2015 has been in some ways good for Aljamain Sterling, but equally frustrating. The elite UFC bantamweight contender defeated Takeya Mizugaki via submission in April, which served as the high point of his MMA career to date.
Yet, he hasn't fought since. So bad did his situation get that Sterling took to social media two weeks ago to suggest if he didn't fight soon, he'd have to consider early retirement and take up post-graduate studies.
"The past few weeks have kinda been going in a downward spiral, I want to say," he told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour. "Just being a little frustrated seeing that I made such a big amount of money at one time and I was kinda hoping I was going to get back into the Octagon soon and get another fight.
"I had some realistic goals I set for myself barring I had enough fights. I felt I ended coming up short of that."
As Sterling saw it, the positives of the situation were beginning to disappear. If he was to meet certain benchmarks, things had to change and quickly. If not, tough choices had to be made.
"It's just been rough thinking about that. I did the math," he said. "I'm 26 now. I'll be 30 soon in the next four years. Just thinking I probably don't want to be fighting past 30, 31 years old. If I'm only fighting once or twice a year, that's just not going to be enough to make a dent in the sport or enough financially for me to get myself to where I want to be and position myself. That's kinda where my frustration was coming from.
"I'm a numbers guy. I look at the numbers and try to make everything make sense put into perspective," he continued. "It just kinda got to me and I vented out. I'm like, 'Man, if I'm going to have this idle time, I might as well be in school, do something positive where I'm not just wasting my prime years and not getting something else in return.' If I'm in school and training, that's OK. I did that in college. It worked. I could do that now and it'll still work.
"That's just kinda where my frustrations were coming from, just sitting and letting this time pass me by."
His bad news, or, at least, his public frustrations, ended up giving him some good news. "I complained so much that I ended up getting a fight," he noted.
After Sterling made news for considering retirement, his next fight materialized. He told Helwani the circumstances aren't ideal, but it's all a step in the right direction even if very little of it makes sense.
"This is the weirdest thing. I've been told one thing, that all these guys turned me down, x,y, z. I take to Twitter and some of these guys are like, 'Yeah, I'll take the fight,' then you don't hear anything of it for the next few weeks," he explained. "I guess I complained so much that I ended up getting a fight. And it was just like, dude, this is all I wanted. I just wanted a name on paper so I can have the peace of mind, the security that something's definitely going to happen and that I'm not just sitting here waiting, twiddling my thumbs and nothing's going to happen.
"So, I ended up getting a fight, I am fighting the no. 9 guy, Johnny Eduardo. I've been calling that guy out for the longest. I would have loved to fight him in Orlando, but now this fight's gonna be December 10th on Fight Pass. So I think my complaining was good and bad at the same time. It worked into my favor that I got the fight, finally, and got the security and peace of mind, but then I went from a big slot on a card to kind of a ... I mean, it's going to be a big weekend, anyway. Hopefully the fight gets the promotion it deserves, and just the card in general, so a lot of people will tune in to make sure they watch this because I am going out there to pop this guy's head off and squeeze the hell out of him."
Sterling might've been frustrating, but he hasn't been idle. He's been training, albeit with less sparring. But he's tried to compete where he can, winning jiu-jitsu tournaments and trying to stay active.
As for why he wasn't getting fights, well, that's the confusing part. As he noted, fighters on Twitter seemed eager to face him, but it never worked out. At this point, he doesn't know what the truth is other than he's locked in for December.
"I've been told by the matchmakers that they've been trying to get me fights and they're trying to get the right match up, which makes sense from a promotional standpoint. It has to be a guy that's ranked and it has to be a fight that makes sense, but with all the injuries and me being told guys are turning down fights, it makes me think I don't know what the hell is happening or what to believe," he said. "Now I got this fight and I'm thinking, if it was that easy, I wish we could've done this a while ago."
Eduardo is a good fight, Sterling admitted, but the fight he was chasing appears out of reach: Bryan Caraway. Caraway claimed he was never offered the contest, but Sterling isn't so sure that's the truth. Either way, he viewed the missed opportunity with some regret since he thinks it'd be good for his career as well as the fans.
"I hope he was offered the fight. He said he wasn't. I asked for the fight. It was the only fight that made sense with everybody that was hurt and just the state of the division and his style of grappling.
"I might bust his balls about his stand-up because I think it's pretty horrendous, but for the most part, you don't get to be no. 6, no. 7 in the world by being a slouch. I think he's very good at what he does, which is grappling. I think I'm very good at what I do, which is grappling," he contended. "I just think overall, it would be a fun fight."
Ultimately, though, he's not sure Caraway really wants to face him. In Sterling's mind, Caraway's older, highly ranked and needs to be careful about who he faces. Why take on a younger, tougher challenger? "Personally, I just think Caraway doesn't want to fight," he claimed.
Either way, he's got bigger fish to fry and soon. Eduardo is a top-ranked talent in the division and possessive of elite skill by any measurement. Sterling's got work to do and doesn't care if Caraway is part of those plans anymore.
And if he wins in December? In Sterling's mind, that's shortlist territory for being one step away from the belt.
"I'm kinda done with him," Sterling said of Caraway. "After one more fight, I think I should be positioned to fight for the belt."