UFC bantamweight contender Aljamain Sterling will get his first chance to become a UFC champion on March 6 when he takes on current bantamweight king Petr Yan at UFC 259.
The Uniondale, New York native has overcome a lot on his way to reach the pinnacle of the mixed martial arts world, dealing with setbacks and struggles but never losing sight of the proverbial light at the end of the tunnel. Sterling entered his promotional run 4-0 and was praised as the next big thing at 135-pounds, but then dropped a split-decision to rival Bryan Caraway at UFC Fight Night 88. He'd look to regain some of the momentum he started out with, but would once again lose yet another close split-decision to Raphael Assuncao at UFC on Fox 23. Sterling would bounce back though beating former champion Renan Barao and Augusto Mendes by unanimous decisions, but a first-round knockout loss to Marlon Moraes at UFC Fight Night 123 would derail any championship hopes at the time for the fighter that goes by "Funk Master."
Sterling was no longer MMA's shining bright champion to be, or so everyone thought at least and they would be wildly wrong. This is a brutal sport where the fans and media alike are as fickle as they come, doubting a then only 28-year old Sterling who was 2-3 in his last five fights seemed like clockwork. But the knockout loss to Moraes would be the launching point of a five-fight winning streak for Sterling, topped off by a first-round submission win over another anointed next big thing in Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250. The victory over Sandhagen would earn Sterling the title shot with Yan, become a full circle moment in his career, and true symbolization of him finally finding his funk so to say.
The fight with Yan is a fantastic one for several reasons and genuinely is a fight capable of being one of the greatest title fights in the UFC bantamweight division's history. The X's and O's of the matchup are thrilling for an MMA geek such as myself, a big part due to Sterling's growth with being assured of his skillset and being confident within his ability to implement it on any opponent. However, there is no takedown, choke or strike I've ever seen Aljamain Sterling execute that is more impressive than what he overcame long before fighting for a UFC world title was even a thought in his mind.
Back on December 28, 2020, the UFC posted a video to their Youtube channel entitled Aljamain Sterling: Not Broken, a nearly 15-minute piece directed by Rory Karpf and produced by Corey Frost that details Sterling's upbringing. I'm not going to lie, I don't frequently watch the UFC's content on their YouTube channel, and when initially clicking on the video I expected the typical stuff you see from the promotion's content. From the opening scene though of a distraught Sterling, I knew this was something different and probably worth my attention, but what I would watch over the next 15 minutes would hit me like a Mirko Cro Cop head kick and resonate with me in one of the most profound ways I've ever experienced.
In the piece you see Sterling discuss his childhood, growing up as one of nearly 15 siblings to Jamaican parents, helping his mother Sophia around the house, and becoming a fatherly figure to his younger siblings at an early age. The next part of the video begins with Sterling courageously opening up about his father, he'd go into detail about the abuse his family would face and describe how his dad made them feel.
"He made us feel small, weak, stupid, useless," he said.
He would continue on to recount an incident involving his father committing a disturbing act of domestic violence towards his mother. As Sterling would replay through the trauma of the event, I could see the memories flashing before his eyes like a horror film as he stared into space, reliving the moment in the present.
"I forget about that stuff ya know?" Sterling would say fighting back tears. "I don't really look back at my past a lot ya know, So...I wasn't there for her to help her in physical situations that she needed help cause I just wasn't strong enough for that."
I could feel the burden Sterling was carrying as if it were my own because it's an experience I've been through as well and one I also carry. As he cried, I broke down in tears myself, pausing the video, overwhelmed with a sense of sadness but also understanding. I had never expected a random UFC video, that I never planned on watching, to connect with me as if the universe needed me to see it. I'm not from a huge family, nor do I know the first thing about being a minority in this country, so in many ways mine and Sterling's backgrounds are vastly different, but where they intertwine is very deeply rooted.
I'm an only child to a lower-middle-class family from the outskirts of Denver, Colorado, my mom and dad were hard-working people but things at home were rarely joyous. My father was often bitter at the world and like many chose alcohol as a way to escape, but instead of relieving his stresses of life it only enhanced his anger, with my mother and me becoming the punching bags for the release of it. Drinking became his identity and incidents like the ones Sterling described of domestic violence, were eerily similar to the ones my mother and I would face over the course of nearly 20 years before my parents would eventually divorce in 2012. I remember a specific night when I was 14-years old, listening to my dad in the room next to mine fight with mom as if a bull were in a china shop. Well just like Sterling, I could hear my mom yelling for me for help and I tried that night, but my attempt was met with a threat from my dad about knocking my teeth down my throat that froze in my tracks like a gazelle seeing a lion for the first time.
