'I Am Not a Paper Champion': Aljamain Sterling Has Plenty to Prove at UFC 273

Scott Harris@ScottHarrisMMAMMA Lead WriterApril 8, 2022

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 06: Aljamain Sterling reacts after his victory by disqualification over Petr Yan of Russia due to an intentional foul in their UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 259 event at UFC APEX on March 06, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Jeff Bottari/Getty Images

What a long, strange 13 months it's been for Aljamain Sterling

Back in March 2021, Sterling (20-3) won the UFC bantamweight title by disqualification when Petr Yan (16-2) clocked him with an illegal knee. It happened as Yan was taking full control of the fight. After a back-and-forth beginning that saw Sterling ahead on one judge's scorecard and close on the other two, Yan began to decipher Sterling's timing.

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#UFC259 Official Scorecard: Petr Yan vs Aljamain Sterling (@FunkMasterMMA) All Tonight's Scorecards: https://t.co/35sJ4plHsG https://t.co/CXTbMvmWsM

According to UFC Stats, Sterling, an accomplished college wrestler, landed just one of 17 takedown attempts in the bout, and none after the first round. As Sterling began to flag, Yan came on and looked to be in position to win the title going away.

In other words, the fight was Yan's to lose. And that's exactly what happened.

After the DQ, Sterling became the new champ—and absorbed all the predictable online vitriol you might expect from that outcome, namely that he wasn't really the champ. Then he opted to undergo neck surgery to fix a long-standing disk issue, which further fanned the flames for those who claimed Sterling wasn't particularly enthusiastic about a rematch with Yan.

But Sterling is fully healed and ready to put it all on the line against Yan on Saturday at UFC 273. After waging a protracted psychic battle with many corners of the MMA internet—not to mention with Yan himself—Sterling says he's ready to take the asterisk off his championship.

He recently spoke to Bleacher Report about the fight, the criticism and his mindset heading into Jacksonville, Florida.


B/R: How's the neck, and how does it feel to be so close to competing again?

Sterling: It feels great to be back, man. I love competing. I've been doing it since 10th grade with the sport of wrestling. All those years I trained and competed week after week, even in the offseason, when there were still tournaments I could compete in.

So being out for longer than a year has been pretty frustrating. But now that I'm back, I feel like I haven't missed a step.


B/R: I'm a bit of a medical nerd, so I looked up the artificial disk replacement procedure that you had. It looks like a pretty involved procedure. You didn't get this done as a response to a single injury but rather for a chronic problem. What were the procedure and recovery like?

Sterling: The procedure was pretty freaky. I'm not gonna lie. I asked if I could record it so I could watch it later, because I'm into that stuff too, but it didn't work out. But I did see some images of my neck being open and the surgeon inserting the artificial disk. I was back doing soft physical therapy like two weeks in. Then I was back to bag work in like a month; I don't think I was supposed to do that, but I'm a little crazy, so.

So it was a fairly fast recovery to get back to the sport, but playing at a high level with muscle endurance, that was the part that seemed to take the longest to get back.


B/R: Let's shift gears to the fight. You've said over and over that no one wants to win the belt the way you did. Does that reality make it even more important for you to beat Yan and just show out in this rematch? 

Sterling: If I'm being 100 percent transparent and honest, based on a merit system, and based on my body of work, Cory Sandhagen and I were the ones that should have been fighting for that vacant title.

Petr Yan hits Sterling
Petr Yan hits SterlingHandout/Getty Images

Anyone with a brain can see that [Yan] wasn't worthy of a shot at the title. I'm not saying his skill sets weren't good, but based on what we'd accomplished, we should've been fighting for it.

But I've held the belt this entire time, and Yan is my first defense. People can call me a paper champ all they want. I am not a paper champion. That's what I want to show people on April 9. 

It's just funny how people change their tunes after one performance. And I can tell you that performance won't happen again. It was a learning experience. He shot himself in the foot when he didn't get me out of there when he had a compromised Aljamain Sterling on the mat. He's never going to get that opportunity again.

Sterling after being stuck by the illegal knee
Sterling after being stuck by the illegal kneeChris Unger/Getty Images

I can't wait to make this guy eat his words and stick it to the fans who jumped off the bandwagon and the fake ones who pretended to be fans until something goes a little south.


B/R: At a glance, it seems personal with you and Yan, but I can never really tell for sure. Do you really not like him or is it just to sell pay-per-views?

Sterling: [Laughs] Honestly, I really don't know. I can see him as a guy I would talk s--t to on a regular basis and still be able to have a beer with him. Or maybe the guy in the group you don't like, but you tolerate him? I don't know.

I think we're very similar in our personalities. We both talk s--t in the lead-up to our fights. He's a little bit more dry with his talk, but we both like to do it. At the end of the day, he's trying to stake his claim as the best guy in the division, and I'm trying to do the same.

I also think he's a little bit of a dirty fighter, if I'm being 100 percent honest. And that's where my only real gripe comes from. I really think he thought he was going to get a slap on the wrist [for the illegal knee], and I did too.

I just can't wait to punch this guy in the face. He deserves it, and I'm the guy to do it.