In a perfect world, UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling will be 100 percent and fighting the winner of an interim title bout between Petr Yan and Cory Sandhagen in December.
There is nothing Sterling would like more than to beat up Yan, whose latest round of social media jabs included his fiancee.
“I just think the guy’s a piece of shit,” Sterling on Wednesday told The MMA Hour. “I just really can’t wait to get back in there and smack the f*ck out of him. I want to fight him, but there’s going to be a point in the fight where, I’m telling you, I’m just going to smack the f*ck out of him.”
Although Sterling’s doctor has said it could take between 12 and 18 months to fully recover the strength he lost due to an April neck surgery (and years of trauma from wrestling and fighting injured), Sterling believes himself to be a fast healer who got a jump start by recently taking a break.
Unfortunately, one reason for that was his withdrawal from a rematch with Yan after his disqualification title win at UFC 259. Saddled with continuing complications from the neck surgery, he wasn’t able to make the fight, and he said both his doctor and the UFC’s signed off on the decision.
Of course, it’s not something Sterling wanted. But he also didn’t want to jeopardize his health to prove a point.
“I think that’s a pretty good, logical reason not to want to be paralyzed in the octagon,” he said. “I’m not looking to be the first person to win a belt by DQ and the first person in the octagon to be paralyzed in the cage.
“I’m sorry if I think my health is more important, and the longevity of me living in my body, my capsule, is more important than proving some stupid beef who’s the better fighter when I’m not even 100 percent yet.”
Sterling’s arrival at the decision came after a series of setbacks. A few weeks ago, he said he was performing the exercise he’d done his entire career to build the squeezing strength that’s made him an expert in choking opponents. Usually, he could hold three different static positions over a one-minute hang on a pull-up bar. But on that day, he could only hang for 15 or 20 seconds, and that was after a full day of rest and recovery.
Those two words weren’t in heavy use for the champ since July 15, when his doctor cleared him to train three months after the April 15 surgery. The UFC wanted him to fight Yan on Oct. 30 in Abu Dhabi, and he didn’t want to get into a fight with the promotion by demanding a delay.
“I was hitting the ground running, redlining,” Sterling said. “I didn’t build a foundation. I just started going, like, hey, we’ve got a fight, we’ve got to go, that’s it.”
His first day back to training, he hurt his surgically-repaired shoulder doing jiu-jitsu. He went to the UFC Performance Institute for imaging, and they could find nothing torn – there was only a persistent weakness that made it feel like his shoulder was coming out of its socket.
In the gym, Sterling got to the point where, after two rounds, his arms were so weak he could barely hold them up.
“Obviously, getting punched in the face that many times in sparring, it can be a little deflating,” he said. “Mentally, it f*cks you up, especially if you’ve got a fight on the horizon. You wondering if you’re doing yourself a disservice by one, showing up and trying to perform for the fans, and not giving them another good show. For me to not give them two bad shows would just be on me at that point.
“I don’t want to do that. I want to make sure fans get their money’s worth, and they get the actual performance they deserve to see, to see who’s really the best, not a shell of the guy that we paid to see.”
This past Wednesday, he said he spoke to the Los Angeles-based surgeon that worked on his neck. Then, after explaining his situation, he asked UFC Chief Medical Consultant Dr. Jeff Davidson for one more day to see if he could make it through a sparring session.
As it turned out, Sterling had his best sparring day. But after spending so much time simply getting back to normal – and not building toward a championship peak that would allow him to fight hard for potentially five rounds – he realized there was no way he could fight on Oct. 30.
“Between the shoulder and the neck, there’s just so much going on with the human body,” he said. “I competed like this for a very long time. So for me to have gotten to where I’ve gotten to and having to have dealt with all those things, I think it’s just a culmination of all the time, and yo, you need to let the nerves do their thing and get back to a normal baseline for where you were before, and hopefully progress.”
There have been moments where Sterling contemplated whether his neck injury was a career-ender. And despite his confidence, he acknowledges that his December timeline for return may be inaccurate. December, after all, is far before the July 2022 date that his doctor estimated as the earliest for a full recovery.
Sterling wants to show fans he’s the champion for a reason, that he’s not scared to take the rematch after taking Yan’s illegal knee to the head, and that Yan is not on his level. He just can’t do that if he continues to have nerve pain radiating down his arms, to say nothing of what might happen in a fight.
“I actually have a disc, a metal frickin’ object in my neck, where if it dislodges, it hits my spinal cord, and that’s it,” he said. “That’s something people are OK with me taking that risk?”
The UFC, for now, is moving on with the interim title fight between Sandhagen and Yan. Sterling said there wasn’t any serious talk of stripping him of the title, and his only concern was that he got another immediate opportunity to fight for the title, whether against Yan or Sandhagen.
Talking to Sandhagen at UFC 266, Sterling said his only bother was that he wouldn’t be the first one to beat the Russian.
“I just want an opportunity, and even though I did get an opportunity, I blew it,” he said of his first bout with Yan. “I f*cked up. I decided to eat two pancakes and two eggs the day of the fight, and not eat from 10:30 to 8:00 at night when I fought. ... That’s on me. That’s the most idiotic think I could have ever done in my life. As a veteran, I’m ashamed to know I make such a rookie mistake.”
But when it comes to the current limbo in the bantamweight division, Sterling said the responsibility isn’t on his shoulders.
“I just hope the fans can understand, the reasonable fans with a brain, actually understand that, that this was all because of Petr Yan, that this division is now in this situation,” he said. “He could have won the fight. He started to pull away. ... He was beating my ass. That’s a fact. But this is all his fault because he’s that stupid.”