So the helplessness Sterling describes feeling, the blame he carries with him is one I share in the familiarity with on a very deep level. The shared experience we have is unlike anything I've had with a fighter before, we often tend to put fighters on pedestals or deconstruct them to the point of forgetting that they're more like us than we realize and human beings at the end of the day. But where someone like Sterling and someone like me vastly differ, is Sterling didn't let the darkness of his past define him.
At Uniondale High School Sterling's origins of gaining what would become his famous funk began, he'd find wrestling and ultimately himself. His father would put down the newfound passion of Sterling's, trying to get him to avoid going to matches, continuing to make him feel weak, and even questioning his sexuality. But the doubt would only create the self-drive that would propel him to an eventual UFC world title shot one day, using the training room as an escape from the negative encouragement of his dad.
"Having that, I think it helped chip away at that shell making me just, a little bit more confident in myself and what I was able to do as a person. That was what I needed."
Aljamain wouldn't let his past be the definition of his life or what it would become, his dad's physical and emotional abuse became the chip on Sterling's shoulder, the fuel to his fire that ultimately would bridge ambition with unrelenting mental fortitude. In life, the beat of the universe doesn't always go the way we want or plan, so you got to find your own groove, your own rhythm or funk, and as they say, sometimes go to the beat of your own drum. Now at 31-years old, Sterling has become a true funk master, not only professionally but personally as well. He didn't get broken by his past, but rather utilized it as a tool to make the narrative of his story the one he desires.
I haven't been as strong or courageous as Aljamain in my battle with not letting the abuse my mother or myself faced from dad define who I've become and where my life has gone. It sometimes bleeds into my life even without me consciously realizing it, it's also created a chip on my shoulder but one that always isn't beneficial. I alienate people constantly and battle the massive demons so many of us do with daily anxiety and depression visiting me like an unwanted relative during the Holidays. At 28-years old I've still struggled to find my own funk, I let my dad make me believe I'm worthless, weak, and stupid. Which made me bitter and angry towards the world, so it's become easy to look for something to blame and for me to play the victim while looking for anything or anyone to direct my anger at.
Self-doubt and self-loathing have become two of my best friends and I constantly worry about minuscule things like getting dunked on Twitter by someone for saying the wrong thing or whether an article idea will get the reaction I want, falling into the trap of gluttony that can be social media. I'm always second-guessing whatever abilities I have and often feel like just a waste of space. The confidence I do have is the size of an ant, letting those interactions and the abuse from my father and the past become an excuse for who I am or who I think I should be based on the things I went through. I've let the circumstances that life has chosen to give to me as a justification and vehicle to throw a pity party for where I've ended up and quite frankly used it as a driving force to be the definition of what a loser is at times.
It's the reason the video about Sterling struck home with me so much and why my respect for him is one I can't quite express within the words I've got at my disposal. The confidence to go through what he did, the abuse he overcame, the adversity and doubt he climbed over after the losses he suffered, to now being one win away from becoming a UFC world champion, it's something out of a movie. It's also the reason I had any sort of courage to write this and share some of my own story. His willingness to share and be so vulnerable inspired me to do the same, and reflect on the past in a way I haven't in a long time. Sterling's voice gave me the heart to have one of my own.
The way Sterling found wrestling, MMA, and ultimately himself is something I hope to obtain one day. Writing has become my outlet similar to how those things became one for him to help gain his identity and ultimately funk. While I don't have nearly the self-belief in my abilities as Sterling does in his, writing and continuing to explore where it can take me has become a remedy to ease the pain of the past. I haven't found my groove yet and I'm not sure when I will, but Aljamain Sterling has helped me try to tune into my individual funk and create the life I want for myself and become a funk master of my own. He's proven to me that being broken, doesn't mean your unfixable. I also hope his story can be an example for anyone out there struggling to find who they are or who just can't seem to shake the trauma of whatever might've happened in their past, to find your own rhythm and funk within yourself. You don't have to be defined by the people or things that once may have hurt you.
Whether he wins or loses on March 6, Sterling and his story have shown that anyone can win in life, regardless of the cards you've been dealt and even if you're still losing the battle against yourself currently. Undoubtedly he will do everything he can to take home the UFC title from Petr Yan when the Octagon door closes at UFC 259, but as he said Sterling has already won the biggest fight of all in finding himself.
"Belt, no belt...I feel I'm a winner"