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Aljamain Sterling's photo op: The row of UFC champions at his gym

Aljamain Sterling, a Serra-Longo fighter and No. 1

Hungry eyes stared at the open space on the wall, hoping that empty visual could help the brain transmit enough signals to make him forget.

Forget the bruised body from the day’s training sessions, the beaten-up muscles, the lungs searching for the next breath, the quest for the will to stand up and voluntarily submit himself to more physical harm at the hands of friends and teammates.

This is the life of mixed martial arts fighter Aljamain Sterling, training in relative isolation, pandemic or not, and submitting his entire body to a daily grind unmatched in sports.

Two-a-days, three-a-days, wrestling, jiu-jitsu, boxing, kickboxing, sparring, cardio, strength and conditioning, repeat.

The tough days can break even the strongest of minds.

"When training sessions got hard, I’d look at the wall in between rounds and tell myself we have a mission to accomplish," Sterling said. "No matter how much it hurt, I needed to keep finding extra gears to push harder."

So what was it about this newly uncovered empty wall space at Longo and Weidman MMA in Garden City, with rows of white, black and red painted over the concrete, that motivated the No. 1-ranked bantamweight fighter in the UFC?

On the left side hangs a 6-foot-high, 4-foot-wide poster of Matt Serra, Sterling’s Brazilian jiu-jitsu coach, with his right arm raised toward the sky and his left arm pointing to the welterweight championship belt being snapped around his waist by UFC president Dana White.

On the right side, there’s White again, this time snapping the middleweight championship belt into place around the waist of Chris Weidman, Sterling’s teammate.

And that blank space in the middle? That’s Sterling's spot — the one the "Funkmaster" can occupy by beating reigning bantamweight champion Petr Yan at UFC 259 on March 6 in Las Vegas.

"Every day I went into the room to train, I kept looking at the wall saying to myself that I could be up there, too," said Sterling, who grew up in Roosevelt and Uniondale. "I would ask, ‘What’s keeping me from getting on that wall with Long Island’s champions?’ My answer was simple: Me. Do what I need to do so that I could do what I wanted to do."

Behind the wall

Two rows of posters hang on that wall at Longo and Weidman MMA in Garden City. The bottom row, the one closer to the ground and more attainable, shows all the fighters who reached the UFC with trainer Ray Longo.

"Everybody kind of looks up on the wall, you know, who isn’t up there, and they want to be up there," Longo said. "It's a big deal. I love it. It's a reminder of all the guys, where we started. To get up on that wall is not easy."

The top row? That’s reserved for champions. Only two hang that high. For now.

The posters of Serra and Weidman used to be right next to each other. Longo separated them in December as a motivational tool. He said he borrowed the idea after watching an NBA documentary on Netflix. In 2007, Doc Rivers had a spotlight installed at the Boston Celtics’ facility to shine on an empty spot on the wall, right next to the franchise’s 16th NBA championship banner from 1986. That light never went off.

"I wanted Aljo to stare at that space every day he was in the gym and envision his picture being up there because that's where it's going to go," Longo said. "I made him every day, like, we’d get done, I go, ‘Let's go. Let's look, man.’ This is what you want. You want to see your picture up there."

The Celtics won their 17th title that season.

Future champion

Aljamain Antoine Sterling lost his first amateur fight in 2010. He still was in college at Cortland, where he twice earned Division III All-American status as a wrestler. He started his MMA journey with Team Bombsquad in Ithaca and trained for a time alongside a young Jon Jones, now considered among the greatest fighters ever.

After a handful of pro fights, Sterling moved home to Long Island and found his way to the Serra-Longo fight team shortly thereafter. After more than a year away for arm surgery, he had his first fight with Longo and Serra in his corner in November 2013. Sterling submitted Joel Roberts in 109 seconds for his third consecutive Cage Fury FC title defense.

Three months later, Sterling was fighting in the UFC in a short-notice bout against Cody Gibson on the undercard of a Ronda Rousey event. Bigger stage, bigger audience, bigger opportunity for people to see what Longo and Serra had been telling people around the gym and the sport for a while: Sterling’s got "it."

"The first thing I saw was just, he was a gifted athlete," Longo said. "For a guy at the beginning, he could do everything. He could kick low, he could kick high, he could punch, he could wrestle, his jiu-jitsu was crazy. You could see he had the attributes to get to the top. He wasn't the ordinary guy. Just very gifted. And he was gifted without a lot of instruction, which was even crazier."

