The New York native needed just 88 seconds to put Sandhagen away with a rear-naked choke in a fight UFC president Dana White previously labeled as a title eliminator in the bantamweight division.
The problem with that declaration is that Sterling and Sandhagen both had better resumes at 135 pounds than Petr Yan and Jose Aldo, who will compete for the vacant title at UFC 251 in July. Based on the UFC rankings alone, Sterling and Sandhagen should have been competing to crown a new champion in the wake of Henry Cejudo’s retirement but instead the winner is just now considered the No. 1 contender in the division.
As easy as it might before Sterling to lash out at those circumstances, he’s actually taken a much more positive approach after securing a title shot with his win over Sandhagen.
“I’m always a guy that looks at every situation as glass half full,” Sterling told MMA Fighting. “I can never complain about the situation that I’m in. I try to put everything into perspective. I’m doing what I love to do. There’s a lot of American citizens out there that do jobs that they hate, day in and day out. For me to do what I love to do, with people that I like and enjoy being around who are chasing the same dream, same passions, to have that around you day in and day out, I think it says a lot.
“Obviously, it would have been nice to have a bantamweight title on the line. I think Cory and I had the best resume and for me to go out there and take out a guy who had a better resume than Petr Yan in the way that I did, I think it says a lot about this division, how stacked it is. It says a lot about my abilities as well. I think people are really going to be taking notice and paying attention of what I’m capable of and what the team’s capable of.”
Sterling has actually spent several months calling for a fight against Yan, who is undefeated in his UFC campaign but still hasn’t defeated an opponent ranked in the top five of the division.
Meanwhile, Aldo has only competed at bantamweight one time previously and he came away with a loss to Marlon Moraes.
Putting Yan against Aldo to determine a new champion in the division might be considered questionable at best but Sterling knows he did his job to now serve as the asterisk attached to the footnote of that fight, no matter who walks away with a shiny new belt.
“Petr Yan may fight Jose Aldo and he may win the belt or Jose Aldo may win the belt but people are going to always look and see ‘you’ve got to beat this guy first’ and it gives me comfort knowing that people are behind me and realizing that my skills are dangerous and I’m a real threat to this division,” Sterling explained. “In order to be considered the best, you have to take me out.
“I feel like I’ve kind of got that Tony Ferguson effect right now. I’m that guy hanging in the wings right now. I think people are really starting to pay attention and take notice of my skills and capabilities. You put me in there with anybody at 35 or 45, I get on your back, I take you down, it’s going to be a long night and it’s a dangerous situation to be in.”
In many ways, Sterling feels like the uncrowned champion already thanks to his five-fight win streak capped off with back to back victories over Sandhagen and Pedro Munhoz.
Belt or no belt, he believes in his heart that he’s the best bantamweight in the world but if it takes a few months longer to actually claim that title, he’s willing to wait.
“I’m going to say so,” Sterling answered when asked if he was the top 135-pound fighter in the UFC. “Until someone goes out there and proves it otherwise. I took out the No. 4 guy in the world the way I did and I don’t think there’s a lot of guys doing that to Cory Sandhagen.
“He said it himself. I saw him after the fight when we got back to the hotel and he called me an assh*le obviously jokingly but he was like ‘much credit to you, go out there and get the belt. For you to do what you did to me, that’s not easy to do’ and gave me a lot of respect.”