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Aljamain Sterling: UFC ‘looking for a last hope of someone’ who can beat me

Aljamain Sterling isn’t sure if the UFC wants to see him at the top.

“Funk Master” held onto his bantamweight championship — and his No. 1 spot in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings — with a dominant second-round TKO of T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 280 this past Saturday, but after the definitive finish there was no clear answer as to who Sterling might fight next.

The bantamweight division is loaded with contenders and Sean O’Malley was zeroing in on a title shot, though there is no guarantee that “Sugar” gets the call especially after a close and controversial win over former champion Petr Yan on Saturday. At the evening’s post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White seemed more interested in bringing back former two-division UFC champion and Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo to challenge Sterling.

Sterling addressed the odd suggestion during an appearance on The MMA Hour on Monday.

“I like Dana on a personal level, outside of the cameras and everything, I like Dana,” Sterling said. “But some of the things he actually says are beyond me sometimes. You go on record, you say whoever wins [the O’Malley-Yan] fight is clearly getting the No. 1 shot because it makes sense. After the fight, everything completely changes and then you throw Henry ‘Cedoodoo’ in the mix and I’m just completely confused because this guy hasn’t fought in over two years. You don’t want to give him a [featherweight] title shot to go be triple champ, which I’m not opposed to because I think if anyone deserves it based on merit, it’s him. I’m not a hater by any means. But then the guy comes back after two years, fought at 125, fought twice maybe at ‘35, and he’s supposed to come back and get an immediate title shot after doing what?

“So now it’s like I almost feel—and I could be completely wrong—I almost feel like they’re looking for a last hope of someone who can take out Aljamain Sterling. They’re hoping that they can make this narrative of the Olympic wrestling now. D-1 wasn’t good enough, now the Olympic wrestling might be good enough to take out the D-3 wrestler. But I can tell you one thing for certain, this ass-whooping is an equal opportunity employer. All races, all colours can get it. It really doesn’t matter. If it’s Henry, if it’s ‘Chito’ [Marlon Vera] from Ecuador, if it’s O’Malley with the colorful hair, Mr. Sugar T***, if it’s a rematch with Yan because we know the UFC likes to give title shots to people coming off of losses, if they want to give it to [Cory] Sandhagen, there’s plenty of options.”

Sterling has proven to be a divisive champion, with his unimpeachable resume — that includes wins over Dillashaw, Yan, and Cory Sandhagen among others — contrasted by a cluster of results (a disqualification win over Yan to become champion, a narrow split decision win in their rematch, and now Dillashaw clearly being compromised by a pre-existing shoulder injury) that haven’t always satisfied the masses.

Asked who he’d like to fight next, Sterling expressed an interest in O’Malley, though he’s unsure what impression O’Malley’s close call and reaction in the aftermath will have on the matchmakers.

“If I’m being honest, I haven’t even thought about it,” Sterling said. “I literally tweeted to O’Malley that I would have actually hung out with the guy. I felt bad for Yan, I did think he got robbed, I think O’Malley was a little shocked and perplexed at the decision as well. I think it kind of caught him off-guard, that was a split decision, I think it caught him even more off-guard that he won.

“Now he knows what it feels like when I was in the same position [with Yan] and the difference is I actually knew I won the fight and he’s on the side where he won the fight and he doesn’t even know if he really won the fight until he goes back and watches it. While I knew, based on the strike count, that I freakin’ won the fight, so at the end of the day this is the most competitive division. People are going to try find any way to discredit me.”

Sterling agreed that O’Malley has done what is necessary to become the No. 1 contender, including building his brand so as to better sell a potential championship fight.

“I think if anyone is the biggest fight maybe it’s O’Malley, in terms of name value, in terms of performance,” Sterling said. “I think he saw what I did to T.J., he saw what I did to Yan and any of these previous opponents that were in the top five, top 10. Remember, my third UFC fight I fought the No. 6 guy ranked in the world and since then I haven’t fought anyone that was unranked. So my resume speaks for itself.

“These guys who are catching me in the most bantamweight wins, they fought guys that were on losing records and things like that. I never did any of that. No shortcuts, no handouts, so if you can’t respect that then you don’t respect the game.”

Circling back to the Cejudo talk, Sterling doesn’t view it as his No. 1 option with so many other active fighters in the 135-pound division nipping at his heels. He broke down the pros and cons of each matchup, singling out Marlon Vera for the unexpected beef that has developed between them.

“I feel like no one cares about the Henry Cejudo fight but the hardcores,” Sterling said. “I feel like if you want to talk about dollar signs, it’s O’Malley. If you want to talk about legacy, it’s Petr Yan. If you want to talk about an intriguing fight because I got through him really quick and I might have been lucky, you’ve got Sandhagen.

“Chito’s a weird one. We were kind of cordial and cool before this whole weird thing happened between us because someone asked me about the O’Malley [vs. Vera] fight and I said it was a weird thing, but Chito threw the kick and I said he won. It was a flukey thing that happened in terms of the reaction, but Chito won, and he took that as disrespect and the guy started going off like he was butthurt. You would have felt like someone literally stuck their fingers up his assh*** how he reacted and started getting super defensive. … I’m here to compete against the best in the world and if Chito’s the guy that they think is going to be the guy to beat me, I think I do the same exact thing to him as well. He might have a little bit better jiu-jitsu [than Dillashaw], he might have two arms, but I think we can all agree if I take you down it’s literally a problem.”

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