Expectation can be a difficult thing to hold in mixed martial arts, but Aljamain Sterling has worn it well.
After an impressive run on smaller stages around the sport that served to built a solid amount of buzz around his name, the 24-year-old New York native received the call to bring his services to the UFC. Sterling's blend of tenacity, pressure and grappling prowess proved far too much for competition on the regional scene to handle, and questions lingered as to how the Serra-Longo product would fare on the biggest stage in MMA.
While competing in the UFC was going to bring an added element of pressure, Sterling welcomed the challenge.
"There is definitely a certain amount of pressure, but that's where I want to be," Sterling told Bleacher Report. "Pressure is fun, man, but at the same time, there is no such thing as pressure unless you place it on yourself. I come alive in the nighttime. That is one of the things I tell people in the gym all the time because I can't wait to step in and fight. I come alive under those bright lights. I learned that mentality through wrestling.
"I didn't perform the way I think I could have in the national tournament. I definitely believe I had the potential to have been a national champion at least one time, but I let it slip through my fingers because I wasn't there mentally. Now, when I get under those bright lights it is game on and I'm ready to go."
Hype dictates attention in combat sports, and the "Funk Master" came into his promotional debut against Cody Gibson at UFC 170 on a mission to show and prove. The Uniondale-based fighter was eager to stamp his place on the UFC roster, and after a hard-fought 15-minute affair in Las Vegas, Sterling stood with his hand raised inside the Octagon, with his undefeated record still intact.
Yet, his performance against Gibson was more efficient than entertainment, and Sterling felt like he needed a definitive showing in his next outing.
He wanted to prove how dominant his skill set could be, and that opportunity came against Hugo Viana at Fight Night 45 in Atlantic City, New Jersey, and the talented young prospect certainly made a statement. After grinding the Brazilian down for two rounds, Sterling turned up the pressure in the final frame and put the "Wolverine" away with a flurry of strikes.
Finishing the gritty veteran was the statement he was looking to make and a sample of what Sterling is looking to bring to the increasingly competitive bantamweight fold.
"I was definitely happy with my performance," Sterling said. "I got the finish so I don't have anything to complain about there, but there are definitely a few things I could have done a lot better. That's just the way I am. I like to make sure I dominate every single aspect of fighting and any type of competition. There is no coasting. My first fight in the UFC wasn't all that impressive, and I definitely wanted to show that I had a lot more than what I displayed in my first fight.
"With two fights in the UFC now, I feel like the experience is starting to come. I showed a big improvement from my first fight to my second, and I think people are going to see an even bigger improvement in my next fight. My goal is always keep improving, and I'm still young. I've been training now for three years and took a year off to recover from shoulder surgery. I'm only going to get better and keep developing my game."
When it comes to Sterling crafting his skill set, that work goes down under the tutelage of a pair of heralded coaches in Ray Longo and Matt Serra.
The Long Island-based fight team has become one of the premier collectives in MMA with their rise being tied directly to the success of middleweight sensation and UFC middleweight champion Chris Weidman. Yet, what "The All-American" started in his upset of Anderson Silva last year at UFC 162 in July, then repeated five months later at UFC 168, his Serra-Longo teammates have fed off in their respective journeys.
The fighters in that fold have been finding success inside the cage, and Sterling believes it is a credit to the dedication that is shown inside of the gym.
"We are doing great things over here with our team," Sterling said. "I keep telling people I think there is something in the water. We are definitely making some noise, and I think that is a reflection of how hard we work. Al [IaQuinta] is coming up next, and he's ready to show his skills. He was dominating his last fight and just caught. I know he will be coming back with a vengeance and will be looking to put a stamp on his next opponent. I feel bad for that guy.
"It's an incredible time to be at the gym and an exciting atmosphere to be around. It feels great to have so much support and positive energy around you. There are a lot of good folks in our circle, and we are having an awesome time. I think everyone is glad they are there."
While Sterling is still in the early stages of his development as a mixed martial artist, one person who sees the tremendous amount of potential he possesses is Longo.
The straight-talking coach has a proven eye for talent, and he's beyond impressed with what Sterling brings to the table. Longo believes the sky is the limit for the rangy bantamweight and is confident Sterling's talent and work ethic will yield success inside the Octagon.
"Unbelievable is the best word I can use," Longo said. "He is a super-gifted kid with a phenomenal skill set. He's long and big for his weight class. Once he really starts to understand distance and setting up some of his punches and kicks, you are going to see a big difference in this kid. He's still growing, and he's honestly one of the most gifted guys I've ever seen."
With an undefeated 10-0 record and lofty expectations to live up to, the road ahead for Sterling will be one where every obstacle comes with a bigger spotlight. While it may take a bit for the biggest opportunities of his career to present themselves, Sterling has no problem putting in the work it is going to take for him to get where he wants to go.
He knows mixed martial arts is an unpredictable game where the biggest moments can arise at any time, but until that happens, he's going to keep his focus locked on becoming a better fighter than he was the last time he stepped into the Octagon.
"I believe slow and steady wins the race," Sterling said. "I only have 10 fights, and most of the other fighters in my division have twice that. I don't think there is any reason to rush anything, but if a big opportunity does come my way, I'm always going to be ready. My goal is always be improving, and that's what I'm working hard to do."
Duane Finley is a Featured Columnist for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand, unless noted otherwise.