Late last week, Aljamain Sterling flew on a plane, slept in a home that wasn’t his own and sat down at a table with other people in a restaurant.
That plane took him from New York City, an epicenter of the coronavirus pandemic, to Las Vegas, where fortune is sold but never promised. And those people at Sterling’s table, they were his Serra-Longo teammates, the same crew who helped get him ready for his fight against Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 on Saturday night.
“It was a definitely a reminder of the things that we had taken from us,” said Sterling, 30, from Uniondale. “We were grateful about it. Me, I felt good just out and about and not just sitting in a house all day long and getting back some normalcy in my life. Obviously, I couldn’t eat what everybody else was eating, the ice cream and all that other stuff, but I had a good salad and that was good enough for me.”
That crew — “The Dog Pound,” as they came to call themselves while conducting training camp, workouts and sparring in either Sterling’s garage or Al Iaquinta’s garage — provided the necessary training the No. 2-ranked Sterling needed for what many consider the most important fight in his quest for the UFC bantamweight title.
Right there alongside Sterling during his training was Iaquinta, the No. 9-ranked lightweight in the UFC, fellow UFC bantamweight Merab Dvalishvili, Ring of Combat champion Dennis Buzukja, and rising fighters Nazim Sadykhov, Steve Lee, Justin Montalvo and Nick Piccininni.
“They have a structure, there is a template in place,” longtime trainer Ray Longo said. “We have certain drills we do, certain days we spar. So for the most part, I'm going to say they followed that. But he kind of ran his own thing within the realm of knowing all of the things he normally does.
“I don't think this camp was far off from what it would have been. I just feel disconnected.”
Longo, 62, will not be in Sterling’s corner on fight night. Nor will Matt Serra. Both are staying home as a precaution to guard against COVID-19. Serra, 46, made sure of that, forever protective of his longtime coach and close friend. Serra knew that if he were to go to the fight and corner Sterling, Longo would go as well.
“I know Matt told those guys don't even let me hold [mitts] at the beginning because it's getting weird,” Longo said.
“Yeah, I said that,” Serra said.
“I think it all came from a good spot,” said Longo, who last missed one his fighters’ UFC fights in September 2001 when Serra beat Yves Edwards by majority decision at UFC 33. “As upset as I was, they really were out to protect me and do the right thing.”
Sterling figured from the start that Longo and Serra may not be there to corner him on fight night.
“We’re in weird times right now. So I kind of just assumed that they wouldn't be coming,” Sterling said. “And then we kind of had the conversation a couple weeks into the camp. And yeah, that was pretty much it.”
Will it be weird to not have the longtime duo in his corner for instruction?
“I don't think so. I mean, I've had fights with random guys, I drove to fights by myself cutting weight, no corners whatsoever. So I've had a very interesting MMA journey,” Sterling said. “So this is like, I know what I need to do, my guys know what I need to do and we're all on the same page and I told them what I'm looking for in terms of feedback and that's really it.”
Longo and Serra both said they plan to communicate with Sterling and the “Dog Pound” during fight week. Part of their comfort level is the experience of Iaquinta, who has been in Sterling’s corner for several years alongside Longo and Serra.
“I’m really excited that 'Raging Al' is gonna be in his corner,” Serra said.
Iaquinta will be joined in Sterling’s corner by Lee and Buzukja when he faces the fourth-ranked Sandhagen (12-1, 4-0 UFC) in the bantamweight title eliminator bout. Henry Cejudo retired last month after defending the title against Dominick Cruz, and UFC president Dana White said the promotion is looking at Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo for the vacant title.
Sandhagen, 28, hasn’t fought since last August when he beat Raphael Assuncao by unanimous decision at UFC 241. (The fifth-ranked Assuncao faces ninth-ranked Cody Garbrandt, a former champion, in the co-main event at UFC 250.)
Sterling (18-3, 10-3), on a four-fight win streak, last fought in June 2019 when he picked apart Pedro Munhoz for a unanimous-decision victory at UFC 238.
“He brings a little bit more footwork. He is going to be able to move a little bit more agile than a lot of the other guys I’ve fought,” Sterling said of Sandhagen. “It's not gonna be like Pedro. Pedro is pushing forward with relentless pressure. It doesn't matter how many times you hit the guy, he's just going to walk forward even when his chin is going left and right. Sandhagen's going to be more in and out. He’s got good grappling. He's tall, he's lanky, he seems like a thinking kind of fighter kind of like myself. He's trying to read you in there. And I think it makes for a very interesting matchup.”
UFC 250 main card, 10 p.m. Eastern on ESPN+ pay-per-view
Women's featherweight champion: Amanda Nunes vs. Felicia Spencer
Bantamweight: Raphael Assuncao vs. Cody Garbrandt
Bantamweight: Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen
Welterweight: Neil Magny vs Anthony Rocco Martin
Bantamweight: Eddie Wineland vs Sean O’Malley
UFC 250 prelims, 8 p.m., ESPN and ESPN+
Featherweight: Alex Caceres vs Chase Hooper
Middleweight: Ian Heinisch vs Gerald Meerschaert
Featherweight: Cody Stamann vs Brian Kelleher
Middleweight: Charles Byrd vs Maki Pitolo
UFC 250 early prelims, 6 p.m., UFC Fight Pass
Flyweight: Jussier Formiga vs Alex Perez
Light heavyweight: Alonzo Menifield vs Devin Clark
Lightweight: Evan Dunham vs. Herbert Burns