The balloons in the background read celebration, but UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling hardly smiled as he sat on a couch and explained what happened before, during and after his disqualification win at UFC 259.
In the latest episode of his video podcast, Sterling answered a variety of critics who questioned his actions this past Saturday: fans of his opponent, Petr Yan; veteran official turned commentator John McCarthy; and his colleagues in the UFC.
The first were the most immediate and sharpest. Sterling said he received death threats from “Russian doctors” – Yan fans – who compared his response to an illegal knee to that of Alistair Overeem, who was viciously knocked unconscious in 2017 by Francis Ngannou.
“I do respect that you guys support your athletes,” Sterling said on the podcast, The Weekly Scraps. “With that being said, you guys aren’t freaking doctors. Just because I got a CAT scan and I was cleared does not mean I wasn’t concussed.
“They’ve been comparing to the Francis Ngannou vs. Overeem knockout, and Overeem got up faster than me. That’s ridiculous. Let’s pump the brakes, cool your tits, you guys aren’t doctors.”
Then there was McCarthy, who on Sunday implied he exaggerated the effects of the illegal blow he took from Yan, aided in part by referee Mark Smith’s declaration to the cageside doctor that the knee would trigger a disqualification. McCarthy placed much of the responsibility on Smith for what he saw as a setup to that outcome when the referee called out the potential disqualification rather than waiting to see if Sterling would recover.
The message Sterling took: McCarthy was downplaying Yan’s actions, and a disqualification was the wrong call in the title fight.
“I can get what he is saying, but when should a fighter or an athlete and a team ever be disqualified?” Sterling said. “If there are rules to disqualify, when do you ever enforce them? I would think a guy throwing a blatant intentional knee, intentional, he lines me up with intent to do damage, he lines me up to put me out. So if the defense is going to be, I don’t think Petr Yan knew, really? You don’t think he knew, what, the rules that he’s been training for for years, that he’s the world champion of, you don’t think he knew the rules that he can’t knee a downed opponent?
“I’m not trying to go tit for tat with you, but when do you disqualify an athlete? I just really want to know, since you’re the golden standard that everyone should go by, what qualifies for a disqualification in ‘Big’ John McCarthy’s eyes, in his opinion, because I don’t know what else you need that needs to be more clear-cut and dry than that. Intentional, intent, damage, the fight. What else do you want?”
Perhaps most unfortunate in the new champ’s eyes were colleagues – including several bantamweights eyeing the belt he now holds – that accused him of finding a way out of a fight he was losing.
“Shame on you guys,” Sterling said. “You guys ever see me quit or look for a way out where a guy’s putting on a half-ass rear-naked choke. ... “You guys are the freaking softies. I fought my ass off the entire time, and I was not going to quit in that fight. I was going to take my lickings or try to find a way to win like a man. There’s no quit button whenever I’m in there.
“You guys are the actors, and it might be a reflection of your own spirits or whatever. Some of you guys are probably cheaters, anyway.”
There was no acting, Sterling said, on the severity of the impact in the fight. Because he didn’t see Yan’s knee coming, he couldn’t adjust his position and took it directly on his head. The effect was worse than a knockout in training he said he suffered against Zabit Magomedsharipov, which resulted in vertigo that lasted several weeks, and another knockout in the octagon in a 2017 bout with Marlon Moraes.
“I got blasted,” Sterling said. “[UFC President] Dana [White] saw how I got blasted. [Yan’s] corner saw how I got blasted. Yan knows he blasted me.”
Feeling “delirious,” Sterling remembers asking Smith how much time he had, wanting to continue the fight, and a flood of thoughts going through his head as he lay on the canvas, a position he took because it stopped the vertigo he was experiencing.
“In this moment, I’m thinking a whole bunch of things,” Sterling said. “‘Dana’s not going to give me another shot at the title. The fight’s going to be a no-contest. Dana’s going to say he was losing the fight in the fourth round, so why should we use him again, we already know the direction the fight was heading, and so we’re going to move on from this.’ These are all the thoughts going through my head. I’m going to have to win three or four more fights to ever fight for a world title – not, ‘I’m going to become world champion.’”
Sterling also ruled out standing up, he said, because he believed he wouldn’t be able to keep his balance and would certainly be ruled out of the fight.
“I know from experience and I know from watching fights when guys try to stand up after being dropped or concussed or hit in the temple, they’re loopy,” he said. “So ... I refused to stand up to do that.
When he ultimately signaled he couldn’t continue and was ruled out of the fight by the cageside doctor, Sterling said he expected a no-contest. But given that the knee Yan threw was deemed intentional by Smith, a disqualification was the only possible outcome.
It was not the outcome he wanted, he repeatedly indicated.
“I didn’t ask for the belt,” Sterling said. “I wasn’t trying to get a DQ for a win, or for the championship. I just thought I wasn’t going to ever get my shot again, or take a long time to get back to this position. That’s what I was bummed out about.”
Sterling said he vomited after the fight – one known symptom of a concussion – but attributed that response to an adrenaline dump, morphine he received on the ride to a local hospital after the fight, and his choice not to eat before the five-round bout. Doctors cleared him at a post-fight hospital checkup.
The big mystery to Sterling is how much his nutrition affected his performance. Noticeably tired after the first round, he wondered whether his choice to leave his stomach empty – something he’d done on multiple occasions before competing – left him depleted.
When he was unable to complete a single-leg takedown and flopped to the mat, he said, “something is wrong. These are mistakes I never make. Yan wasn’t overly strong. I felt stronger than him. He did nothing special other than a whizzer and wrist controlling my hand. I’ve been defending that and beating those positions my entire career.
“There was something going on that I can’t put my finger on.”
As the dust clears and the UFC narrows in on an immediate rematch, Sterling said he’ll work with the UFC Performance Institute on his nutrition to make sure the experience doesn’t happen again. In the meantime, he’ll get his neck and previously injured wrist checked out.
For the critics who put the responsibility on him, Sterling shrugs.
“I can’t control a man for doing illegal sh*t,” he said. “Hopefully, the next one is the best one, and I can hold this [belt] up proudly.”
Check out the full video below.