few more such jabs, as well as actual back-and-forth physical strikes. It ended with a respectful hug.
“We knew we’d probably gonna be walking out on crutches tonight,” Sterling said. “It is what is. I’m here to be the No. 1 contender because that’s what this was. That Petr Yan-Jimmie Rivera fight, get that out of here.”
One more strike for Sterling, on a night where he could do no wrong in the octagon.