Aljamain Sterling is in uncharted territory. Before him, young, undefeated, world-ranked MMA free agents just didn't happen, yet here he is. Twenty-six years old with 12 wins, no losses and a top-five ranking, Sterling played out his UFC contract to sell his services on the open market.
A close examination of the New York native shows this is a man with all of the necessary tools to make it big in a world always desperate for the next star. In addition to being young and undefeated, he is bright and charismatic. He's motivated, media-friendly and well-spoken.
If this was baseball, he'd be commanding a deal worth eight figures. If this was basketball, he'd be talking max contracts. If it was football, teams would be knocking down his door. Those are sports that largely pay young athletes based on potential and projections. In MMA though, box-office value trumps all, and in that regard, Sterling is mostly unproven. So instead of waiting for the big-money offer, he can only wait and hope.
This whole thing has been a gamble. Either someone—perhaps Bellator—comes forward with a big offer for a prime talent, or his leverage dips dramatically. But he's OK with it. While there is always a level of fear in the unknown, he's mostly comfortable in his belief that someone will present him with a bid that recognizes his past success and realizes his future value.
"I don't know anything at this point," the No. 5-ranked bantamweight told Bleacher Report. "It's really hard for me to say where I'll end up. It would be a smart play on the UFC's part to keep me, but if not, if they don't really care about it, who knows? So what are the chances I re-sign with them? I'm not going to put a number on my return. I'm just going to let things play out."
Numbers are what started this all in the first place. A one-time accounting major in college before switching to physical education, Sterling pays attention to financial news related to his business and his peers, information that has informed his current stance.
When Sterling signed with the UFC in January 2014, he said he accepted a four-fight contract that started with an $8,000 per-fight purse and $8,000 win bonus, with a $2,000 escalator triggered by each win.
At the time, Sterling was amenable to the terms because he believed he would progress slowly against fighters of similar age and experience before getting to the end of his deal. But after two straight wins, he was quickly thrust into a challenging bout with Takeya Mizugaki, who was then ranked No. 6 in the world. Showcasing his improvisational style, The Funk Master finished Mizugaki with an inverted arm triangle choke, the first in UFC history. For that little piece of brilliance, he made a $12,000 purse and $12,000 win bonus.
That matchup was the genesis of his reconsideration of pay. While the opportunity to fight world-ranked opposition appealed to him, it seemed outrageous that his only financial guarantee was $12,000.
"I was like, 'I need to be getting paid more money if I'm going to be fighting these freaking killers,'" he said. "For this money, I'd rather fight tomato cans and build my name up off of them and go from there."
It's a candid admission and one rarely heard from fighters who are concerned about either public perception or UFC pushback. But Sterling feels he deserves the right to simply state his feelings and his case for an improved deal.
According to Sterling, when his four-fight contract was nearing its end, the UFC offered him a raise to $20,000/$20,000. He declined the offer, instead choosing to fight out the last bout on his deal at his contracted rate of $14,000/$14,000. Soon after, he was matched with Johnny Eduardo, another top-10 opponent, who came into the bout with over 30 pro fights. Sterling finished him, too, with a guillotine choke.
For finishing two top-10 opponents in 2015 and breaking into the top five of his division, Sterling told Bleacher Report he made a total of $63,500 in 2015. (For context, that number is the average salary for claims adjusters, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics.) According to Sterling, that number includes purses, win bonuses, discretionary bonuses and sponsorship money. That total is his gross pay, and from it he must pay trainer expenses, manager expenses and taxes, as well as things like physical therapy and massages that are frequently necessary for athletes to maintain their bodies.
While MMA is still relatively new in the sports landscape, the promotion publicly disclosed that it expected to generate a record $600 million in revenue in 2015. By comparison, Major League Soccer, which was founded in December 1993, just one month after the UFC, generated $461 million of revenue in 2014, according to Forbes, and had an average salary of $310,000.
After Sterling rejected the UFC's first offer and beat Eduardo, company president Dana White was asked in the post-fight press conference whether the performance would merit an increase from the promotion's original offer. He answered, "I like the kid. I like the kid a lot. We'll see."
Sterling told Bleacher Report that they briefly spoke afterward, and that White told Sterling to text him, but Sterling said he never received a response, though he chalked up that missed connection to the holidays.
Sterling said the promotion did make him another offer after his win, moving upward to $24,000/$24,000. There was a time that might have been enough to get him to ink the deal, but then he saw the disclosed salaries for the Dec. 10 UFC event he fought on.
That changed everything. Sage Northcutt, 19 years old and only seven fights into his pro career, was making $40,000/$40,000. Upon receiving that information, that number became Sterling's new benchmark.
"It's not a knock on Sage, I want to make that clear," Sterling said. "He's doing everything right. I met him. He's the nicest guy in the world, a gentleman, but when I compare the things I've done to what he's done, I have to ask myself, 'What the F is the difference?' I feel like he has his market he appeals to from a demographic standpoint, and I feel I have a market I can appeal to from a demographic standpoint.
"Before he came to the UFC, he only had a couple hundred [social media] followers. I feel like the difference has been the PR hype machine. When you promote a guy before he actually gets here as a phenom and a future champ, that's cool and all, but don't try to make it sound like he came in with the hype and that's why he deserves what he's getting paid because it's not so. I'm not an idiot. I see these things, I understand these things, and that's where I get my judgment and my baseline from."
Sterling said he has done the best he can to promote himself through social media and in courting media interviews, but he noted his reach was always going to be a limiting factor in growing his profile. It must also be noted that in his last fight, the company buried Sterling on the prelims rather than featuring him on the main card with the other young prospects the UFC was featuring together.
He was on an island then, as he remains now. His future remains uncertain. For a time, a few months ago, he considered retirement to accept a teaching job rather than continuing to risk his health for a check he considered subpar. He doesn't want to revisit that possibility.
Young, undefeated and world-ranked, it should be an improbability. He has the fire and drive to prove he's the best bantamweight in the world, and now he just needs the right opportunity, and with it, the right price.
"I think I'm one of the top guns coming up," Sterling said. "I think I bring a different flavor to the game, both inside and outside the Octagon. I think it would be a huge loss to the UFC. I think it would be unfortunate if they chose not to renegotiate. I hope they realize we can make a ton of money together. We'll see what happens, but I'm going to keep doing what I'm doing."
All quotes obtained firsthand unless otherwise noted.