Rather than claim the title by knockout or submission, Sterling went home with the belt after he ate an illegal knee strike from Yan late in the fourth round in their fight at UFC 259 back in March. When he was unable to continue due to the foul, the referee disqualified Yan and by the letter of the law, Sterling was declared the winner and the new champion.
Afterwards, Sterling struggled to accept his championship win but his friends and family wanted to celebrate his accomplishment with a post-fight party, which then included some photos that had him holding onto the belt. The reactions to those photos posted online were almost instantaneous with Sterling receiving a huge swath of negative comments while somehow blaming him for images that he didn’t actually take much less put on his own accounts.
“To see the picture and think I was parading around with the belt, which is not what I was doing,” Sterling explained while appearing on The MMA Hour. “I only started doing that when people started giving me sh*t for my friends and family telling me to take a picture them and because they posted it, I never posted it, I became the bad guy.
“At that point, I was like so I’m going to keep explaining myself for people to keep ignoring what I’m saying. So I was like you know what? I’m going to take pictures with the belt, here you go. I am the champ cause guess what? I am the champ! If you have a competition and you abide by the rules, the playoffs, NFL, overtime, and you commit a foul and an illegal move, you get penalized. If people say you shouldn’t be able to win the belt, you shouldn’t be able to win a fight because a fight is still a fight whether it’s a championship setting or it’s not.”
Eventually, the commentary got so overwhelming that Sterling was forced to either apologize for something that was absolutely not his fault or he had to learn to lean into it.
That’s when he just took full advantage of the situation and almost invited fans to get angry at him.
“People were hating on me for walking around with a belt I never walked around with,” Sterling said. “I’m confused. I left the belt in the cage and I showed up at my house and I’m being trolled. You know what? Let’s flip the script and get people more riled up. Let’s fan the flame a little bit.
“If this is what people are going to give me sh*t for, I might as well have fun with it instead of trying to ‘no, I’m sorry guys it wasn’t….’. Screw you guys, go f*ck yourself. That’s how I felt.”
The more vitriol that came his way, Sterling almost felt obligated to return the favor with his online trolling.
He took it one step further when commenting on a video where he faced off with former champion Henry Cejudo while saying “we can do this fight next instead,” which obviously sounded like he was more interested in that bout rather than a rematch with Yan.
“It’s like it’s you want to play hard nose, hard ball with me and make me feel bad, dude I worked my ass off to get in this position, I got no handouts,” Sterling said. “I fought a killer’s row of guys. Three guys in the top five, beat them all. Choked out the guy [Cory Sandhagen] that’s supposed to be the next guy that ended losing again, still making the same mistake.
“This division is one of the hottest divisions and for me to get to where I’ve gotten to, I like to think I’m doing pretty good in life.”
Regardless of his feelings towards the fans, Sterling obviously signed onto face Yan for a second time with the rematch now scheduled for UFC 267 on Oct. 30 in Abu Dhabi.
The New York native is excited for the chance to settle the score with Yan once and for all with hopes that will put this entire ugly chapter behind him, even if he’s still enjoying some of it.
“Let’s just have the rematch and we can shut everybody up,” Sterling said. “I know the Russian fans really love their guy, which is Aljamain ‘The Funkmaster’ Sterling. I want to make sure the Russian fans have someone to cheer for which is going to be Aljamain ‘The Funkmaster’ Sterling on Oct. 30. I’m going to make sure all the Russian fans love me.”