Aljamain Sterling was browsing MySpace one day about six years ago and stumbled on some pictures posted by a former wrestling teammate. The photos were of his friend at a gym training in MMA.
At the time, Sterling enjoyed watching the UFC when it was on, but wasn't exactly a hardcore fan. Still, he thought doing some training outside of his wrestling team at SUNY Cortland would be cool. So, he shot a message to his ex-teammate and asked for details. It turned out the fight team worked out in the same upstate New York town Sterling was going to school in.
That former teammate? None other than current UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones, the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet. When Sterling showed up at Team BombSquad, Jones was just a novice and leaving soon for Jackson-Winkeljohn MMA in Albuquerque, N.M.
"He showed me some things from time to time," Sterling said. "I'd roll with him whenever I could. His main thing that he tried to always tell me was the power of the mind and believing in yourself and your capabilities."
Jones' rise to the top of the UFC's rankings has been meteoric. He has a chance to go down as the greatest MMA fighter to ever live. Sterling's ascent has been slower, but steady. He's on track now to make major noise in the UFC.
On Saturday, Sterling will face perennial top-10 bantamweight Takeya Mizugaki at UFC on FOX 15 in Newark. The 25-year-old isn't even ranked, yet he's nearly a 3-to-1 favorite over Mizugaki, who has fought the best the division has to offer since before Sterling had his first fight.
"I don't even know how to describe it," Sterling said. "It's an opportunity. And I just gotta make the most of it.
"I absolutely believe I'm ready. The only thing I would say was I was hoping they would build this fight a little bit more with me fighting somebody else and then putting a little more hype around me fighting a top-10 guy."
Sterling (10-0) and Jones, older by two years, were junior college wrestling teammates at SUNY Morrisville. Jones actually filmed Sterling's first college match. The two belong to the same management company now, First Round, but don't talk much. There are, however, some similarities in their games.
Both Jones and Sterling have bases in wrestling, excellent submission instincts and an innovative striking offense. Though Jones is obviously much bigger, they also have comparable body types -- long and rangy.
"He was like the bigger version of me in terms of body proportions," said Sterling, who now trains with Serra-Longo on Long Island.
The undefeated Sterling is coming off a TKO win over Hugo Viana last July. He was supposed to fight last November in Australia, but had two opponents drop out. No matter. This matchup will have a much higher profile. Mizugaki has wins over ranked fighters Francisco Rivera, Bryan Caraway and Erik Perez. Sterling has a chance to jump the line on all of those guys with a win over the Japanese fighter.
"I think it really propels me up there with those guys," Sterling said. "This guy has been around forever. He's fought the who's who of the division and beat everyone just about. He's only lost pretty much to elite guys."
Ray Longo, his striking coach, believes Sterling has the chance to be the UFC bantamweight champion one day. Longo and Matt Serra said the same thing about a guy named Chris Weidman and proved prophetic.
The key for Sterling is keeping his head on straight, Longo said. The grizzled trainer said Sterling's nickname, "The Funkmaster," is incredibly appropriate. Sterling admits to acting a little off the wall at times inside the gym. But when it's fight time, he's all business.
"The mind has to be right and the work has to match the mind," he said. "If you put in massive amounts of work, but your mind is not ready to perform, you're not gonna do sh*t, man. You may get a couple wins here and there, but you're never going to perform the way you should. You might be an elite-level athlete in the room, but if no one gets to see you display your craft it doesn't matter."
Sterling has dominated both UFC fights with wrestling and some flashy offense, but apparently there are plenty more things left in his bag of tricks. "The Funkmaster" might even start showing them off against Mizugaki. He said we have yet to see his spinning back wheel kicks and up elbows.
"The stuff that I do is just a little out of the ordinary," Sterling said. "I just haven't been able to show as much, but with every fight a little bit more of my game, my skillset is gonna be on display. You only get 15 minutes to work and show your art and everything can you do. At the end of the day, it's a fight. You gotta do what you gotta do to win, so I don't really get to play around as much. Hopefully I get a little more comfortable in there and do the things that I do and let it go."
Sounds a lot like a certain former wrestling teammate of Sterling. He remembers some of the conversations he had with Jones when he first started at Team BombSquad.
"I told him, 'I think I can be good at this stuff, man,'" Sterling said.
Good call. At least there's one productive thing out there that came out of MySpace.