It's quite possible Aljamain Sterling is the threat none of the top fighters in the UFC bantamweight see coming at the current time. And that's just fine with him.
In fact, it was one of his fellow members of Team Serra-Longo who traveled a similar trajectory until he shocked the world by dethroning the man widely regarded as the greatest mixed martial artist of all time. And while The Funk Master isn't ready to put himself in the same lane as current middleweight champion Chris Weidman, the 25-year-old prospect knows exactly what it looks like to be an undefeated rising talent that hasn't gotten his full due.
"My current situation is almost reminiscent of Chris Weidman's scenario," Sterling said in an exclusive interview. "He was that undefeated guy coming in and no one really knew who he was yet, but it was clear the guy was very good and talented. But people weren't sold on him getting the title shot against Anderson Silva, then a whole bunch of injuries kind of played to his favor. He ended up being the guy to get the shot and he ended up being the guy who shocked the world despite being a crazy underdog to the fighter people considered the greatest of all time in Silva.
"I think I have a similar storyline. I'm traveling the same path, and if the opportunity presents itself and makes sense, I'm going to jump all over it. I'm going to jump on the opportunity and ride this thing out. You never know what is going to happen in this game. Injuries pop up and other things keep you on the sidelines and you have to take what opportunities you can. If that opportunity becomes available for me like it was for Weidman...I'll take it."
While it's unclear whether or not Sterling currently exists on the radar for a shot at the 135-pound crown, what is crystal clear at the moment is Long Island native's arrival in the top-10 rankings of the bantamweight fold. Sterling made the jump from an up-and-coming talent to watch to the latest addition in the divisional upper tier by putting away veteran stalwart Takeya Mizugaki at UFC on Fox 15 back in April.
The young upstart returned from a nine-month layoff to face the hard-nosed Mizugaki and was able to control the action until he finished the fight with a highlight-reel arm-triangle choke from bottom position. It is a submission rarely seen at the highest level of MMA, but Sterling made it appear as if it was just another Saturday night at the office when he choked out Mizugaki at the Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
The victory—and the fashion in which he earned it—was precisely the statement he wanted to make to a division he fully intends to take over.
"I told everybody it was going to be the return of the funk and I wasn't sure if they believed me or not," Sterling laughed. "Getting that win felt great. It felt good to get back in there, mix it up and cement my name up there in the top 10 of the bantamweight division. It let everyone know I'm here and I'm for real, and I think my performance showed how versatile I am.
"I'm a hard guy to hit and take down, and once I get you on the ground I'm going to choke you out. Even if you resist a few of the other attempts I'm going to get you one way or the other. I'm like the Boogeyman...I'm gonna get you.
"Coach Serra was very happy because he knew we were going to get the submission win," he added. "We knew we could finish the fight standing up or on the ground. It was a matter of what Mizugaki gave us. He gave us the takedown and left his neck out there for me. I was able to wrap him up, but I wasn't able to get the mount. That was the thing I was really gunning for was the full mount. I wanted to beat him up from there then hopefully choke him out. I didn't get full mount but I still got to choke him out so I'm happy."
Even though Sterling suffered a muscle-related injury in his tilt with Mizugaki, he's already eyeing the next step in his journey to the top. The former wrestling standout turned mixed martial artist isn't looking to waste anymore time waiting on the sidelines, and he's eager to keep everything he has working in his favor rolling in a smooth motion.
That said, he also understands the road toward his next challenge in the bantamweight division may depend on a few moving parts falling into place. The current state of the upper echelon of the divisional hierarchy is one riddled with injury and missing pieces that have kept the 135-pound collective at a standstill for the start of 2015. And while Sterling acknowledges how things look at the present time in his weight class, he also sees the opportunities that could come from a division in flux.
"It really just depends on the division," Sterling explained. "Right now things are pretty stagnant with all the injuries. You also have [Urijah] Faber booked up with Frankie Edgar. I think in a perfect world I have one more fight then I get to fight one of those top five guys. So I guess I'm saying two more fights and I'm fighting for a title. Right now though, I could actually see getting one more win then fighting for a title if none of the other guys are healthy because I'm not looking to sit out for a long time. I'm here and I have people talking about me. I think people are excited to see what I can do and I want to keep building my momentum.
"I don't want to be sitting around for another nine months before I fight again. I don't want to be dangling in the wind because it's out of sight, out of mind in this game. People can forget about you so quickly and that's not what I want. I want to keep people talking because at the end of the day that's what is going to get you paid. People have to want to care to watch you fight and you have to be relevant."
Sterling may be traveling a path many other mixed martial artists before him have ventured, but there are certainly elements to his professional profile that come as a breath of fresh air in combat sports. Despite being one of the newest faces on the sport's biggest stage, Sterling has continuously operated with the presentation and perspective of a seasoned veteran in the fight game.
In this he's quick to credit his teammates and coaches for the guidance they have provided, but there's more to the talented kid they call "Aljo" inside the walls of LAW MMA in his home city. Sterling is as charismatic outside of the cage as he is efficient when the bright lights are on. Furthermore, the native New Yorker has embraced what it means to operate in the public view and it's a charge he takes very seriously.
He's found comfort in attempting to set an example for others, and perhaps his rise in visibility couldn't come at a better time for the sport. With the recent news of light heavyweight phenom Jon Jones being stripped of his title over and suspended by the UFC indefinitely over legal issues, and a laundry list of PED (performance-enhancing drugs) policy violators coming to light over the past two years, Sterling is determined to prove great things can be achieved through hard work and perseverance.
While that combination may be the oldest formula in the book, the new-school talent has no issues with using an old-school method to carve out his place in MMA.
"I think it's huge to set a good example," Sterling said. "Whether you like it or not, as a professional athlete you are always going to be projected out into that spotlight of judgement. People are always going to judge every single thing we do and I think it's cool to just be real with yourself. At the same time, as long as you're being real with yourself, you have to be respectful to the youth. Even though they aren't your kids or people you may ever meet, people look up to you, and you have the chance to influence both kids and adults alike.
"You can have a great influence on people as a whole, and for you to look at it like you don't give a crap and you're doing you and don't care what anyone tells you; that's selfish. You are that person who has this God-given talent and the ability to do great things. You have the ability to achieve goals that so many other people wanted to but didn't have the talent to do it. I think it's great to give them something positive to look up to.
"You change the mind and world of one individual and that's huge, man," he added. "You reach one person and that starts a spiral effect and starts to snowball. I think that's the one thing as an athlete we should all focus on doing and that's striving to give back in a positive manner."
Duane Finley is a featured writer for Bleacher Report. All quotes are obtained firsthand unless noted otherwise.