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Aljamain Sterling: Jimmie Rivera clash means ‘a lot more than just winning a UFC fight’

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The war of words between Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera has been building for years.

In fact, Sterling dates their rivalry back to their time competing for New Jersey-based fight promotion Cage Fury Fighting Championship.

As two former CFFC champions, with Rivera winning the title after Sterling vacated it in order to jump to the UFC, “The Funkmaster” sees their upcoming matchup at UFC Phoenix on Sunday as essentially a title unification bout five years in the making.

“[This fight] is a lot more than just winning a UFC fight,” Sterling told Luke Thomas during an appearance on The MMA Hour. “We’re going to unify the CFFC championship with this matchup. He’s been talking a whole lot of sh*t from about five years ago, just ragging on me and talking about my stand up and he could beat me and he’s better than me. I’m like ‘Dude, I know I’ve got bigger muscles than you but let it go. I’m already in the UFC. Let me do my thing.’”

But why is now the right time to finally meet inside the Octagon? As two of New York’s finest bantamweights, how is it possible their paths never crossed? For Sterling, while it wasn’t for a lack of trying on his part, now is the perfect opportunity to get his hands on Rivera and squash their rivalry for good.

“When I [first] called Rivera out, after I lost my two fights to [Bryan] Caraway and [Raphael] Assuncao back-to-back, I was on the down swing when I was right on the cusp of fighting for a world title had I gotten through Caraway. Jimmie Rivera was still working his way up and when I called him out, he still didn’t want to take the fight with me,” Sterling revealed. “It would have been smarter for him to take the fight with me back then while I was I still growing and developing my striking. Now, I can do anything I want. My comfortability is always going favor the grappling side, that’s the path of least resistance. But, I don’t need necessarily need to force the takedowns like I used to before.”

“You look at the Aljamain back then and the Aljamain Sterling now, it’s night and day in comparison. Wherever this fight goes, I am 100-percent comfortable.”

In terms of recent competition, Sterling (16-3) is looking to improve on his two fight win streak inside the Octagon. Most recently he submitted Cody Stamman with a thrilling Suloev stretch at UFC 228. Prior to this string of wins, Sterling saw himself folded in half at the hands of a crippling knee to the head from Marlon Moraes in December 2017. Rivera (22-2), on the other hand, is coming off a decision win over John Dodson after seeing his 20-fight win streak violently snapped at the hands of Moraes in their main event fight in June.

“He’s very well trained, very well schooled,” Sterling said when asked about Rivera’s skillset. “He’s got good timing with his combinations. He’s well-rounded, I will say that. He can wrestle, but I don’t think his jiu-jitsu is anywhere near mine. Outside of that, he does really well whenever someone makes an initial movement, he times it with his counters with that slip jab, right into his right hand, left hook, right cross or he’ll double-up the body and then come up and finish towards the head. I don’t think he’s fought anyone who really kicks the way I kick and wrestles the way I wrestle. So, I think that will be the x-factor in this fight.”

Looking back, Sterling could only laugh when asked if anything could be pulled from their flash knockout losses to Moraes. However, combining Rivera’s loss to the Brazilian with his other UFC performances, there is one glaring opening Sterling hopes to exploit when they finally enter the Octagon.

“Every single fight Rivera’s been in, so far within the UFC, he’s been kicked in the head,” Sterling said. “Pedro Munhoz, Iuri Alcantara, well except for Marcus Brimage, but that was “gimme fight.” That’s no disrespect to Marcus, but he’d been knocked out a bunch of times at that point. So, it made Jimmie look like he was this big, powerful bantamweight. But really, all of his fights before that were decisions. Hugging decisions against the cage or taking you down and just laying in your guard. That’s just being brutally honest. I respect Rivera at the end of the day, I know he’s gotten so much better. I’m just calling it how I see it. I’ve been watching for a very, very long time because I always knew that the pinnacle of this point would eventually happen.

“Now, who was the other one [that head kicked Rivera]? Obviously Marlon, not Thomas Almeida. But, Almeida did put him down and I think twice clipped him and his eyes rolled in the back of his head a few times. I’m just saying, that’s not a good sign. So, I think if I can land one good one with the shin or even with my hands, I think it could be a short night for him. The balls in my court. I know I’m might be the underdog but screw Vegas. F*ck those guys. I never count myself out, I always bet on myself and I’m going to double down on this one.”