Aljamain Sterling has been among the elite bantamweights in the UFC for at least five years, perhaps longer. He’s 22-3 overall in MMA, 15-3 in the UFC and has won 10 of his last 11 bouts.
He’s beaten three men who have held the UFC’s bantamweight championship — Petr Yan twice, Renan Barao and T.J. Dillashaw — and he’s moved to sixth in the UFC’s pound-for-pound rankings.
Saturday marks a unique milestone for him. He’ll face former champion Henry Cejudo at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey, in the main event of UFC 288. It will be his first main event in 19 bouts in the UFC.
There are fighters who have never fought for a championship who have headlined more than four times. He’s from the metropolitan New York area, and Saturday’s fight with Cejudo is sort of a homecoming for him.
Sterling doesn’t have the most exciting style, and typifies the style where winning is primary and looking good is for the next time out.
The UFC has been largely been built upon the backs of fighters who take risks, who accept the biggest challenges and who eagerly look to put on the most exciting fights possible.
That hasn’t always been Sterling, and so it’s why it’s been a long time coming for him to be recognized for his skills. Being the champion and being high on the pound-for-pound rankings is a big part of it, but being the last to walk on a major pay-per-view also is a huge part of it.
Sterling is nothing if not a realist, though, and he hasn’t been fooled. This is the main event as much for the fact that Cejudo is coming out of a three-year retirement as it is for the New York City area fans to get a chance to see Sterling fight in person.
“I never really cared about the main event spot until I saw it like this [on the billboards outside the arena],” Sterling said Wednesday at UFC 288 media day. “Well, that actually is pretty damn cool and it does feel good.”
Sterling is where he is, though, not just because he’s a physical talent, which of course he is, but also because he’s a shrewd young man. And it dawned on him that it might not have been all about just him earning the top spot on the card.
Cejudo is on a short list of the greatest fighters in MMA history. If he returns after a three-year absence and defeats Sterling and then goes on to eventually win a featherweight belt, it would be a massive story and might well crown him the sport’s GOAT.
Sterling, who has never been shy about promoting himself, instantly got it.
“To see the energy the staff has put behind [promoting the card], maybe it’s not for me to win, but I don’t really give a s***,” he said, beaming. “I think it’s cool either way, even if they don’t think I’m the guy who’s going to get the job done.”
That’s because Sterling is smart enough to understand that it’s out of his hands who gets to be in the main event. And it was out of his hands on when, or if, he’d ever get a title shot.
But things will change on Saturday when the cage door shuts behind him and Cejudo. Nothing else will matter other than who the better fighter is. No matter who Sterling thinks the brass may prefer to see win, he’s in control of what happens.
“I like to play spoiler,” he said. “What better way to do that than on the East Coast, first champion ever from Long Island to defend back home and shock the world once again against another former world champion?”
Sterling is underrated for his wit and his ability on the microphone. And as soon as he asked that question, he paused to ask the assembled media his own question.
“Did you guys know he has an Olympic gold medal?” Sterling said, deadpan. “I’m not sure if you guys got that memo.”
Cejudo won an Olympic gold medal in Beijing in 2008 in freestyle wrestling. He refers to himself as “Triple C” because he’s won the Olympic wrestling championship as well as the UFC's flyweight and bantamweight championships. In his public appearances, the gold medal is constantly on display.
Sterling respects Cejudo’s abilities greatly — “I think I have my hands full,” he conceded — but believes he’ll wind up on top. His concern is that the fight does the best business.
He hasn’t been the biggest attraction, and some of that is not any fault of his. But if he beats an all-time great like Cejudo, things should change.