At UFC 273, Sterling silenced his many critics by winning a split decision over Petr Yan to retain his bantamweight title. Following his victory, he called for a bout against two-time bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. But upon further reflection, “The Funk Master” doesn’t believe Dillashaw should be next for the belt.
“When I thought about it afterward, I was like, he really doesn’t deserve it,” Sterling told Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour. “He really didn’t earn it. Maybe it’s just because I heard the narrative so much, that he was gonna be getting the winner of myself and Yan when we were supposed to fight in Abu Dhabi. ... So maybe I just got wrapped up in that.
“Honestly, if I think there’s anyone more deserving, it would probably be [Jose] Aldo after beating Rob Font, if we’re doing the merit system. That would be the most rational in terms of merit, like what have you done for me lately. Even Dominick Cruz – these guys all got big names. T.J., I don’t know how he got in the mix, but somehow I just felt like he was the next guy, so I just threw it out there. I wasn’t even really thinking about it, to be honest.”
Dillashaw famously relinquished his title after testing positive for EPO in 2019. After serving two-year USADA suspension, he returned to the octagon in 2021, winning a controversial split decision over Cory Sandhagen. Despite the controversy surrounding the ex-champ, the UFC appears to favor him as the next for Sterling.
Even though Sterling doesn’t think Dillashaw deserves it, he’s not opposed to the fight.
“I knew he was there, I know that’s what the UFC wants to do, so that’s probably why I even said his name,” he said. “But it’s a fun fight. The fans know him, he’s got a big resume, and to beat a guy like that only adds to my resume and my legacy...
“I’m here for money. I think all these guys, in my opinion, are relatively the same in terms of skill set, so I think if I had to pick, T.J.’s fine with me.”
One man who won’t be fine with it, though, is Petr Yan. Following his loss to Sterling, Yan argued he should have won the judges’ decision, a belief shared by UFC President Dana White. And while Sterling has been clear he’s happy to finally be able to move on from Yan, the bantamweight champion says he’d be happy to face his nemesis a third time some time in the future.
“If he wants to be 0-3 against ‘The Funk,’ we can make it happen,” Sterling said. “If you look at his record, two of those losses are from me, so if he wants a third, we can do it again.”
For the time being, though, Sterling is looking to take a break. After a year where he was on the receiving end of a tremendous amount of hate and backlash, the bantamweight champion is planning to take some time off to celebrate.
“It’s been a long 13 months,” Sterling said. “To be able to just be a human — I don’t even want to think about fighting right now. What I had to jump through, win or lose, this was gonna be the result. Decompress, relax, and get the eff away from everything. Just be a human, live a normal life, and get fat a little bit. I had a lot of time taken away from me, a lot of moments taken away from me because I felt like I couldn’t enjoy life the way I wanted to because I had to prove something, not only to myself but to the world...
“Right now, this is really just it, kind of just chilling. Kick my feet up, relax, get away from the sport a little bit. I want to travel. COVID took away two years from the world, and it would be nice to kind of be able to enjoy the work I’ve put in since 2019 against Pedro [Munhoz]. I haven’t really been able to do much. That, Sandhagen, then the first Yan fight, and now this second one.
“So we’ll see. I don’t think I’m coming back until September, or maybe even longer. I don’t know. I’m gonna see how I feel. I would like to get three fights in this year, I did tell myself that, but it just depends where my head is at. I’ve got to see. If I start getting the itch, then we’ll jump in and we’ll get something going, but I want to make sure I’m well-prepared, not just jumping in because the UFC is telling me to jump in.”