When Aljamain Sterling contemplated disc-replacement surgery in his neck, the UFC bantamweight champion sought out retired veteran Alan Jouban for advice.
Prior to his retirement this past year to focus on a future in broadcasting, Jouban underwent the same surgery that Sterling eventually did, which delayed the bantamweight champ’s return to action following a disqualification win over Petr Yan at UFC 259.
Sterling previously explained his decision to deal with a lingering neck issue that caused him “constant, radiating pain.”; he ultimately chose a disc-replacement over a fusion surgery.
According to Jouban, the choice between those two procedures really comes down to mobility versus stability, which is the same decision he had to make once upon a time.
“I believe it’s C5, C6 disc replacement,” Jouban said on The Fighter vs. The Writer. “Those are tough things to come back from. They’re not as bad as sometimes you’ll see, these fighters like Daniel Cormier [and] other fighters that have had the back fusion, a disc in the back. When they get that fusion, they never quite get that mobility that they quite had.
“You saw that in Daniel’s three fights with Stipe. He looked kind of lesser in each one of those – no disrespect to my boy D.C. But he just didn’t seem like the same youthful guy.”
Jouban said the neck fusion surgery allows for greater impact afterward, which is why so many football players suffering from the same injury opt for that choice over the disc-replacement.
“Fighters decline getting fused because they want the mobility in the neck,” Jouban said. “They want to be able to turn, so that’s why they elect to get disc-replacement, but it’s not as strong as fusion upon impact. Football players need that impact.”
When he was coming back from that same surgery, Jouban admits it altered the way he was able to prepare for his fights, especially when it came to protecting his neck from further harm.
“I fought two fights after my neck surgery, but I tell you what, going into the first fight after my neck surgery, I had done a lot of training in the gym, I had guys choke me out, [and] I would tap out right away,” Jouban said. “I didn’t want to mess anything up. I was saving it for the fight, but the first time that I got hit hard and my head jolted, I go holy s***, I hope my neck’s all right.
“I’m wondering if Aljamain has any reservations going into it. Like, let me play safe. Let me go back to that old stay on the outside, kick, kick, kick, make Petr Yan make a desperate strike and then change levels. We might not see as an exciting fighter, is what I’m alluding to – we might see a smarter, safer fighter. Because it didn’t go well the first time, and now he’s had neck surgery, whether he doesn’t want to get caught with an uppercut or something crazy much less a knee, he might play it safe and play to the outside on this one.”
Even after he chose the surgery that was necessary and ultimately better for his fight career, Jouban said it still took something away from him.
“When you get this neck surgery, you lose anywhere from 20 to 30 percent mobility,” he revealed. “It will be interesting to see how he does with it. But this is his first fight back from it, so we’re going to see.”
Beyond taking punches or getting caught in submissions that could potentially compromise the neck, Jouban also dealt with a change in his style of wrestling after surgery. While he was never known as the most suffocating grappler, the now 39-year-old fighter still practiced wrestling at a grueling pace in the gym.
Coming back from disc-replacement, he was forced to alter the way he looked for takedowns.
“When I got back to the gym, I had to change my wrestling, which messed things up for me,” Jouban explained. “I would normally shoot a head inside single-leg [takedown] or run through the body double-leg, and for those people who aren’t as familiar with wrestling, you’re taught at an early age if this is the person and their body, you hit a double-leg head in the chest; you put your forehead in their chest and you run through them. That’s a power-double, baby. You smash them. I could no longer do that. I could no longer hit the chest, hit the body with my forehead after the surgery because I was at risk.
“I had to change the way that I shot. I would never [go] head in the chest double-leg anybody. I would go head outside, on my single-leg. I had to change my wrestling. Aljamain being a tremendous wrestler, it’s probably going to be a big game plan going into this fight... will it change his wrestling approach in this fight? It’s going to be interesting to see.”
The good news for New York-native Sterling is that even though recovery took longer than he first expected, he still bounced back in relatively quick fashion; his upcoming fight against Yan takes place almost exactly one year after his surgery. Judging by the photos and videos he’s posted in the days and weeks leading up to UFC 273, he is shredded and more than ready to do whatever it takes to defend his title on Saturday night.
“Aljamain seemed to recover from this faster than normal,” Jouban said. “I think he’s still pretty young and [has] good genetics, and so he was able to recover fast, but you make adjustments to your training. When somebody gets you in some type of crank, it’s a tap. I’m not fighting to go to sleep or get cranked in the gym, in training. It’s a tap. So you’re always playing it safe in the gym.
“Like I said, he has tested it out in the gym, but it’s real fight time. We’re going to see what happens then.”