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Aljamain Sterling ready to become face of UFC bantamweight division

Aljamain Sterling, right, punches Pedro Munhoz at United

Aljamain Sterling, right, punches Pedro Munhoz at United Center on June 8, 2019 in Chicago. Credit: Getty Images/Rey Del Rio

Aljamain Sterling watched a key piece of career news reveal itself in real time last Saturday at UFC 249 and had the same thoughts as many others watching Henry Cejudo announce his retirement after defending his bantamweight title against Dominick Cruz.

Was he for real? Or was it a negotiating move to get bigger paydays?

"I didn't really know which one to pick, because I know Henry's a little bit older. I know he doesn't have any kids, I know he just got a new girlfriend, so I figured it could have some weight," said Sterling, the No. 2 ranked bantamweight in the UFC. "But at the same time, I know money talks, you know. So I just wasn't sure which way he was leaning toward. But I could see the seriousness in terms of him being content with kind of hanging out."

Retirements in mixed martial arts often are viewed as such, given the number of times retired fighters turn into unretired fighters when an interesting challenge or payday presents itself. Boxers retire and unretire frequently, as well. It's not uncommon in other sports, too. Cejudo did leave the door open for a return, saying at his post-fight news conference, "I really do want to walk away, but money talks."

The UFC seems to be taking Cejudo, 33, at his word for now as the promotion seems ready to crown a new champion in a short amount of time. As for possible matchups?

“It’s Petr Yan and somebody,” UFC president Dana White said after UFC 249 last Saturday. “We’ll get that figured out, too. We’ll make a title fight next week for the vacant title and probably do that fight as soon as possible.”

Sterling said he already "threw my hat in the ring" with the UFC to be that "somebody" who fights for the vacant bantamweight title next.

Both Yan, 27 and ranked No. 3, and the Uniondale-raised Sterling, 30, have looked impressive over the past two years as they built up their resumes to challenge for the bantamweight title. Outside of the octagon, the campaigning continues, as it has for some time. They go back and forth with each other through social media with enough regularity that surely the matchmakers have seen a few of the notifications pop up on their Twitter.

"As far as I'm sitting, I think we're neck and neck, and everyone that people have been talking about to see fight has been myself vs. Petr Yan," Sterling said. "So let's get the true number one contender or let us fight for the vacated title and figure it out."

Sterling and Yan's fighting credentials qualify them for serious consideration for the title shot.

The Russian Yan (14-1) is 6-0 in the UFC, with his last three wins coming against Urijah Faber (third-round knockout) in his second fight back from a three-year retirement, Jimmie Rivera (unanimous decision) and John Dodson (unanimous decision).

"You're fighting a 40-year-old Urijah Faber, I hope you do that to him and I hope you look that good. I don't think a win like that should have catapulted him all the way past a Cory Sandhagen and everybody else in the competition that was a little bit ahead of him," Sterling said. "I just don't see how the UFC is putting him that high on a pedestal, and I would love to be the guy to knock him off of that high horse and show him that he's human just like every one of us."

Sterling (18-3) knows that exact feeling. He lost via highlight-reel knockout to Marlon Moraes in December 2017. Since then, Sterling has won four in a row, with his last three wins coming against Pedro Munhoz (unanimous decision), Jimmie Rivera  (unanimous decision) and Cody Stamann (submission), all ranked in the top 10 at the time they fought.

"It's just interesting that Petr Yan is like the main staple they have for the next definite guy based on both of our bodies of work," Sterling said. "I think that my body of work was just overall better in terms of the competition that I faced."

In early March, before the coronavirus pandemic turned the entire sports calendar into confetti, Yan reportedly was scheduled to face No. 1 ranked Marlon Moraes in June. That event, scheduled to take place in Kazakhstan, was canceled. Moraes lost by third-round TKO to Cejudo in a bout for the vacant title at UFC 238. He is coming off a split-decision win over Jose Aldo last December.

Sterling was cleared to resume training a few months ago after surgery on his wrist. With gyms closed and stay-at-home orders still in effect across Long Island and much of the country, Sterling finds ways to train and stay in good condition for a potential title fight, or a June 6 bout with No. 4 Sandhagen that both parties verbally agreed to (Sterling said he hasn't signed a contract for it, though). Scroll through Sterling's social media and you'll find him going at it inside a garage or in a backyard with a small group of Serra-Longo training partners, a group that includes UFC fighters Al Iaquinta and Merab Dvalishvili, as well as Ring of Combat champion Dennis Buzukja.

"The only precaution there is, is show up and get ready to throw down," Sterling said. "We're young and healthy, young stallions ready to go."

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