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Click Debate: Aljamain Sterling, free agency and the concept of value in MMA

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Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

In any other sport, Aljamain Sterling would be the prototype of what any franchise would want.

He's one of the very best in the world in his category and has the numbers to back it up. At 26, Sterling is not quite at his physical peak. He's athletic, fundamentally sound and intelligent in competition.

Outside competition, he's charismatic and good with the media. He's never been in any kind of trouble. Sterling may be critical of some aspects of management on social media, but he's hardly a malcontent.

If this were the NFL or NBA or MLB, an athlete like Sterling would have executives drooling. General managers would be falling over themselves trying to write checks for his services.

But this is not a sport played with a stick or a ball. This is mixed martial arts -- prize fighting, to be more truthful.

Sterling's undefeated record, three straight finishes in the UFC against solid competition, and his place among the very best bantamweight fighters on the planet are all hard to ignore. The big question, though, is how much money will he be able to bring in for an MMA organization? That's where things get decidedly murkier. The answer will determine where Sterling ends up and the size of his contract in free agency.

In MMA, there's no doubt that value has more to do with drawing power than actual in-cage performance.

"A guy can be an amazing performer, and if he doesn't move the needle, he'll continue to earn a lot," said one high-profile manager, who preferred to remain anonymous. "But if he gets to the top and he's holding that belt, if he's not moving the needle, how can he demand anything? In [a fighter's] mind, they're comparing it to the stick and ball sports, which is how I perform, statistics, finishes -- I should get paid. They have performance bonuses for those kinds of things, but compensation is not tied to that. The compensation is actually tied to revenue performance, which in turn is pay-per-view performance. The compensation model is still very much like the boxing model."

There are plenty of fighters who won't play the game. They don't like even the slightest bit of trash talk. They hate interviews and prefer not to reveal their true personalities publicly. The word "marketability" usually sends those fighters running for cover. They just want to fight, get paid for it and go home to their families. And that's totally fine. There's nothing wrong with it and it's their choice.

Sterling, though, is not one of those fighters. He's trying his damnedest to reach out to fans via social media. Recently, the New York native nabbed a color commentator gig for regional promotion Cage Fury Fighting Championship. Sterling and teammate and fellow UFC fighter Al Iaquinta also debuted a colorful and humorous predictions vlog for the UG.

Sterling has the "Funkmaster" nickname, a flat top with a part, and wears oversized gold chains. He has an abundance of personality and charisma, which are two of the main ingredients toward becoming an MMA draw. Sterling even talks trash, something that typically generates attention and promotion.

What he doesn't seem to have is a push from the UFC. Sterling has questioned what he doesn't have that Sage Northcutt does. The UFC has its promotional muscle behind the movie-star looks and freakish athleticism of Northcutt, who was making $40,000 per fight to show and $40,000 to win after just one UFC fight. Before he embarked on free agency, Sterling said the UFC offered him $20,000 and $20,000.

Northcutt had two wins in the UFC against middling competition before falling to Bryan Barberena last month at UFC on FOX 18. Sterling is ranked No. 5 in the promotion among bantamweight contenders.

The UFC has done a fantastic job identifying future superstars in recent years and it has done wonders for business -- to the tune of $600 million in revenue in 2015. Ronda Rousey and Conor McGregor had all the criteria, and the UFC promoted the hell out of them with incredible results. To a lesser extent, the UFC has built up Northcutt and Paige VanZant to the point where they are not yet pay-per-view draws but casual fans have become interested in seeing them.

Sterling (12-0) has not gotten that same kind of treatment. His last fight, against fellow top-10 bantamweight Johnny Eduardo, was on the prelims of UFC Fight Night: Namajunas vs. VanZant last month. VanZant, obviously, was in the main event of that Fight Pass card and Northcutt was on the main card. Sterling has accomplished far more than either of them and perhaps would be a crowd favorite if given the opportunity.

"I just felt like they were trying to cash out on me while I'm still young and unknown," Sterling said. "They put me on all these undercard spots, and though I was on TV for my first three fights, I wasn't in any position to actually gain a ton of traction without the outside promotion that I've been doing for myself.

"For them to not put me on those platforms and give me an opportunity, it kind of limits my exposure, it limits my chance of increasing my value, so to say. So when you do that, it makes it appear to the casual fan that I'm not a hot commodity in terms of my skillset and what I can actually do in terms of being a fighter inside and outside of the Octagon."

Does the UFC not consider Sterling a future draw? Or were they sweeping that fight under the rug because it was the last on Sterling's contract and they wanted to reduce his potential leverage?

'I wasn't in any position to actually gain a ton of traction without the outside promotion that I've been doing for myself.' - Aljamain Sterling

Fighters are going to free agency now more than ever before. Alistair Overeem and Benson Henderson were the two biggest names on the open market before Henderson bolted for Bellator last week. Yet it'll be what happens with Sterling that tells us the most about the state of MMA.

Overeem and Henderson are draws and top talents. But they're both in the latter half of their careers. Sterling is on the upswing. How committed is the UFC to keeping the best fighters in the world on their roster? Is Bellator willing to pony up bucks for someone who doesn't have a recognizable name to casual fans? That's something we'll soon find out.

Eddie Alvarez, after some legal pratfalls, is one of the greatest successes of MMA free agency. He said on a recent conference call that his fellow lightweights are "probably angry" about how well he did financially moving from Bellator to the UFC in 2014.

"I just recommend the guys who are up and coming to bring value for themselves, not just go to the UFC or go to these other promotions on their hands and knees, asking for them to give them a couple dollars," Alvarez said. "They need to build value that they need to bring to the promotion first and then think about it that way, rather than just asking for a job."

Has Sterling built up enough value to get paid as much as he believes he deserves? And if he hasn't, is it really his fault?

The answers to those questions might shape many future decisions in the sport.