Finding the next great New York wrestler turned MMA fighter-An interview with Aljamain Sterling
July 5, 2012
Have you heard this story before? In his early 20s, talented, African-American wrestler, trained MMA at Team BombSquad with truckloads of expectations following him six fights into his pro career. Aljamain Sterling's (6-0) unofficial bio may sound like the previous sentence.
After Sterling's latest victory former UFC color commentator Jeff Blatnick compared the New Yorker's talents to UFC 205 pound champion Jon Jones when speaking with MMA journalist Jim Genia. The plot thickens with both men having wrestled at Morrisville State College and both having called Ithaca, New York home.
Though comparisons to the perhaps the best MMA fighter on the planet are nice, the 22 year old Sterling's hype as a bantamweight prospect stand firm on their own two feet. Sterling's natural abilities, wrestling pedigree and "it" factor make him one of the top prospects in MMA in 2012.
ULTMMA.com (www.ULTMMA.com) spoke with Sterling prior to a recent practice about patience in the cage, his fighting style and his thoughts on the UFC.
Sterling is ranked in the number two spot in the 2012 edition of the ULTMMA50; a pound for pound listing of the top 50 prospects in MMA.
ULTMMA.com: You've fought once in 2012 thus far, was that planned?
Aljamain Sterling: I wanted to get back in the cage more often but I'm tied down with the CFFC. Then I got injured in my last fight so I wasn't sure I'd be able to fight on June 30th. It was too last minute to get back me on that card. I like to fight more often.
ULTMMA: Is it becoming harder to find opponents locally?
Sterling: That's what it seems like. I know they couldn't find me an opponent from around here for my last fight. I was told another fighter backed out. He wanted the fight but his manger turned down the fight.
ULTMMA: How would you game plan against yourself?
Sterling: That is kind of hard to say. I would just have to be on point for any craziness I decided to do. It would be pretty tough.
ULTMMA: If, a fan hasn't seen you fight before whom in the UFC do you compare your style to?
Sterling: I look up to Jon Jones. I look up to the Diaz brothers. I like those guys. I like Jimmy Hettes. I'm trying to implement that all into my style. I kind of do my own thing. I'm kind of a weird funky wrestler. My style is a little different. It's a lot of scrambles and stuff like that.
One thing I've been really working on is my ground n' pound and wrestling. Sometimes if I get the takedown if I don't explode right away guys will latch on to my wrist and tie me down. I need to really work and posture up. Still trying to not take elbows to the face. I don't want to do anything reckless. I want to do everything methodical.
I want t be a exciting fighter. I'm a great wrestler. I still want to be entertaining and finishing fights. That's my main goal is to finish fights.
ULTMMA: In a lot of your fights guys have been very aggressive at slowing down your offense with submission attempts. Is that frustrating to you as a wrestler?
Sterling: I expect it now . My last two fights I got caught in a triangle and a guillotine and a couple of knee bars. I practice all the defense for that stuff. I'm prepared and ready for it so I don't panic and freak out. When you do that its easier to get caught because our breathing is all messed up. Bad things happen when you panic
I put myself in those positions almost every day when I'm practicing so I know when I get there I'll be alright.
ULTMMA: Have you heard the Jon Jones comparison before? Is that fair?
Sterling: I think it s a cool comparison. The only thing different I would say is he finishes everybody. I've had a couple of fights where I feel I should have finished my opponents and I just came up a little bit short. My debut fight, my third fight and my fight against Santella. I feel like after watching and knowing who I am now I feel like I should have had six submission wins by now.
That is always the goal to finish guys. That is what we practice to do is finish our opponent.
ULTMMA: Six fights into your pro career how far are you away from the UFC?
Sterling: I've always liked the UFC and I would love to fight for those guys. We got bunch of guys in Bellator and they are in my weight class. I'd rather go to the UFC and try my luck and skills there. As for how many fights I don't really know.
It's funny these days how guys get in last second and injuries are the only way to get in. That's why I'm trying to always be ready and prepared just in case someone gets hurt. Good things come to those who wait, that's my philosophy. So maybe in one, two or maybe even three fights.
ULTMMA: Hypothetical question, if you were told a year from now you were not in the UFC or Bellator would you be satisfied with where your career is at?
Sterling: As long as I can support myself financially to some degree I don't need to be making a whole lot of money. This is what I like to do. As long it's not becoming a burden and I can't figure out how I'm going to pay next month's rent than I'd have to turn to my degree and put MMA on a hiatus.
That would be a disappointment.
ULTMMA: What is the part of your game that you think people overlook when they mention you?
Sterling: I think it's my striking. I can strike but I haven't really shown it as much. I practice it a lot but sometimes I get frustrated like in my last fight I felt that my opponent was hurt but for some reason instead of me throwing my combinations and picking my shots I shot in and took him down to wrestle him.
It's something I'm still working on
ULTMMA: Was striking the hardest thing to learn coming in from a wrestling background?
Sterling: I think defending strikes was the hardest. I felt I was always able to throw but I was always covering up, turning my head or putting my head down, little stuff like that, that could get you hurt.
ULTMMA: When did MMA get your attention as something you wanted to pursue?
Sterling: I hadn't really thought about it until I saw Jon doing it. We went to school together. He was a good wrestler, I'm a good wrestler, and we come from kind of the same background so I felt I could be successful at it. I felt like I was fast, strong and tough enough to do it.
I was doing amateur fights while I was in college because of NCAA rules wouldn't allow you to get paid for any kind of sport.
ULTMMA: Have you trained MMA with Jon Jones?
Sterling: I went to school with him my freshman year of college. I trained with him for a couple of months before he left our gym. I saw him a couple of weeks ago and we hung out. I definitely feel he is someone who pushed me and kept me interested in the sport.
ULTMMA: What was your wrestling coaches' reaction to your MMA training?
Sterling: They knew about it. They liked it because it kept me training and made me come back better. My senior year I came back an All American again and went up a weight class. I think that helped me a lot.
ULTMMA: What win in your career has garnered you the most attention?
Sterling: I think after the Santella fight. After I beat him, everyone wrote me off for that fight, and I felt like I didn't have any respect other than just being a good wrestler. He was beating everyone at 135 even though he's really a 125 pounder. He's a tough guy. I felt after I beat him I started to get noticed more.
That's fine with me. It doesn't matter to me if I get noticed or not . I'm doing what I'm doing and at the end of the day all that matters is if you get your hand raised.
ULTMMA: Anyone you would like to thank? Places where fans can find you at?
2012 ULTMMA50 interviews