During the weigh-in show on Fox for Sterling’s fight against Takeya Mizugaki in 2015, Weidman echoed his coaches’ sentiments about his teammate.

"This guy will be a champion in this weight class," Weidman said. "He is a freak athlete. Out of all the guys I’ve ever rolled with, his jiu-jitsu is the most unpredictable. If I’m not careful, I’m getting choked out. His stand-up is ridiculous. He has not one flaw in his system. He’s going to be a champion."

Sterling submitted Mizugaki, then the No. 7 bantamweight and someone with solid name value, in the third round.

Sterling then submitted Johnny Eduardo in his next fight to improve to 12-0, earn bigger-stakes fights and begin to fulfill the prophecy.

Back-to-back losses by split decision to Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao slowed Sterling’s ascent, but he bounced right back with decision wins over Augusto Mendes and Renan Barao, a former world champion who at one point won more than 30 fights in a row.

Then, on Dec. 9, 2017, came the knee. That knee.

"I haven't taken an opponent lightly since that day. I think that's the main thing, is giving everybody the respect that they deserve when you step in there with them and not overlooking, and I think I learned a very valuable lesson." 

Aljamain Sterling

‘Not that bad’

Most fighters, no matter how much confidence they exude, feel some fear. Some wonder, ''Will this be the fight that puts me into the wrong side of looping clips on social media and highlight videos for years to come?''

Sterling found out, and as he’s said over the years when asked about his first-round knockout loss to Marlon Moraes, "It’s not that bad."

It just looked bad. Sterling shot in for a single-leg takedown from a distance, and the knee of that leg met Sterling’s face. His body stiffened as he fell to the canvas knocked cold.

"Some guys break. Some guys don’t come back from that," Longo said. "He could have packed his bags and moved on, or let it bother him. But he didn't. He persevered. And he had the mental fortitude to really push forward and get better."

With a little of the luster taken off Sterling’s star, he found a way to rise again. Five months later, he made 15-0 Brett Johns a 15-1 fighter with a unanimous decision. Then he took out Cody Stamann by knee submission with a Suloev Stretch, only the second such win in the UFC’s 25-year history.

In 2019, Sterling won unanimous decisions over top bantamweights Jimmie Rivera and Pedro Munhoz. Then, on June 6, 2020, amid a pandemic that forced him to train mostly out of the garages at his house and teammate Al Iaquinta’s home, Sterling solidified his title shot. He choked out Cory Sandhagen in 88 seconds at UFC 250, capping a five-fight run in which Sterling improved and showcased new tools each time.

"If there was a turning point, that would be it for sure," Iaquinta said of the Moraes fight.

And now here stands the 31-year-old Sterling, seven years and 14 fights into his UFC career, with his first title shot in the sport’s biggest and most well-known promotion. Against the 28-year-old Russian Yan (15-1, 7-0 UFC), who is on a 10-fight winning streak, including five finishes.

"He’s at the right spot in his career, and that's why I love this title fight for him," Longo said. "I think he's getting it right at the right time. I think he is peaking as an athlete, and I think that's a huge factor in this fight."

In this handout image provided by UFC, Aljamain
CHICAGO, IL - JUNE 08: Aljamain Sterling (L)
PHOENIX, ARIZONA - FEBRUARY 17: (L-R) Aljamain Sterling
Aljamain Sterling celebrates his win over Brett Johns
DALLAS, TX - SEPTEMBER 08: Aljamain Sterling, top
Aljamain Sterling attempts to secure a rear choke
Aljamain Sterling is on a five-fight winning streak, a run that includes wins over, clockwise from top right: Pedro Munhoz, Jimmie Rivera, Cory Sandhagen, Cody Stamann and Brett Johns.

Long Island to Las Vegas

Last summer, Sterling bought a home in Las Vegas and moved out there. He had been talking about doing so for a while. Perhaps the pandemic pushed things along a bit, perhaps not. But gyms were closed in New York then, and the UFC was hosting fights at its Apex facility in Nevada. Plus, Sterling would have the benefit of proximity to the UFC’s Performance Institute.

But he still needed a gym, a place and a person to help bridge the gap as he split time between Long Island and Vegas. Sterling visited Xtreme Couture, one of the top MMA teams in the sport, which now includes Francis Ngannou and welterweight champion Kamaru Usman, to name a few.

