Aljamain Sterling entered UFC 170 with quite a bit of hype behind him.
Unbeaten in eight pro fights and carrying the Serra-Longo Fight Team banner with him, Sterling controlled Cody Gibson in securing a decision victory.
With the Octagon butterflies gone and his feet wet, Sterling (9-0) is seeking a return to the cage this May at UFC 173 when teammates Chris Weidman and Al Iaquinta compete.
“I really want to get on that May card,” said Sterling, during an exclusive interview with FightLine recently. “I think it can happen. I’m not too banged up from my last fight. I just need to do a little rehab and I think it can definitely happen.
“Long Island would be going nuts!”
Sterling knows everything didn’t go like he wanted vs. Gibson, as both fighters ended up being replacements in the bout for others who got injured.
“I know there were a lot of things I could’ve done better and will be better prepared with a full fight camp,” he said. “Besides that, it felt like I was living my dreams. Getting to hear my name finally announced as the winner by Mr. (Bruce) Buffer.
“I visualized walking to the cage, hearing my name announced and being announced as the winner over and over that (when it happened) it almost felt like I was still dreaming.”
Joining the Serra-Longo team
Right now, though, one of the elite camps is that ran by Matt Serra and Ray Longo. They boast Weidman, the UFC middleweight champion, Iaquinta, a former Ultimate Fighter runner-up, Pete Sell and others. For Sterling, who picked up the sport in 2010, Weidman was the reason for his move to the team.
“What brought me to the gym initially was Chris, who I met at Ring of Combat,” Sterling said. “I was considering moving back home for a few reasons and when I came in, I had to earn my respect. It didn’t matter how hard I was working to them.
“I think they saw that I really wanted to do something in this sport so we got to work. I’m not looking back (now).”
Sterling also credits seeing how much Weidman and the others work “has been a huge confidence boost.
“I feel like almost anything they say, I’ll believe it and do it,” he continued. “You get the privilege to mimic the same workouts that the champion is going through, Al and even stuff Serra has done.
“You just know you’ll be on point to compete and win on fight night.”
Working towards the big show
Prior to making his Octagon debut, Sterling reeled off three straight submission wins – all via rear-naked choke – while competing for Cage Fury Fighting Championships. That included a main event victory over Joel Roberts in just under two minutes.
“I was in brief talks with (UFC matchmaker Sean) Shelby before coming back home to Long Island, but I still needed to show I was ready to compete,” Sterling said. “I needed to be more competent on my feet. I needed a little bigger of a following. I took care of those things and with a little luck on my side, I was the next guy in line for the phone call after a fighter pulled out.”
Sterling stepped in when Bryan Caraway was hurt and was booked to meet Lucas Martins. However, Martins also went down, paving the way for Gibson to make his UFC debut the same night.
The ultimate goal
Sterling is pretty blunt when talking about his future, as he has just one goal in mind.
“I expect to be the champion one day,” he said. “I don’t think it’s cocky or whatever people want to call it. You should want to be the champ.
“That should drive you.”
He admitted that money is important in the fight game, but said “why wouldn’t you want to prove you are the best in the world? The money comes with being a great champion.”
By training with Weidman and Serra, himself a former UFC champion, Sterling knows he has the right kind of people around him.
“I’m willing to put the time in to get to where I want to be,” he said. “I’ve never been the ‘ultimate champion’ of anything. I always came up short and I won’t do that this time.
“I do it for the glory of knowing I can be the champion for the rest of my life.”
Planning for a future post-fighting
Like more and more of the new-generation of fighters, Sterling is already thinking about his plans post-competing.
“I’ve been getting more and more intrigued in running a business,” he said. “Maybe like a sports bar or lounge or something like that. It would be for all the sports fanatics and could keep me busy later in life.
“I enjoy teaching physical education at my high school alma mater and coaching wrestling.
“Wrestling was my second love after I didn’t make the last cut for the basketball team in 10th grade. It taught me so much about myself. How to be disciplined, focused on a goal.”
And don’t think Sterling would just be happy staying on the business side of a restaurant, as he has a knack for picking up the tools in the kitchen, as well.
“I like to cook and bake all kinds of sweets,” he said. “My favorite dish is the chocolate lava cake with a scoop of ice cream!”
You can follow Sterling on Twitter.