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Aljamain Sterling: ‘I can’t wait to go out there and take that gold medal and shove it up Henry Cejudo’s ass’

Aljamain Sterling has pretty much heard it all during his two-year reign as UFC bantamweight champion.

While criticism just comes along with a high-profile job, the 33-year-old New York native has dealt with a bombardment of negativity — largely through no fault of his own — since he claimed the UFC title after Petr Yan was disqualified for blasting him with an illegal knee that ended their fight back in 2021. Over time, Sterling started to develop leather skin and he effectively accepted his vilified role, which has allowed him to largely ignore the verbal arrows constantly being fired at him.

One particularly loud voice over these past two years has been former two-division champion Henry Cejudo, who will return from retirement to challenge Sterling for his title in the UFC 288 main event. Almost immediately after hanging up his gloves in 2020, the Olympic gold medalist in wrestling took to social media and his own YouTube channel to offer analysis and his own brand of seething commentary, particularly towards fights and fighters in his former home at 135 pounds.

“There’s no animosity, I don’t want that to come off that way. I’m not trying to force anything. I’m not trying to fake anything [but] the guy talks a lot,” Sterling said about Cejudo when speaking to MMA Fighting. “Sat on the sidelines and talked so much s*** and criticized everybody. No disrespect but it’s almost like what Khabib [Nurmagomedov] did. When Khabib retired, he started to become a lot more vocal and it wasn’t vocal in a very humble or respectful way, I feel like and I don’t know if he did that intentionally or he didn’t realize the way it was coming off.

“Henry’s doing that but I think it’s very intentional and deliberate and someone needs to smack him in the face. Thankfully, he’s actually coming back so I get to be the guy to smack him in the face.”

Cejudo’s exit from the bantamweight division came just as Sterling’s real ascendancy was starting so the two never really had the chance to cross paths. Truth be told, Cejudo didn’t really spend all that much time at 135 pounds during his UFC career and his title fight came after he beat T.J. Dillashaw when the ex-bantamweight champion made an ill-fated attempt at winning a second title at 125 pounds.

Sterling can’t help but point out that Cejudo’s retirement precipitated potentially tougher matchups against a murderer’s row of fighters at bantamweight, who were all champing at the bit for a title shot just as he called it a career.

“I do my homework and not taking anything away from Henry, he beat the guys they put in front of him, the same thing I’ve been able to do and that’s the fight game,” Sterling explained. “That’s all you can control but I will say he definitely dodged a bullet leaving when he left because there would have been killer after killer coming after him and guys twice his height almost and that’s a big difference.

“I really do think that, I don’t want to say he’s untested but we don’t really know what he can do in this division yet and I think I’m going to be the true [measuring stick] to see where he’s at. We’re going to see because if I do the things that I think can do to him, I think he might contemplate going back down to 125 [pounds] or just really retiring again, this time for good.”

Throughout his UFC career, Sterling has largely defined himself as a tremendous grappler with fast, fluid takedowns and arguably some of the best Brazilian jiu-jitsu in the history of the bantamweight division.

Meanwhile, Cejudo is a 2008 Olympic gold medalist in wrestling, who was only taken down once during his UFC career while stuffing 14 out of 15 takedown attempts against him. On paper, Cejudo’s wrestling could serve as the ultimate equalizer against a great grappler but Sterling scoffs at the idea that he won’t be able to score takedowns in their fight.

“I predict I take Henry down three or four times in this fight,” Sterling said. “I really do. I think once I get my hands on him, he’s going to realize that what people say about me is actually true. I’m a bigger guy. I’ve got the longer reach, the longer limbs and all I need to do is lock my hands. If I lock my hands, that is a bad situation to be in.

“I can’t wait to go out there and take that gold medal and shove it up his ass and hand him a nice ‘L’ for his efforts.”

More than anything, Sterling is infinitely curious to see how Cejudo looks after three years away because it’s not easy to return after that much time off and doing it at 36 years of age.

There have been a handful of fighters capable of coming back and winning monumental fights after spending years away from competition but Sterling believes Cejudo’s return differs from many of those examples.

“I plan on going out there and showing him that ring rust is a real thing and father time is undefeated,” Sterling said. “You can’t sit there and take three years off and then come off the couch and think that everybody’s going to be like Jon Jones and have this spectacular athletic curve. The difference between him and Jon Jones and him and [Georges St-Pierre], are the guys that they are fighting when they came back.

“No disrespect to anyone, Ciryl Gane is very athletic but the guy can’t wrestle. Let’s just call it what it is. [Michael] Bisping versus GSP, those guys trained with each other. There’s a reason why GSP was OK taking that fight against Michael Bisping as opposed to any other middleweight out there.”

As far as Cejudo’s return, Sterling expects his comeback to end much differently than Jones or St-Pierre, who both won championships after similarly lengthy layoffs.

“Now, yes, Cejudo is trying to come back and do the same thing — the difference is he’s not fighting someone who can’t wrestle,” Sterling said. “He’s not fighting someone who can’t strike. He’s fighting a well-rounded guy who is probably going to be the most dangerous guy to comeback to do that against in the sense of all those guys who tried it, he’s going to have the toughest road ahead of him.

“We’ll see if he’s ready for it. May the better man win but I truly think and believe that I’m going to show that I’m here for a season and I’m the better guy at this point in time.”

Between now and fight night, plenty more will be said as both fighters will appear at a scheduled media day as well as a pre-fight press conference and weigh-ins where Sterling will likely hear a lot more from Cejudo.

He anxiously awaits the chance to respond but more than anything, Sterling wants to answer back with his fists and possibly silence Cejudo once and for all.

“Henry can say whatever he wants,” Sterling said. “I think I’ve shown that even if the world is against me, I’m going to fight back, I’ll chirp back and nothing is going to get inside my head and nothing’s going to deter me from doing and believing what I believe in.

“I think [after this fight] Henry Cejudo disappears into the darkness again, going into the abyss depending on how bad he gets his ass whooped. That’s what I really do think.”

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