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Uniondale's Aljamain Sterling overcomes adversity to win fifth straight fight

Aljamain Sterling attempts to secure a rear choke

Aljamain Sterling attempts to secure a rear choke submission against Cory Sandhagen in their bantamweight bout during UFC 250 at UFC APEX on Saturday in Las Vegas. Credit: Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The upcoming list is incomplete, but it serves as a sampling of things in which Uniondale's Aljamain Sterling has had to endure of late.

—    Living in the U.S. epicenter of the worst pandemic in more than 100 years.

—    Government-induced shutdown of gyms and training centers, which if you’re an MMA fighter, that business is about as essential as it gets.

—    His longtime girlfriend contracting the coronavirus (she has fully recovered).

—    Rehabbing a surgically repaired wrist.

—    People marching through the streets of cities and suburbs to speak out against racial inequality.  

—    Searching for a way to use his platform as a UFC athlete with a No. 2 world ranking in the bantamweight division to join in that conversation.

—    Trying to figure out a way to put in the time and effort required to train because, oh yeah, he was facing the biggest fight of his career, with more on the line than ever before — a chance to fight for the gold.

How did the Sterling deal with it all? By needing just 88 seconds to submit No. 4 Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250 late Saturday night before an empty UFC Apex in Las Vegas.

“It’s an up-and-down sport. The psychology that it plays up in your head, it can really eat you up,” said Sterling, who won a $50,000 performance of the night bonus. “To go out there and fight those demons and go out there and do what I did, I think that did a lot for me mentally, physically.”

It did plenty for him professionally as well. Sterling, winner of five straight fights, figures to be next in line for a bantamweight title shot. Petr Yan and Jose Aldo have been targeted to face each other first for the championship vacated after Henry Cejudo retired last month.

“He’ll get the shot after that,” UFC president Dana White said.

Sterling (19-3, 11-3 UFC) started fast, applying pressure and quickly closing the distance with the taller Sandhagen. He was looking to use what he felt was his superior grappling skills

“His coach said, ‘He’s just looking to wrestle,’” Sterling said. “I made sure I told him, ‘Yep, I am. And I hope you’re ready to wrestle, too, because that’s what we’re going to do.’”

Sterling, a Serra-Longo fighter, took Sandhagen’s back early and secured a body triangle as he tried for a rear-naked choke. Sandhagen (12-2, 4-1) escaped the choke but not the body triangle around his waist. Sterling remained in control on Sandhagen’s back, flattened him out, locked in another rear-naked choke and squeezed until Sandhagen tapped out.

“It just reconfirms everything that I’ve believed in and that I’ve been saying about myself and my skills,” Sterling said. “If I’m as good as I say am, for me to go out ther e and do what I just did the way that I did it against a top guy who everyone touted. Vegas had the odds as a pick’em. They didn’t know who to pick. I think they realize now to never bet against ‘The Human Backpack.’ ”

Before the fight, Sterling, 30, admitted to having trouble sleeping because of the civil unrest and protests about injustice and racism brought about after George Floyd died on May 25 while in police custody in Minneapolis.

“Where we sit as athletes, we still have a job to do. To start pressuring someone to start going on social media and doing stuff because you feel like they should when they have a bigger task in front of them is a little bit unfair,” Sterling said. “But at the same time, I do think as an athlete, it’s on us to use our platform for good. I’m just glad I found the balance to be able to use it for good and still be able to stay focused on a big opportunity, a big fight that had everything riding on it.”

Sterling is one fight away from doing what he set out to do when he first signed with the UFC in early 2014 — win the championship.

“I’m trying to realize a dream,” Sterling said. “I’m right there, I can see it, I can feel it, I can touch it.”

New York Sports