UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling is chomping at the bit to get back in the Octagon. That's not because he's coming off of a loss in his last UFC appearance. Far from it. The Serra-Longo fighter isn't just 2-0 in the UFC, but undefeated in his career.
Sterling's issue isn't wiping the bad taste out of his mouth from a loss, but rather, a longer layoff than he would've liked.
'The Funk Master' faces off against Takeya Mizugaki at UFC on FOX 15 this weekend, that's the good news. The bad news, according to Sterling, is that he hasn't fought since July of last year. He was booked to face Mitch Gagnon in October, but he had to withdraw due to injury. He wasn't out long, however, and that's where the problems started. The pressure to return was too great to ignore, but that likely set back all of his efforts even more.
"About this sport, you gotta kind of stay active. If you're not active, you're easily forgotten," Sterling told Ariel Helwani on Monday's The MMA Hour. "It's like out of sight, out of mind. That's kinda how I felt. I was getting ready to keep the momentum going with the Gagnon fight, then I got hurt with that. Then I just jumped the gun, tried to get back too fast into training. Started hitting two-a-days too soon and my hand was ready for it. That set me back."
Sterling, though, was able to move past that. Even still, he can't control what happens to his opposition. He was set to face Frankie Saenz, but Saenz withdrew due to injury. The UFC tried to find a replacement for the November event, but it wasn't meant to be.
"Then I got ready for November. I get off the plane and they're like, 'Yeah, about that contract with that guy.' The took the contract back from him. Just kinda hanging out there and I was like, 'You know what?' I was in Australia and I was like, 'Dude how often do we get to go to some place like this?' I'm in the land Down Under.
"With that experience, just being able to see that, I just said to myself, 'You keep working, stay motivated and this is going to be the reward,'" Sterling said. "You get to see places you've never been, travel the world, all based on your hard work and your labor."
Sterling said for all the difficulty, UFC brass didn't forget about him. And despite how much what happened was no fun, the challenge in front leaves little to complain about.
"But then [UFC matchmaker Sean] Shelby said he's got something in the works, he's going to try to get me something as soon as he can. I thought they were going to get me a local, but you can't just throw any local guy in there. Whatever, you know. That fight didn't happen. Now we got this one, a bigger name, a bigger opponent, a bigger stage and platform, got FOX. Go out there and get it done."
That's what Sterling aims to do on Saturday when he takes on the toughest challenge of his career. If he has any lingering regret from his time away from the cage, it's that he didn't have time to make the sort of name he wanted for himself to turn this Mizugaki bout into the box office attraction he believes it could have been.
"For me, what I really wanted to do, my ideal gameplan in a perfect world was for me to kinda build my name up, build the hype around the fight. These kind of fights, the high-profile fights where people actually want to see this. There's more anticipation for this fight.
"I just think coming off two fights, two fights falling through, people not seeing me, it's like Mizugaki is ranked sixth, but no one really knows who I am yet," Sterling confessed. "The skill set is there, for sure, with any of those guys in the top 10. But like I said, I think the hype being built around the fight would've been a lot greater and there'd be more excitement behind this fight."
Ultimately, Sterling admitted he's not overly worried about it. In fact, he's happy to get things going again. The key, he noted, is to make up for lost time by putting on the kind of performance to change people's awareness and interest.
"I'm happy either way," he claimed. "I think after this, I'll show what I can do, and move on from there."