Aljamain Sterling knows he should have already competed for UFC gold.
Following a four-fight win streak including victories over a trio of top 15 ranked opponents, the New York native was considered one of the best bantamweights in the world when the UFC had to crown a new 135-pound champion following Henry Cejudo’s retirement.
Sterling called for the title shot and Petr Yan appeared to be the most likely candidate to oppose him after rattling off six consecutive wins to start his UFC career. While Yan hadn’t faced the same level of competition as Sterling, he had momentum on his side and sometimes that matters more than wins or losses in the UFC.
In the end, the promotion granted Yan the opportunity to compete for the vacant championship but his opponent ended up being Jose Aldo, who was actually 0-1 at bantamweight and he had lost back-to-back fights overall. Still, Aldo’s value as a former champion brought attention to the title fight but he ultimately only won a single round against Yan before suffering a fifth-round TKO.
Meanwhile, Sterling was matched up with arguably a tougher, more established opponent for the division in Cory Sandhagen but he did what had to be done by wrapping up a first-round submission.
Now nine months later, Sterling will finally get his opportunity to compete for a UFC title but while he’s being called the challenger, he can’t help but wonder if Yan truly considers himself the real champion of the division.
“I do think he has to legitimize himself and he has to beat me,” Sterling said when speaking to MMA Fighting. “I can’t see anybody else who can do that for him. I’ve beaten just about everybody in this weight class or fought everybody in this weight class just to get to this position. I’ve had 13 UFC fights, this is going to be my 14th fight, finally getting the title shot. He’s had seven fights and the guys he’s fought, in terms of the caliber of opponents, I’ve been in that top five gauntlet for quite a bit now.
“He’s only fought Jimmie Rivera, you could say Jose Aldo — Jose Aldo is a tough dude — but fighting a guy who has a loss in the division for the title doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Cory Sandhagen and myself were ranked higher than him and I would argue that we had better resumes. [Cory] beat [Raphael] Assuncao, I had just beaten Pedro Munhoz, who had just knocked out the former champion [Cody Garbrandt].”
Originally, Sterling was expected to face Yan this past December at UFC 256 but the fight was scrapped after the bantamweight champion was forced off the card due to personal reasons.
The change in dates definitely upset Sterling, who was already deep into his training camp but what irritated him even more was the lack of information about why Yan suddenly had to wait another three months to face him.
“I was pretty bummed out about that but here we are again,” Sterling said. “I think he might have just needed more time to prepare. He might have been a little bit worried about something.
“From what I’m understanding, these personal issues that he pulled out for aren’t the case and it’s more for lack of confidence going into the fight with his training.”
Initially, Sterling had heard that Yan’s request centered around his training camp after he had previously worked with Tiger Muay Thai in Thailand and he was in need of a new place to call his home.
If that’s the reason, Sterling appreciates that Yan is taking him so seriously that he goes to those lengths to get ready for him but he’s not sure it will really make a difference in the end.
“I think his manager Danny Rubenstein had did some interview saying and pretty much alluded to that he didn’t have the proper training,” Sterling revealed. “He didn’t have the training partners or his coaches to oversee everything that he was doing or something like that. He’s at American Top Team now.
“I think it just came down to him not having adequate training partners and maybe his one boxing coach that’s down there at ATT with him. I don’t know how much of the boxing is going to help in terms of the wrestling. I hope his wrestling coach can help him get off of his back. But we’ll see. I smell a lot of bullsh*t.”
According to Sterling, he did try to ascertain the reason for the change in dates by reaching out to Yan directly while also passing along a message that he didn’t want any further delays.
“Only Petr Yan knows why he actually pulled out,” Sterling said. “I actually DM’d him like ‘bro, the UFC told me you’re injured, here you are posting videos,’ I gave him one of those emojis with the flat eyes kind of like what are you doing? This makes no sense. He said he really wants to fight me and we will fight and I said I really want to fight you, too.
“Hopefully we can actually make this happen and no more running. No more pull out Pete’s allowed.”
With the fight now just days away, Sterling is anxious to finally test himself against Yan in his quest to become UFC champion.
He’s also ready to back up his words when questioning the path that Yan took to the title while he’s been traveling down a murderer’s row at bantamweight ever since he first arrived in the UFC.
“I know he’s a bad dude. But at the end of the day, he’s beaten up a lot of old men and he has to beat a young lion still,” Sterling said. “I think for him he wants to prove this more than anything and I think that’s his driving factor. To prove he really is the champion.
“For me, it’s to prove he’s been the paper champ this entire time and the real champ was the guy who fought Cory Sandhagen and finished the fight in under two minutes.”