Over the past few years, Aljamain Sterling has worked tirelessly to develop every aspect of his skillset to match the ground game that helped establish him as a serious threat in the bantamweight division.
As a former NCAA Division III All-American wrestler and black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu, Sterling’s grappling credentials are among the best in the world at 135 pounds but he understands that not every fight will end up on the canvas. That’s why he’s done everything possible to build up his striking arsenal to match what he can do on the ground.
In fact, Sterling has shown off how much he’s learned in recent fights, including a three-round showcase against Pedro Munhoz where he was determined to out strike the Brazilian, who was coming off a knockout win over former champion Cody Garbrandt.
Now as he prepares to face bantamweight champion Petr Yan at UFC 259, the 31-year-old top ranked contender is proud to consider himself a true mixed martial artist with all the necessary tools to win the fight no matter where it takes place.
That said, in the days and weeks leading up to the highly anticipated title fight, Sterling has not been shy about taunting Yan with a game plan that mimics what 29 lightweights have experienced when going up against Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“It’s not a secret,” Sterling told MMA Fighting about the strategy that will lead him to victory. “Especially with my wrist being better in terms of the strength, anybody I get down, watch my previous fights. It’s a bad night for any of those guys, especially if I can get to a dominant position where I can land some serious ground and pound.
“At the end of the day, I’m going to take him down and smash him and that’s really it. Not to rip off Khabib, but I’ve been doing it just as long. Khabib might have done it better, people might know him a little bit more for it but I’m just as good in that position. I like to think that I am the Khabib of my division.”
Throughout his career as a contender and then as champion, Nurmagomedov never tried to hide what he was going to do to an opponent and the most terrifying aspect of his game was that nobody could stop him.
The undefeated Russian would routinely take the best lightweights in the world to the ground, hammer them with punches, set up submissions, all while he was telling them to just give up.
While Sterling may not attempt to verbally assault Yan if they hit the ground on Saturday night, he knows the results will be much the same.
“At the end of the day, my takedowns aren’t like Henry Cejudo,” Sterling explained. “I don’t take you down with an inside trip and then don’t do anything. I take you down, I’m punching you in the face, I’m slamming down elbows, I’m throwing knees and if you turn and give up your back, I’m on your back and I’m trying to strangle you or I’m beating the crap out of you from there.
“I think he hasn’t fought anyone like me. He did fight [Magomed] ‘Tiger’ Magomedov and I got to train with ‘Tiger.’ I know they fought twice, he beat Yan and then Yan beat him back in a really close fight. That was before ‘Tiger’ became more experienced with his striking. So I think that says a lot for me, in terms of my confidence because I can do it all but I know where I’m strongest. I know if I can get the fight to the ground, he’s going to be a fish out on land. I think that’s the path of least resistance.”
After calling himself the “human Jansport” in the past, Sterling clearly loves the prospect of testing himself in a grappling exchange with Yan but even if the fight never hits the ground, he’s still confident that the result will be the same.
“I think I’m the better fighter,” Sterling said. “I just need to make sure I’m prepared on the night and that’s it.”
Whether it’s a striking war or a lopsided fight on the floor, Sterling just knows that now is the time to seize the moment and as cliché as it might sound, he’s anxious to make all of his dreams finally come true.
“Winning the belt would just be everything,” Sterling said. “It would change my life, it would change everything. A lot of opportunities and those are the things that I see. In order to get there I have got to want it and I’ve got to want it more than this guy.”