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Aljamain Sterling

Steve Marcus

Featherweight fighter Aljamain Sterling poses at UFC Apex Tuesday, April 9, 2024 in Las Vegas. Sterling is scheduled to face Calvin Kattar at UFC 300 at T-Mobile Arena on Saturday.

Aljamain Sterling will fight in front of local fans tonight for the first time since he relocated his home and training base to Las Vegas in the summer of 2020.  

Typically, even for a tourist-heavy blockbuster card like UFC 300, local fighters receive a bump from the crowd when they walk out and get the customary introduction from octagon announcer Bruce Buffer.  

Sterling (23-4 MMA, 15-4 UFC) just isn’t banking on getting the positive reaction as he enters for his featherweight debut against Calvin Kattar (23-7 MMA, 7-5 UFC) as part of the ESPN preliminary card.

“I don’t know what it’s going to be, but I’m fascinated to see,” Sterling said Tuesday at the UFC Apex facility. “I don’t know what the over/under is, whether I get booed or cheered. Either way, it’s going to be cool.”

Boos have mostly greeted the former UFC bantamweight champion ahead of his recent fights, even though the 34-year-old has accomplished enough in mixed martial arts to be revered.

The UFC has marketed tonight’s pay-per-view card as boasting an unprecedented amount of talent and achievements across its 13 total fights. But few if any of the 25 other fighters on the card have built a legacy as secure as Sterling’s.

Twelve current or former champions will compete on the landmark event, and Sterling is the only one who defended his title three consecutive times without a loss. Former featherweight champion Max Holloway — who challenges Justin Gaethje in the “BMF” title fight — also notched three defenses but a loss to Dustin Poirier in a momentary move up to lightweight was also in the middle of the streak.    

And yet Holloway gets the kind of near-unanimous love from MMA fans that has so far eluded Sterling.

“Feeling one way or the other is good,” Sterling said of how fans perceive him. “If they don’t feel anything, that’s not good. I take it all in stride.”

The Long Island, N.Y. native’s unlikely emergence as a villain really took off when he won the 135-pound division’s title in his first fight as a Las Vegas resident. Sterling was losing the matchup with incumbent champion Petr Yan before the latter was disqualified in the third round for throwing an illegal knee. 

Fans accused the clearly dazed Sterling of quitting, but he refused to apologize for the unorthodox path to victory and touted himself as the better fighter. Sterling proved as much a year later by winning a rematch with Yan, though the fight was close and some considered his split-decision nod controversial.   

The level of vitriol Sterling accumulated over the years might have been best on display when he came out for his last fight. The negative response was deafening as he walked out for the UFC 292 main event last August at TD Garden in Boston, contrasting starkly with the hero’s welcome afforded to his opponent, Sean O’Malley.

The frenzy reignited when O’Malley, whom many consider to be the UFC’s biggest young star, took the title off Sterling via second-round knockout.

“When you sit down one-on-one with Aljamain, he’s a great guy, great kid, very likeable,” UFC President Dana White said in a news conference shortly after the O’Malley loss. “Decisions he makes in public, things that he says in public do not make him the most popular guy on the roster. And it’s the weirdest thing. I don’t know if it’s self-sabotage or what it is. He always seems to say the wrong things in times when, if he said even remotely close to the right things, people would love him…He just can’t help himself.”

Sterling doesn’t seem to have rubbed as many people the wrong way heading into his bout with Kattar, though he still refuses to rein in his confidence. He’s talked about his desire to “skip the line” and jump directly into a title shot against undefeated featherweight champion Ilia Topuria if he defeats Kattar.

Holloway, for what it’s worth, feels like he should be entitled to the same privilege after UFC 300. It could set up for fascinating jockeying between the two former champions if they both win tonight.

“I would love to win another belt and be one of the few short-listed names of people who have been able to do that,” Sterling said. “I think I have all the skills in the world to do that. I’ve just got to go out there and do what I do in the room and good things will happen.”

Only six UFC 300 fighters, including Holloway, have spent more time in the organization than Sterling, who debuted 10 years ago at Mandalay Bay Events Center on the undercard of UFC 170.   

“I didn’t know what to expect,” Sterling reminisced. “I always said I wanted to be a UFC champion and I could become a UFC champion. Whether or not I actually believed it back then, I have no idea. Maybe I actually did and I was a crazy kid. It’s that invincibility we all feel like we have when we’re young and dumb. And then you go through the growing pains in the sport and life in general, but to see where everything has fallen into place and where I’m at now, it’s surreal.”

Not even in his wildest aspirations did Sterling think about being a two-division champion back then. The 5-foot-7 former collegiate wrestler at Morrisville State College in New York always thought he was too small to fight at any higher than 135 pounds.

But the weight cuts became more difficult over the years, and tests taken at the local UFC Performance Institute convinced him the 145-pound division was a more natural home at this stage of his career. The promotion’s cutting-edge equipment measured Sterling’s “fat-free body mass” at 147.5 pounds — higher than most fighters in the featherweight division.   

Sterling primarily trains out of the Syndicate MMA gym on South Rainbow Blvd. nowadays but frequents the Performance Institute to make use of all the space’s amenities available to fighters.

The advantage he felt it could add to his career was one factor in making the move from New York to Las Vegas.

“It’s been huge, the opportunities to get the resources I need,” Sterling said. “I was never able to get the proper (physical therapy) I needed when I was back home. It was like a lot of mom-and-pop physical therapists I would go see and I was like, ‘This is not what I need to be doing as professional athlete. At this point, I might as well not even go.’ Being here has been a huge increase in my lifestyle and helped my body.”

Sterling is still ingrained in the New York mixed martial arts community too and often has longtime Empire State teammates and coaches like former middleweight champion Chris Weidman and former welterweight champion Matt Serra, respectively, in his corner. He’s hoping long-time training partner and close friend Merab Dvalishvili, who’s won 10 fights in a row, exacts revenge on his rival O’Malley and becomes the bantamweight champion by the end of the year.

White criticized Sterling and Dvalishvili for their refusal to consider fighting each other for years while they were in the same division. It might have been another factor in why fans never fully embraced Sterling to the level of other long-time champions.

But it doesn’t matter anymore with the two fighting at different weights. Dvalishvilli and most of the fighters on the UFC 300 card are seeking something Sterling has already claimed — their place in history.

UFC 300 is in many ways a celebration of the promotion’s latest generation of championship fighters. Whether he goes on to win another belt or not, Sterling has a prominent place in the fraternity.      

“It’s cool to be a part of this,” Sterling said. “It’s more for the legacy — going out there, big card and getting a big win at a new weight class… I’ve got a lot of gratitude and appreciation for everything I’ve been able to accomplish. I don’t take it lightly — 10 years in the game, I can see that door eventually starting to shut but I’m trying to keep it open. At 24, you feel like you have an entire lifetime in the sport. Now at 34, I don’t know how much longer I will realistically have in this sport depending on the types of fights I get in but I’m just appreciating the journey and everything it’s been able to offer me.”

Case Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or [email protected]. Follow Case on Twitter at Keefer can be reached at 702-948-2790 or

Article written by #LasVegasSun