One recent day, as Saturday’s UFC bantamweight championship defense against Henry Cejudo approached, Aljamain Sterling chose not to dwell on the pressure attached to the most important night of his career. Instead, he did what he always does when the moment is magnified.
He grabbed his phone and played chess to steady his mind.
“It reminds me of the fight,” said Sterling, who faces Cejudo in the UFC 288 main event in Newark, New Jersey (ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET). “It’s mental warfare. And it’s like physical warfare. Me outsmarting you the same way I’ve got to outsmart you in a fistfight. I’ve found that it’s really relatable in that sense.”
Calm is the constant for the 33-year-old fighter. During the highs, such as last year’s redemptive win over Petr Yan and TKO victory over TJ Dillashaw, and the lows — see: the Marlon Moraes head-kick KO loss in 2017 and the backlash Sterling endured after he was awarded the belt following Yan’s illegal knee in their first fight in 2021 — he’s turned to his chess app and his support system for balance.
A win on Saturday over Cejudo, the former 125- and 135-pound champion and Olympic wrestling gold medalist who will be returning to the Octagon after a three-year retirement, would muzzle the naysayers and solidify Sterling’s bantamweight journey. It would also set up a megafight with star contender Sean O’Malley and an eventual push for the 145-pound crown.
Sterling does not believe he’s on a quest to prove he’s a legitimate champion, despite the negative buzz on social media that’s hovered around his career over the last two years. He said that noise has never affected him. Because Sterling’s greatest strength, per those who know him best, is not an asset you can see in the Octagon. It’s his ability to stay exactly where he is — present with the task in front of him — while he fights for his dreams.
“I think this is a legacy fight for him,” said Ray Longo, Sterling’s longtime coach. “If he wins this, I think there is only one guy left — O’Malley — and then he cleans out the division.”
Fighting at the Prudential Center in Newark on Saturday, Sterling will be just 45 miles from his hometown of Uniondale, New York. He already feels right at home mentally. Sterling said his prefight mood is never disconnected from the fight and the stakes attached to it, but he does not allow it to consume him. Earlier this week, he walked up to Cejudo at an event, looked him in the eye and shook his hand.
Aljo and Cejudo ran into each other at the fighter hotel 👀 #UFC288
— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) May 1, 2023
Cejudo never lost the bantamweight belt in the Octagon. He vacated the title when he retired in 2020 — making this one of the most anticipated fights of the year. That’s how Sterling likes it.
“In the middle of the chaos, I’m jumping into the fire,” Sterling said. “What’s that meme? Sometimes, you gotta put on some gangsta music and just handle that s—. That’s truly how I feel with certain things. I’ve learned how to turn it on and handle what I need to handle.”
That trait, not just in a fight but throughout his entire life, is the reason Sterling will enter the Octagon on Saturday as the owner of the championship belt.
Dave Mattana is not new to Sterling’s resilient mindset. He became a mentor to Sterling when his son wrestled against Sterling in high school and the teens became friends. Mattana attends most of Sterling’s fights to support him. He has long believed in Sterling’s championship dreams not just because of his gifts as an athlete but also because of the way he digested adversity compared to his peers at an early age.
“I just think of the way he cut weight when he was a wrestler,” Mattana said. “Just the way he seemed to enjoy cutting weight. You take him out, he would still eat. And he was a guy who just embraced all of it so much.”
Rebecca Cruz, Sterling’s fiancée, also has a long history of being around his unfazed mannerisms. Sterling’s swagger was well known at their high school, where they met. He always roamed the halls with a few admirers. He was popular and often surrounded by a crowd.
When Sterling and Cruz began to date once they were in their early 20s, he had already started on his mission to become a world champion in the Octagon. He began his pro fighting career at age 21. His edge fueled him through those early years, Cruz said.
“The Aljo I remember: He was this gritty, mean, like ‘I’m gonna do what I gotta do to get where I’ve got to go. … Are you coming with me or not?'” she said. “Real selfish and real serious about his business, even at that age. He kind of knew what he wanted.”
Sterling said his resolve began as a child, growing up in Uniondale in a big blended family with more than 20 siblings. He also had in his life a handful of bullies.
“I’ve had my fair share of guys that weren’t so nice,” Sterling said. “I was small. I was undersized, and there wasn’t much I could really do, being such a tiny kid. I grew up in a rough place. You just learn how to deal with it.”
Once he’d latched onto his MMA dream, however, Sterling never relented. He won his first 12 professional fights, the last four during that run coming in the UFC. But then came a rocky time of three losses in five fights, a skid that ended with the loss to Moraes.
