Aljamain Sterling knows his days are numbered as a bantamweight.
Even as he prepares to defend his title against Henry Cejudo at UFC 288, Sterling has openly stated that he will eventually make the move up to 145 pounds. But that transition may happen sooner rather than later. With his close friend Merab Dvalishvili nearing title contention and the general difficulty that comes along with constant weight cuts to 135 pounds, Sterling acknowledges that he only has so many fights left at bantamweight.
In fact, the New York native says his fight against Cejudo and a future showdown against No. 1 contender Sean O’Malley will probably mark the end of his time in the division.
“Very likely that’s the path, but I’m just going to see how this fight goes, how the weight cut goes,” Sterling told The Fighter vs. The Writer.
“There could be a chance — and I don’t want to put this in the air because people say stupid things like, ‘Oh, that’s the wrong mindset to have,’ and I’m like, ‘Really, because you’ve done it so many times? Please explain to me what your mindset has been in your fights beforehand or afterward.’ At the end of the day, depending on how this goes and the difficulty, I think I’ve done a better job so far of managing my weight. This could maybe even be the last one. I think it just depends on how everything runs.”
According to Sterling, it’s always an arduous journey to get down to 135 pounds, and as he gets a little older, that really starts to take a toll on his body.
He’s never missed weight and has no intention of starting now, but the 33-year-old veteran understands that he can’t continue to punish his body when there’s a long list of potential fights awaiting him at featherweight.
“Making 135 is not easy,” Sterling said. “I do it. It pays the bills. It’s my job. We’ll see what happens. It’s not easy. I’m getting older, 33 years old, cut down from about 168 [pounds], sometimes I’m ‘65 to ‘68, sometimes ‘70 cutting down. When I’m not training, that’s what I walk around at, that’s my natural state and I’m not fat or out-of-shape looking for a fighter profile. But to cut down, I lose a lot to get down to this weight, and I feel like my body, it’s become more difficult to make the weight class. So we’ll see.
“I’m just taking it day by day, fight by fight, and then we can make a decision — and I would love to see my guy Merab get a crack at the title.”
If his own weight is one factor in eventually changing divisions, Sterling admits that Dvalishvili banging on the door of title contention is perhaps an even bigger reason to make the move.
Currently riding an impressive nine-fight win streak, including a lopsided victory over ex-UFC champion Petr Yan in March, Dvalishvili could already be considered the top threat in the bantamweight division, however he and Sterling have both said rather emphatically that they will not fight each other.
Their relationship goes beyond just training together, because Sterling and Dvalishvili consider each other close, personal friends, and that’s a bond neither wants to break — even if UFC title and a pile of money is up for grabs.
“We both came literally from a very similar situation and we both worked so hard to get to this position,” Sterling said of his relationship with Dvalishvili. “Who would think two guys from the same gym could ever even be in this position? It’s not easy to do.
“I know most people would be super eager to be like, ‘Yeah, I’ll fight that motherf*****,’ with no hesitation. I think those are people who are in rooms, floating in and out, and they’re not friends. I wouldn’t be here if it wasn’t for Merab, and I’d like to think vice versa for him as well.”
The only hesitation Sterling has about moving up to bantamweight is actually ensuring that Dvalishvili gets his opportunity to become champion once he’s gone.
As it stands, UFC president Dana White bristled at the fact that Sterling and Dvalishvili refuse to fight each other, which could effectively blackball the Georgian fighter from getting a title shot just because he won’t dance to the promotion’s beat.
Sterling really hopes that’s not the case, which is why he wants Dvalishvili to secure assurances from the UFC ahead of his next fight.
“I want to make sure the UFC actually guarantees him, ‘You are the next guy,’ because right now, I feel like what’s going on people are saying you’re holding your friend back or Merab can’t fight for the title if he won’t fight you,” Sterling explained.
“I’m like, he hasn’t had a No. 1 contender fight, technically, in the UFC’s eyes. What we need to have his guaranteed, ‘You win this, you are next for the title shot, and if you don’t fight for the title, you get passed.’ Now when you’re in that situation, now it’s a real thing. Not, ‘Hey, you might fight for the title, but you’ve got to fight your friend.’ You guys are trying to make something hypothetical that’s never even been offered. If it’s been offered, it’s a real thing. Right now, it’s not a real thing. I think people are just trying to say that to get under our skins, thinking they can ruffle our feathers, but Merab’s like my brother.”
Even beyond that, Sterling also loves the idea of challenging himself in a new division with the potential to become a two-division UFC champion.
Sterling has nothing but praise for reigning UFC featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski, but he’s also quietly thought about how that fight might go if they ever meet in the cage.
“Islam [Makhachev] got to his back!” Sterling said with a laugh when addressing Volkanovski. “I know he’s a bigger guy, but you don’t let me on your back!”