Have a day, Aljamain Sterling.
For real, this day, May 23, is yours now and forever, as proclaimed by Nassau County on Monday.
Standing on a stage outside Uniondale High School, his alma mater, and after a parade through the streets of his hometown, the UFC bantamweight champion smiled brightly as the “Aljamain Sterling Day” festivities took place. The school band performed. The show choir sang. Several hundred students, teachers, officials, family and members of the community cheered for their hometown hero.
“Never did I think walking the halls of Uniondale High School that I would be here standing in front of all you guys, the next generation of kids, the future, speaking to you guys,” Sterling told the crowd. “This is just . . . this is unreal.”
Not too bad for the 32-year-old Sterling, who 19 years earlier was named an aspiring scientist at Turtle Hook Middle School in Uniondale.
“I'm an emotional guy. I get emotional even just being up here in front of you guys because this is like, you know,” Sterling said before pausing for a moment. “I was a small kid and to be doing this, man, truly, truly blessed. Some times I really do still think I'm dreaming and wonder when I'm gonna wake up.
“Man, I got a day. This is insane.”
And an honorary fireman's hat from the Uniondale Fire Department, and dozens upon dozens of handshakes and selfies with the students.
Sterling won the 135-pound title on March 6, 2021, via disqualification after then-champion Petr Yan threw an illegal knee that caused a stop to the fight. Of the 94 people to have held a UFC title in any weight class in the nearly 30 years of UFC's existence, Sterling is the first and only fighter to win the title via DQ. That left a lot of doubt and disdain in people’s minds. Sterling removed all that on April 9 of this year with a split-decision win over Yan for what technically was his first title defense but to many felt like the truer coronation of the current king of the bantamweight division.
Sterling’s story is one of perseverance and self-determination. No UFC champion has felt more scorn in social media and the general MMA ether than Sterling. Still, he rose above it, and he wanted the students of Uniondale High School to hear that message.
“You could do anything that you want to do as long as you put your mind to it. You put in honest work, and you hold yourself accountable because that's the most important thing,” Sterling said. “You have to hold yourself accountable. Because no one else is going to look out for you the way you have to look out for yourself."
Sterling is the third Long Islander to become UFC champion, joining his teammate Chris Weidman of Baldwin and his coach and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu instructor Matt Serra of East Meadow. Sterling also is the second UFC champion to have a day named after him in Nassau County, joining Weidman, who first was feted on July 17, 2013, after defeating Anderson Silva for the middleweight title.
On his way up the MMA ladder, Sterling always kept his hometown close. He helped coached the wrestling team earlier in his career, but he still makes time to come by the wrestling room and the school.
“What impresses me most is his character, his humility and his commitment to the youth of Uniondale,” said Monique Darrisaw-Akil, superintendent of the Uniondale school district.
Uniondale High School principal Mark McCaw said he “absolutely” was on board with hosting Sterling’s day at his school and wanted to use the event as a way to motivate his students.
“I want my kids to see what success looks like,” McCaw told Newsday after the event. “It’s tangible. You see real life. You see Nassau County celebrating one of their own. Whether you’re somebody who’s being celebrated, or somebody who just achieved a level of success, it happens out of this school district.”