It’s going to take a lot for Aljamain Sterling to erase the memory of the most dubious title change in UFC history. Funny thing about these Serra-Longo guys though, their championship moments have always been overshadowed by circumstance.
You can blame head coach Matt Serra for setting an impossible standard for his future charges, at least as far as unlikely champions go. The thickly-accented New Yorker authored what still stands as the greatest upset in MMA history, earning a welterweight title fight opportunity off of a season of The Ultimate Fighter reality show featuring UFC also-rans and providing what turned out to be more than a bump in the road for the legendary Georges St-Pierre.
In 2007, “GSP” was just beginning the run that would make him immortal after dispatching four world-class opponents in Matt Hughes, B.J. Penn, Sean Sherk, and Frank Trigg, and he was expected to overwhelm the unassuming Serra. So when Serra, a fighter with zero career knockouts to his name, put St-Pierre down and out with a flurry of strikes inside of a round, it was surprising, to say the least.
St-Pierre regained the title in definitive fashion a year later, denying Serra a single successful title defense, and the rest was history. Part of that history, that of St-Pierre and the UFC welterweight championship, will always include Serra.
Serra and Ray Longo (the other half of the Serra-Longo braintrust) later coached Chris Weidman to a UFC title. Weidman was a standout collegiate wrestler and, as it turned out, somewhat of a grappling prodigy. Add in some rapidly evolving striking and “The All-American” had all the makings of a future middleweight champion. Few guessed that it would be at the expense of Anderson Silva though.
Undefeated at the time, Weidman was a live dog against “The Spider,” but the manner in which he won was truly stunning. Weidman’s grappling won him the first round, an achievement that wasn’t too worrisome for Silva fans as they’d seen the Brazilian star work his way out of trouble before. When Weidman caught a showboating Silva with a left hook in round two that turned Silva’s lights out, the cries of fluke could be heard loud and clear.
Silva fans couldn’t process the loss and were quick to discredit Weidman, chiding their hero for not taking Weidman seriously as if it was the first time Silva had ever styled on an opponent. This time, he didn’t get away with it. Weidman proved to be a worthy champion, winning the rematch with Silva (via injury after Weidman broke Silva’s leg by checking a kick) and successfully defending his title twice more. But you’ll still find a lot of people who are loath to praise him for the Silva series.
Sterling’s “win” over Petr Yan at UFC 259 on Saturday pales in comparison to the glory of Serra and Weidman’s triumphs and will surely end up becoming the most infamous of the three results. Never before (and hopefully never again) has a UFC title been lost by disqualification, but that possibility became a reality almost in the instant that Yan chose to throw a mystifying illegal knee to a grounded Sterling in the fourth round of their fight.
There was deliberation to be made between the referee, the ringside physician, officials, and, of course, Sterling himself, but with every replay of the disastrous foul, it became more and more obvious that there would be no continuation of combat, no no contest ruling; no, Yan was about to lose his title in the worst way imaginable.
Sterling will be chastised for eternity for not finishing the fight. It’s a decision that should have involved minimal input from him anyway considering he was likely concussed or at least severely damaged and compromised by the illegal blow. That was compounded by the exhaustion from a hard-fought battle up until that point, one in which he appeared to be losing (judge Ron McCarthy had actually scored the fight 29-28 Sterling heading into the fourth).
All in all, it made for a rough visual as Sterling lay on his back, trying to recover and process the chaos unfolding in real time. The rest had to be a blur. Bruce Buffer shouting “and new” along with his name. Sterling discarding the belt immediately after (a coach picked it up and brought it out of the cage for him). A post-fight interview that probably shouldn’t have happened given Sterling’s hazy condition.
It sucks. And I get it, it’s easy to pile on the guy who benefited the most from the situation. The guy who just hours later was shown smiling in a social media post with close friend and teammate Merab Dvalishvili, newly-won belt slung over his shoulder. The optics are not favorable for Sterling.
But let’s not forget how Sterling got here. Twelve wins to start his pro career, including a 4-0 start in the UFC. He was a fight finisher too, a budding star in a division ruled by names like Dillashaw and Cruz and Barao. Then he stumbled, losing decisions to better, more experienced fighters in Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao. Growing pains, much-needed ones too.
He became smarter, more well-rounded. He beat Barao. He suffered a humiliating knockout loss to Marlon Moraes. Growing pains.
Then the winning started again and it didn’t stop. He scored a Submission of the Year candidate with a Suloev stretch of Cody Stamann. He worked his way up the contender rankings with convincing wins over Jimmie Rivera and Pedro Munhoz, then he ran through Cory Sandhagen to earn his shot at the belt. He waited and waited for the UFC to make his fight with Yan official and when it was finally announced, it felt as if the Jamaican-American fighter had finally arrived.
Now critics want to talk about him as if he’s the one who broke the rules on Saturday. As if he pulled a fast one by getting drilled by a knee to the head and milking it for all it’s worth. His rivals were quick to pounce. It’s too late now, the narrative has been shaped. It’s out of Sterling’s hands.
That’s a sad truth because this is someone who, like many of the world’s greatest fighters and athletes, essentially built himself up from nothing. Sterling decided to give MMA a shot after getting a MySpace message from an old acquaintance named Jon Jones. He used wrestling to help him escape from the burden of an abusive and negligent father. There are so many compelling fragments of the Sterling story that were swept away on Saturday.
Maybe he should have fought through it. Maybe Sterling could have put his fate into his own hands, taken advantage of a point deduction (possibly a two-point deduction) in the fourth round and then battled back in the fifth to claim a heroic decision victory. Maybe he should have done what Anthony Smith did when he refused to accept a disqualification victory against Jones at UFC 235.
But he didn’t and now he’s a UFC champion. Forever, Sterling’s name is in the books, though there will be a justified asterisk next to his name unless he manages to string together several title defenses. Vitor Belfort and Randy Couture’s sliced eyelid can rest easy, as Sterling and Yan’s should-I-shouldn’t-I knee now claim the bottom spot in the UFC’s list of regrettable title fight outcomes.
The good news for Yan, Sterling, and the UFC is that the rematch should be booked soon. Yan can pick up right where he left off and win back his title, making his loss to Sterling a footnote in what could be a lengthy run at the top. For now, Sterling can enjoy being a genuine UFC titleholder; certainly, one that will always be remembered more for the bizarre manner in which it came into his possession than the long journey to win it, but a titleholder all the same.