A few days ahead of a flight to Abu Dhabi last week, Aljamain Sterling spent some spare time among his people: Long Island’s mixed martial arts community, to be exact.
The UFC bantamweight champion from Uniondale hosted an open workout at LAW MMA in Garden City to give fans a close-up view of training ahead of his championship matchup with T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 280 on Oct. 22. As Sterling answered questions on topics from fight picks to life advice, another Long Islander leaned against a punching bag not far away, still sweating from the work he just put in with the champion, patiently waiting as his training partner and friend absorbed the spotlight.
The rise of Merab Dvalishvili, a North Bellmore resident originally from the country of Georgia, has coincided with Sterling’s championship run, putting the LI teammates among the best 135-pounders in the world, and possibly setting them on a collision course.
“I don’t think you have either one of us without the other, in my personal opinion,” Sterling told Newsday. “I think Merab has elevated my game, I’ve elevated his game. One hand washes the other.”
It’s a partnership 33-year-old Sterling (21-3) is nothing but grateful for entering his fight against two-time champ Dillashaw (17-4), and one 31-year-old Dvalishvili (15-4) believes will net his pal another victory.
“He’s a champion in life, you know? I try to keep up with him, training with him, we always push each other,” Dvalishvili said. “I think in general Aljamain Sterling is a better fighter than T.J. Dillashaw, better wrestler, and even his striking Aljo is untouchable, so I think Aljo will finish T.J. Dillashaw.”
The preparation for this fight started during Dvalishvili’s own work gearing up for another former champion, Jose Aldo. The pair shipped to Las Vegas and worked out of the UFC Performance Institute, allowing Sterling to keep his body fresh and ready for the Dillashaw camp.
“That was huge to jump start my own training camp, getting me in shape, being able to get through three rounds with Merab when he’s fight ready puts me in great position coming into my own camp,” Sterling said.
After Dvalishvili’s win, they returned to Long Island and finished Sterling’s prep under the supervision of longtime coach Ray Longo, who said he couldn’t quantify the bantamweights’ impact on each other and those around them.
“The bond these guys have is just crazy, I watched it happen, it’s almost over the top,” Longo said. “You’ve just got two good guys. When they’re in Vegas, I just miss them. I’m a happier guy when they’re in the gym, it’s not even about training, you grow close to people.”
Everybody has goals, and Dvalishvili’s include a UFC belt. Sterling has held the 135-pound crown since March 2021, when he first defeated current No. 1 Petr Yan. Dillashaw slots in at No. 2, while Dvalishvili sits just below in third riding an eight-fight win streak.
But this relationship is a kinship built from mutual respect and an understanding that one’s success doesn’t need to come at the other’s expense. Longo can't picture a bout between them ever happening, seeing a change in weight class for one fighter as an alternative. Dvalishvili wasn’t too interested in the discussion, but neither fighter completely closed that door.
“This never has been a problem and we never talk about this,” Dvalishvili said of a potential showdown. “There is no question we are friends and we are happy for each other. There are so many other guys to beat or fight.”
As for the man holding the belt, and thus the cards in any fight negotiation, Sterling said he won’t hold back his buddy.
“We’ll figure it out, I’ve got to win first. I’ve got to beat T.J. first before any of those conversations come to an actual reality,” Sterling said. “[If] I lose, the door’s wide open. I’ll help him the same way he’s helped me to this day. That’s what a brotherhood is about.
“I know he wants to be a world champion, I’ve accomplished my dreams of being a world champion, and that’s what we get into this sport for. I would never deny anyone a chance at making history for themselves, and especially for their country. Again, I’ve got to win first, we get past that, and we have a good problem on our hands.”