Although Sterling has not suffered a loss since that night, the aftermath of his title-winning victory over Yan — who was disqualified after he landed an illegal knee that left Sterling unable to continue — was contentious for Sterling.
A postfight photo that showed Sterling smiling with the belt in his hands went viral on social media and led to criticism, even hate. People questioned a fighter would be enjoying the spotlight after he’d become the first to win a UFC title via disqualification, in a fight that hadn’t been going his way. To the haters, the Sterling in the photo didn’t look like someone who was too damaged to continue in the title fight.
Those close to him, however, said Sterling felt significant effects of the Yan foul in the hours after the fight. Longo said he sat next to a quiet Sterling on a couch, away from friends and family members who’d gathered at his Las Vegas home, to make sure he was OK. Cruz said she worried when Sterling vomited multiple times at their home that night. She had to hold his arm while he walked up the stairs.
The online hatred her fiancée received still bothers her. Sterling, Cruz and their family members all received despicable messages, some including racist language.
“Through all of that, he stayed resilient,” Cruz said. “He stayed persistent on the goal. But that was an ugly time. People were saying, ‘We want to hang you’ and ‘You’re both monkeys’ and ‘You’re not really a champion.’ You would have thought Petr Yan is like God to these guys, the way they were defending him.”
This hatred for Sterling did not ease a few days after the fight. “It was like weeks, months,” Cruz said. “A year after that, the hate would keep going and it wouldn’t stop.”
Sterling’s next fight, a year later, was a split-decision win over Yan. That title defense and last October’s TKO victory over Dillashaw — also a former champion — were both redemptive, and they were the byproduct of the discipline he’s enjoyed under Longo.
When the coach first met Sterling early in his pro career, Longo said, he recognized the young man’s potential. “He was like a mini Jon Jones,” Longo said.
The fighter and coach needed time to get in sync, but once they did, Sterling began to improve in both his skills and his approach to a fight. Sterling had been getting by with his energy and explosiveness. But sometimes he got caught in bad spots. Under Longo, Sterling matured into an efficient, precise and versatile fighter with the skills to counter the best in the bantamweight division.
In facing Cejudo, Longo said, Sterling must prepare for the Olympic gold medalist’s grappling ability, a skill that has made him one of the most decorated combat sports athletes of all time. As for Cejudo’s preparation, Longo believes the former champ can’t fully prepare for the Sterling he’ll see in the Octagon on Saturday.
“Look, there’s still things — and this is from the bottom of my heart — that people haven’t seen that [Sterling] could do, and when he’s comfortable and when he feels right, he’ll do them,” Longo said. “But he’s got a couple of fight-ending things he can do that nobody has any clue of. And that’s what I love about him.”
Sterling is riding an eight-fight winning streak, and for Longo, the fact that his fighter could produce that run immediately after being brutally finished by Moraes is just the start of what impresses him. “To come back from a knockout like that and to go on a tear, I think it’s absolutely phenomenal,” Longo said. “But I think that second Yan fight is the fight where I said this guy … this is different now. I think that fight proved a lot to himself and to everybody else. I think he’s putting together everything perfectly now.”
Sterling chooses not to get caught up in the significance of Saturday’s matchup. He calls it another “fun fight.” No different from the rest. That approach has helped him throughout his career.
It’s a lot like the game he loves to play on his phone. In the cage, and in chess, his movements are measured. His decisions are intentional. His strategy is only possible with patience.
With every maneuver on Saturday, he believes he’ll get closer to victory.
“It’s definitely going to feel good and I’m definitely going to feel happy about it,” Sterling said. “My bank account is going to be happy about it. But, at the end of day, it’s another moment in time. And I just want to make sure I seize the opportunity and enjoy it as much as I can.”
Those close to Sterling understand the meaning of Saturday’s fight. It’s a chance for him to hold up the 135-pound belt as a symbol that he’s not only a real champion but one of the best in the UFC.
But Sterling’s supporters are also prepared for him to encounter the same haters even if he gets the win. They’ll point out that Cejudo is a 36-year-old who last fought on May 9, 2020.
“People still discredit [Sterling],” Cruz said. “He fought [Dillashaw] and won fair and square, and what are people saying now? ‘You won against T.J. but he only had one arm that night.'”
That criticism came because Dillashaw dislocated a shoulder in the first round of that fight, and following Sterling’s second-round finish, Dillashaw revealed that he’d entered the fight with a pre-existing shoulder injury.
Sterling was blamed for something that was not his doing. “He never catches a break, and it really is crappy because he’s such an intelligent, likable guy,” Cruz said. “He’s very humble and he comes from nothing. Nothing was handed to him. … But he’s strong. Listen, people try to knock him down, but he got right back up and now we’re fighting Cejudo. Here we are.”