For those following Aljamain Sterling’s career in the UFC since it started more than five years ago, there is a common refrain. It's one put forth by his Serra-Longo coaches and teammates since he first entered their gym: Sterling has all the makings of a future UFC champion.
“He’s really well-rounded, and there are aspects of his game that he hasn’t even shown anybody, which is always a good thing. There’s nothing he can’t do,” trainer Ray Longo said Tuesday. “The only thing after that is having the right mindset. And if he’s comfortable and he’s in the right frame of mind, he’s good to go.”
Those outside the comforts of his Long Island gym have started to take notice as well, with Sterling, who grew up in Uniondale and Roosevelt, putting together three straight wins after a devastating knockout loss to Marlon Moraes in December 2017.
“I think he’s a beast,” said UFC featherweight champion Max Holloway, who trained with Sterling in Hawaii earlier this year. “I think he’s an animal.”
Sterling has risen to No. 3 in the UFC bantamweight rankings and he faces No. 4-ranked Pedro Munhoz on Saturday at UFC 238 in Chicago. The No. 1-ranked Moraes headlines the card in a bout with flyweight champion Henry Cejudo for the vacant bantamweight title.
Sterling weighed in at 134 pounds on Friday morning. Munhoz came in at 135.5.
There is a very strong likelihood that the winner of Sterling-Munhoz would get the next title shot, so, yes, this is the biggest of Sterling’s 21 professional fights.
“Big opportunity. I’m excited for all the challenges it’s going to bring to the table,” said Sterling (17-3, 9-3 UFC). “I’m not going to make this a thing in my head. I have to get past this guy first for anything to even count for anything. I’m just worried about Pedro. I have to make sure I’m on my A game. I know he’s going to be looking to bring a furious pace, and I’m well prepared for this.”
In Sterling’s last fight, he neutralized the striking of the higher-ranked Jimmie Rivera for a unanimous decision, showing how far he has come on the feet. Before that, he submitted Cody Stamann with a rarely seen Suloev Stretch kneebar submission. Sterling called it the “Funk-Strudel,” a nod his fighter nickname of “Funkmaster.” Earlier in 2018, Sterling won a unanimous decision against the previously undefeated Brett Johns.
But winning streaks need a starting point, and that means there was a loss along the way. For Sterling, that loss on Dec. 9, 2017 was as bad as he always feared it would be. He was knocked out cold with a knee to the jaw by Moraes. He fell to the mat already unconscious, not hearing the 7,605 fans in the Save Mart Center in Fresno, California, all screaming. And he certainly didn’t hear the broadcast announcer call it an “absolutely brutal knockout.”
“That was my biggest fear in this whole game,” Sterling said. “The knockout has always been, like, aww man, you get separated from your consciousness on international TV, in front of hundreds of millions of people that are going to be able to see this over and over.”
Athletes in all sports say they learn from their losses. In Sterling’s case, it hasn’t been lip service.
“It’s not easy to come back from a knockout like that,” Longo said. “Not only has he come back, he’s looked great in his last couple of fights. That's a testament to who Aljo is. And he was able to just leave that behind and learn from it and move on.”
Sterling reassessed his game and put life and his career in perspective after that fight. And he was honest with himself, admitting where he needed to improve and what he needed to do to lift himself back up into that conversation of the best bantamweights in the UFC.
“I do believe I feel that I have everything it takes to become a world champion, and this is just another step in that chapter along my journey to get there,” Sterling said. “I’m not looking past Pedro. I know the troubles and the problems he usually brings to the table. I just believe I’m just better. I really do just believe I’m just better than him. And I’m going to have to go out there and prove it.”