"It was almost kind of like an interview," said Eric Nicksick, head coach of the Xtreme Couture fight team. "He said I kind of need somebody to oversee things other than me. I don't want to be my own coach."

Sterling and Yan originally were scheduled to fight in December before Yan pulled out of the fight for "personal reasons." Sterling spent a month or so back home on Long Island training under Longo and Serra. He also got engaged to his longtime girlfriend, Rebecca Cruz.

Then he returned to Las Vegas to finish up his camp. When in Vegas, Sterling sends his sparring videos to Longo and Serra for their review and analysis.

With the success Sterling (19-3, 11-3 UFC) has had so far, he moved out of his comfort zone amid a five-fight winning streak and ahead of a title fight.

"There’s multiple sides to the coin, for me," Sterling said. "It's getting a different look, changing it up so I'm not plateauing and kind of doing the same thing that I've always been doing. And getting those nerves from going with someone else that you just don't know what can happen, which is very similar to the fight-night nerves that you get."

Longo and Nicksick aren’t strangers. Not with the amount of time they’ve spent in this sport, or the success they’ve had. Longo said Nicksick would use his gym when he was working with Lance Palmer for PFL events at Nassau Coliseum. Nevertheless, it’s something of a unique setup for coaches when a fighter calls two time zones home. Nicksick likened his role to his days as a paramedic and "transfer of care."

"If you ran a call on somebody that was injured, you're going to take care of that person all the way up until you hand them over to the doctors," Nicksick said. "So you want to make sure that they're getting the best care and being taken care of all the way up and through until that transfer of care happens. This is what Aljo wants, and I know Ray and Matt are his guys, so let's give him the best care and treatment that we can all the way up until his guys are here in town."

Aljamain Sterling, a UFC fighter from Long Island,
Aljamain Sterling, a UFC fighter from Long Island,
Aljamain Sterling, a UFC fighter from Long Island,
“He knows it's a tough test. I know it's a tough test," Aljamain Sterling said of facing Petr Yan. "And I think he's the real deal, and I think he thinks I'm the real deal." (Photos by James Escher)

Shaping Sterling’s work ethic

"I don't know why someone is the way they are, but the guy just has a drive," Iaquinta said of Sterling. "He sets himself a goal and he's doing it."

Sterling knows. His work ethic was instilled in him at an early age by his mother, Sophia Sterling. One of 19 siblings or half-siblings, Sterling grew up in Roosevelt and Uniondale, and for a good portion of his youth, his mother was the only parent.

"Seeing how tough she was showed me how to be a little bit more resilient than others, and how to work hard and just have a sick work ethic," Sterling said. "Seeing how much she did and how she taught me how to do stuff. And if I did it wrong, she’d make sure I did it over and over again until I did it the right way every single time."

Years later, Mom’s lessons manifest themselves every day. In the gym. In life.

While fighting his way up the UFC ladder, Sterling helped coach several high school wrestling teams. He earned his license to sell real estate in New York and hosts a fighting podcast called "The Weekly Scraps."

Sterling also teaches classes at Longo and Weidman’s gym. He has learned to make those courses work for him as well as for the students.

"He definitely leads the room," Iaquinta said. "When he's teaching a practice, everybody knows who's teaching the practice. And he just takes control. He just goes. That's him repping all the stuff that he wants to do. He’s teaching it, so he's getting extra reps."

"Teaching really has made him a better fighter because he works his lesson plans around what he wants to work," Longo said. "And then he's got to be bulletproof, because guys are asking him questions."

Nicksick saw Sterling’s work ethic on full display recently when he accompanied Ngannou to Texas for his guest spot on Joe Rogan’s podcast.

"The first person to hit me up to cover my Monday pro practice is Aljamain Sterling," Nicksick said. "He wants to coach a class at my gym. Because he wants to help the rest of the guys in the room. In the middle of a title fight camp. No one's going to do that. This kid does."

Most fighters get a touch selfish as training camp winds down and the fight nears. It’s accepted practice. Not Sterling.

"I'm blown away, absolutely blown away," Nicksick said. "And every one of the guys in the room that night hit me up and said, man, that was awesome. Aljo ran a great practice. It's so awesome to have a veteran guy like Aljo there. So think about what it did for the room, right? It won everybody over. Everybody in the room is now on the Aljamain Sterling train. They're all pulling for the guy, and if they weren't before, they are now."

