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How bizarre: Looking back at Aljamain Sterling’s title fights and his struggle for respect ahead of UFC 288

Few would argue Aljamain Sterling is one of the best in the business. He’s the No. 1 fighter in a prestige division, he hasn’t lost in over five years, and if he beats the returning Henry Cejudo in Saturday’s UFC 288 main event, he’ll set the record for the most consecutive successful defenses of the UFC bantamweight title (3).

“Funk Master” has been on a, ahem, sterling run. So why doesn’t anyone like him?

OK, that’s unfair. Sterling has his fair share of supporters, and they’ll certainly be present at Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Saturday. But the 33-year-old New Yorker has yet to reach the level of fame and adulation befitting a fighter of his stature.

Is he the champion the UFC wants, or is he just the one it’s been left with ever since he became the first-ever fighter to earn a UFC belt via disqualification two years ago? That shocking result was the first of three title fights that have shaped his career in the most bizarre way, simultaneously placing his name among the greats and among the most disrespected champions in MMA history.

Let’s take a look back at Sterling’s run at the top and whether this fight with Cejudo will correct the course – or somehow cause his reputation to spiral further.

UFC 259 - March 6, 2021

UFC 259: Yan v Sterling
Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The one that started it all.

It’s hard to believe now, but prior to Sterling’s first fight with Petr Yan, there was actually a groundswell of support for the previously overlooked “Funkmaster” to get his crack at the belt. As mentioned above, he never cultivated a Diaz-like fan following, but there were those wondering why he’d never been featured on a pay-per-view main card until UFC 250, where a quick submission of Cory Sandhagen gave him his UFC 259 title opportunity.

Yan was a slight favorite over Sterling. But as the fight progressed, the Russian eased ahead with superb striking and was leading on two of the three scorecards before the fateful fourth round. And then: chaos.

A laboring Sterling was getting pieced up by Yan in Round 4, and after having a takedown attempt stuffed, the challenger was wrestled down to a knee. Referee Mark Smith clearly indicated that Sterling was in a grounded position, and with plenty of offensive options available, Yan instead chose to drive a knee straight into Sterling’s face. Whether it was because of fatigue, or his brain cage being rattled by the blatantly illegal blow, Sterling was unable to continue. Yan was disqualified. Sterling was the new UFC bantamweight champion.

Unsurprisingly, fans were less than thrilled with how Sterling entered the history books, and for every person that criticized Yan for the foul, it seemed like there were 10 lining up to blast him for not fighting through it. He was even accused of acting his way to a title, prompting countless “and the Academy Award goes to…” tweets.

The optics of the situation were awful and Sterling didn’t do himself any favors, as his post-fight comments were all over the place. He didn’t go full heel, but he wasn’t exactly gracious either.

Hate it or love it, that’s how Sterling’s reign began. But at least he’d get to prove himself in an immediate rematch, right?

UFC 273 - April 9, 2022

UFC 273: Sterling v Yan 2
Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan
Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC

The new champion already entered this bout with another strike against him; the fight had to be rescheduled from UFC 267 to UFC 273 so that he could deal with lingering neck issues. That meant instead of Sterling and Yan settling the score seven months after their first meeting, it would be over a year until they squared off again. In Sterling’s absence, Yan won a unanimous decision over Cory Sandhagen at UFC 267 to capture an interim title. The sentiment persisted that “No Mercy” was the true king of bantamweight.

This time, Yan was a huge favorite, hovering around 4-to-1 on most betting sites. Sterling defied those odds, performing considerably better en route to a split decision win. It was an exceedingly close contest with Sterling dominating stretches of the fight with his grappling (though how much effective damage he did during these sequences is up for debate) and Yan winning a large chunk of the striking exchanges. Like the judges, Sterling and Yan’s peers were also split on who deserved to be called champion.

In my review of the fight, I weighed Sterling’s submission attempts and a brief burst of ground-and-pound heavily, concluding that I would have scored it at worst a draw for Sterling, a verdict that would see him retain the title anyway.

Still, regardless of what the judges, media, fighters, or I had to say about it, Sterling failed to put a stamp on his rivalry with Yan. Which means fans still had questions about his championship bonafides.

UFC 280 - Oct. 22, 2022

UFC 280: Sterling v Dillashaw
Aljamain Sterling and T.J. Dillashaw
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC

The good news for Sterling’s next matchup was that he was all but guaranteed to get the opportunity to add a legend to his resume. The bad news was that it turned out to be a one-armed T.J. Dillashaw – and not Jose Aldo.

With a number of worthy contenders ready to step up and challenge Sterling - including the legendary Aldo, who was coming off of three straight wins over ranked opposition - the UFC, in its infinite wisdom, decided to go to Dillashaw. This made a lot of sense, given that Dillashaw missed two years of competition after admitting to using a banned substance, was coming off of a controversial split decision win over Cory Sandhagen, and then spent another 14 months on the shelf due to a knee injury.

(Sorry, did I say “made a lot of sense?” I meant to say it made no sense whatsoever.)

What looked like a bad idea on paper turned out even worse in practice. Dillashaw was completely compromised by a shoulder injury that mystifyingly made it past medicals, and he thoroughly dominated before being saved in the second round as Sterling pummeled him with ground strikes. Afterward, much of the talk revolved around Dillashaw’s injury and Dillashaw admitted in his post-fight interview that his shoulder had been a mess since April.

So much for Sterling’s shining moment.

UFC 288 - May 6, 2023

UFC 288 Press Conference
Henry Cejudo
Photo by Cooper Neill/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The good news for Sterling’s next matchup is that he has the opportunity to add a legend to his resume. The bad news is…wait, I’m getting deja vu.

Once again, the UFC has allowed a past champion to jump a line of hungry and deserving challengers, and once again it feels like Sterling is on the cusp of a signature win that could vastly change how he’s perceived. Critics can still nitpick the circumstances of his wins, but Henry Cejudo, Dillashaw, and Yan make for an impressive trio of defenses no matter how you slice it.

On the other hand, it might not be that simple (it seemingly never is with Sterling). If Sterling wins another close decision, it could be the second Yan fight all over again. If he beats Cejudo easily, it’s easy to imagine the narrative being that Cejudo was too old at 36, too rusty after a three-year layoff, too small at 135 pounds. And heaven help us all if there’s any sort of foul-related controversy.

As nice as it would be to see Sterling receive his much-deserved flowers on Saturday, it’s just as likely that he ends up writing another chapter in the UFC’s weirdest championship run.

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