When the UFC was determined to soldier on during a global pandemic, most fighters on the roster cheered the promotion’s decision and eagerly volunteered to compete even if it was under less than optimal conditions.
As soon as reports surfaced that the New York native was going to face Cory Sandhagen on May 16 at a card originally scheduled in San Diego, Sterling was quick to shoot down the rumors while offering a fiery response to anyone badmouthing his decision.
Sterling wasn’t going to fight anybody without a proper training camp and that was virtually impossible with the coronavirus sweeping across the United States but especially in his home state. As it turns out, Sterling’s decision was also based on the reality of COVID-19 hitting close to home after his girlfriend tested positive for the deadly virus.
“That was the entire deal,” Sterling revealed when speaking to MMA Fighting. “People didn’t understand what it was. They just think you can just fight and ‘fighters adapt, that’s what you guys do, you fight.’ I’m like it doesn’t work like that. I wasn’t prepared and I wasn’t in any position to get prepared at the time. I’m getting prepared now.
“Good chance that the fight’s probably going to happen. We both verbally agreed. At this point it’s just kind of waiting on the UFC and waiting for the date and the contract. Right now, I’m preparing like I have a fight and it looks like Cory Sandhagen is the guy on the list. Now I’m just getting myself ready to whip some ass.”
Sterling’s girlfriend Rebecca Cruz first talked about her battle with COVID-19 on his podcast called “The Weekly Scraps” where she spoke about falling ill just as the outbreak started to really hit in the U.S.
She dealt with shortness of breath as well as struggling to taste foods, but once she spiked a fever, there was no doubt something was wrong. Because she worked at a hospital, Cruz immediately took a test for COVID-19, and after waiting a few days, the results came back positive.
Sterling never revealed what his girlfriend was facing, because it wasn’t anybody’s business unless she decided to talk about it on her own accord.
“It wasn’t my story to tell so I didn’t want to talk about it until she was willing to talk about it,” Sterling said. “I told her if she does ever want to talk about it, she’s more than welcome to come on my podcast and talk about it. She did and I think she was happy about it. She had a ton of messages. People that were in the same boat, they were scared and not really sure what to do. They were infected and they didn’t know if there was another side for them.
“So for people to see that someone they knew get out on the other side was a little bit of a confidence booster. Just a little bit more positive than the news we see about this person died, that person died. You don’t hear that much about the people who are actually recovering. I think that was a good case to hear from.”
After she was diagnosed, Sterling’s girlfriend ended up staying with him to cut down the risk of anyone else being infected but they still managed to practice social distancing as much as possible.
As she recovered, the two of them binge watched television shows and Sterling attempted to cook for her, although he’ll be the first to admit he’s a better fighter than a chef. Ultimately, Cruz fought through the virus and made a full recovery while Sterling avoided any symptoms related to the deadly disease.
“I felt I was doing a pretty good job of keeping my immune system up and strong,” Sterling said. “Taking the right precautions. I wasn’t freaking out about it but I knew it was a real possibility that I could end up getting it. But at the same time, we’re in the house, if it happens, it happens. It’s one of those things where if it was meant to be, it was meant to be. That’s the way I looked at it.
“Fortunately, I didn’t get it. It allowed me to get into training sooner rather than later. Of course, you have the doubt in your mind, maybe this isn’t a good idea. But at same time, the caretakers on the frontlines are taking care of people who have it and I guess for me, I’m on the frontline at home, and I was being the caretaker. That’s the best way I can put it.”
Sterling says he never got sick, but he also never actually got tested for COVID-19 because in New York, it’s nearly impossible to receive a test unless someone is truly in dire need.
“It’s almost impossible to get tested unless you’ve got an in with a doctor somewhere,” Sterling said. “For the most part, if you’re sick, they just tell you to go home, quarantine yourself, get lots of rest and drink lots of fluids. There’s not much they can do for you. The only way you’re getting tested is if you’re on your death bed almost and you can make it to the hospital or you get pulled over from the E.R. from the ambulance or something. That’s the only way you’re getting tested out here.
“I didn’t have any symptoms. I didn’t have a loss of smell. I didn’t have a loss of taste. I didn’t have shortness of breath or any of that. I’m fortunate. I’m feeling good. I’m just ready to get back in the cage. It’s been almost 365 days come June. My last fight was June 8. So hopefully we can get it going sooner rather than later.”
Right now, Sterling is back in training after building a gym at home and working with a specific set of teammates in order to minimize the risk all of them are taking.
It’s still not the perfect situation to get ready for a fight but sadly the list of UFC fighters who can financially afford to sit out and wait is rather short.
“We see how crazy this is and we’re the only sport that’s actually trying to actively put on an event where other sports teams are kind of just hanging out and laying low and letting their bodies recover,” Sterling said. “It’s definitely difficult times. People are doing what they’ve got to do.
“Unfortunately, we don’t have the luxury of being paid like NBA, NFL and soccer and baseball athletes. They have that cushion where they can kind of hang out. Even the guys on the bench. But for us, we don’t fight, we don’t get paid and that’s the scary reality to it all. I think that’s why you’re seeing so many people who are so eager and willing to jump up at the opportunity.”
Because he last fought in June 2019, Sterling is no longer willing to wait, especially now that his girlfriend is healthy again and he can put his full focus back on training.
He’s already verbally accepted a fight and he’s hopeful that everything works out to jump back into the cage again within the next two months.
“Someday in June. That’s what we both agreed to,” Sterling revealed. “One of those weekends in June we’re going to be making that walk in an empty arena and getting ready to throw down. No location as of right now. I’m waiting to get a contract.
“Once I get a contract with an actual location and my opponent’s name, then it’s really real. Right now, I’m just training like I have a fight.”