And then there’s the whole post-sparring thing that still elevates Nicksick’s heart rate when he tells the story.

"He goes and spars five rounds, gets done sparring and then corners his other three training partners that finished their rounds," Nicksick said. "Doesn't go shower, doesn't go walk away, doesn't go on his phone. He comes out of the cage and starts to corner his other three guys. He moves the Airdyne over, puts the Airdyne right in front of the cage and cornered these guys while he rode the Airdyne. I can't make this up, man."

Nobody made Sterling do it. That’s him. That’s how he was raised, both at home by his mother and at the gym by the culture set forth by Longo, Serra and teammates.

"I don't think he understands that gravity of what I see as a guy who's been in the sport for 14 years," Nicksick said. "This kid gets it. He has championship material written all over him."

From submission victim to sparring partner

So much about this sport gets defined by what happens in the octagon, but MMA often finds a way to bring things full circle.

Xtreme Couture in Las Vegas also happens to be where Cody Stamann trains. On the night of Sept. 8, 2018, Sterling put Stamann on the wrong side of a Suloev Stretch (aka "The Funk-strudle") for the submission victory. At the time, it was only the second such submission in UFC history (the third came later that night by Zabit Magomedsharipov.)

Then, late last year, it was Sterling and Stamann training together in class at Xtreme Couture. Weird, huh?

"We talked a bunch of stuff to each other, but then we fought. It was over, you know?" Stamann said. "I was the UFC newbie, he’s the guy that’s been around. I basically mouthed off and I made a mistake and he put me in my place. And that was it. For me it died right then. And every time I saw him after that, he was always super-nice."

In the beginning, I wasn't sure what to expect because you never know if anyone's having any type of hard feelings or anything like that, but nah, he was very controlled, very respectful. And it was what it was, just training. 

Aljamain Sterling

Sterling approached Stamann after practice to spar with him the next day.

"We're two of the best guys in the gym," Stamann said. "We both work hard. We both want to get better. Like, why the hell not? And then I heard he was fighting Petr Yan, so I was like, 'Team USA, dude, let's go. I can play Petr Yan for you.' "

Add to the weirdness the fact that Stamann signed to fight Sterling’s teammate, Merab Dvalishvili, ranked one spot ahead of him at No. 12, in February. Dvalishvili was in Las Vegas training with Sterling but later would withdraw from the fight. Stamann and Nicksick said they didn’t want to make things awkward for Sterling or anyone else, so they didn’t work together much more.

"One of the things I think that we are good at is we take care of one another," Nicksick said. "Whether you're in the division, whether you fought, if you don't have a fight signed on the dotted line with that guy, there's no immediate conflict, then why not work together? Especially if you already fought the guy. Pick his brain. See if there's things that can make you better along the line."

"I think Cody understands how big of a fight it is for us at Xtreme Couture as well," Nicksick said. "Although [Aljo]’s kind of the adopted son for the time being, right, but it also means a lot to be a part of something dynamic and great as a sparring partner or a training partner for Aljo for this fight."

Misunderstood motivation

Sterling and Yan have done their part in building up their fight, the first of three title fights on the UFC 259 card. Their back-and-forth exchanges on Twitter keep people engaged — and replying with their comments.

They may feel personal, as so much of the fight game does, but from Sterling’s point of view, it’s about challenging himself more than anything else.

"I think the trash talk has just been more competitive than anything,'' he said. "At the end of the day, it’s nothing personal. I would legit have a drink with him win or lose after the fight. Because that's just the way I am. We’re all chasing the same thing. So I can't hate anybody for believing in themselves and being confident."

Each fighter knows what his opponent brings to the fight. Both belong on this stage, in this octagon, fighting for this title. While amusing at times, a tweet won’t derail Sterling’s drive to succeed.

"It's more of an internal motivation. Just intrinsically, I just keep wanting more than my opponent," Sterling said. "And I think any type of position where there's going to be some adversity, if I get hurt, or if I'm on bottom and I have to get up, or if I'm fighting the clock in the clinch or something like that, or I need a big takedown or I need a big round, I think those moments [of] being able to remind myself of how bad do I want it, I think those are going to be the moments that really define and shape the outcome of the fight."

There’s a defined shape waiting on a wall back home to capture such a golden moment for Sterling.

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