Aljamain Sterling was in Hawaii, asleep, when he heard that his division had been turned on its head.
The 29-year-old bantamweight contender was on a training excursion, keeping himself prepared and in shape as if he had a fight already booked. He doesn’t, but that could change soon given the news that broke earlier this week concerning 135-pound champion T.J. Dillashaw. Dillashaw announced that the USADA discovered an “adverse finding” in one of his recent drug tests and that he was immediately vacating his title.
Ready to step into the cage as soon as he’s needed, Sterling had hoped that when the time comes to schedule a matchup for a vacant title, he’d be one of the names in the mix. The “Funk Master” is currently No. 3 in the UFC’s official rankings on the strength of three straight wins and five in his last seven. However, fellow top-5 contender Pedro Munhoz has also been lobbying for a spot and he recently told MMA Fighting that he thinks Sterling’s style isn’t as exciting as that of himself or No. 1-ranked Marlon Moraes.
As it turns out, Sterling and Munhoz are the odd men out as the UFC announced Wednesday that Moraes will be taking on UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo for the right to become the next bantamweight king. That only increases the likelihood that Sterling and Munhoz will be paired up, possibly to decide a No. 1 contender, and Sterling recently told MMA Fighting that he isn’t taking Munhoz’s comments lying down.
“If that matchup were to happen, I love my chances against Pedro,” Sterling said. “I saw him do an interview with some MMA website, talking about my style is not friendly for the fans, the fans want blood, he thinks I’m just going to try to out-wrestle or out-grapple him or whoever else I fight.
“My response to that is, hey dummy, did you watch my last fight with Jimmie Rivera, the guy that you fought? Did you see me get any takedowns? Did you see me needing a takedown? Or was I not picking that guy apart on the feet? In my opinion, you’re afraid. I guess I might be the new Ben Askren of the 135-pound division.”
Sterling gave Munhoz credit for the success he’s had after a shaky start to his UFC career (the two actually both debuted at UFC 170 back in February 2014 with Sterling defeating Cody Gibson and Munhoz dropping a decision to Raphael Assuncao), but also wanted to put Munhoz’s achievements in perspective. In regards to Munhoz’s recent first-round KO of former champion Cody Garbrandt, Sterling questioned how much a win over “No Love” meant given that he was coming off of back-to-back losses to Dillashaw.
“You (Munhoz) had two great finishes in Bryan Caraway and Cody Garbrandt, I give you that,” Sterling said. “But I smacked the crap out of Caraway in the first round — that was more of a cardio issue and doing too many workouts in the day of my fight, but that’s neither here nor there, that was in 2016, what are we doing? — he also fought Jimmie Rivera and that was a split decision, and I smacked (Rivera) up.”
Asked if he believes that the UFC bantamweight landscape could finally settle into a groove by the end of the year with the top contenders getting their fair shake, Sterling was optimistic. He decried fighters chasing superfights — as Dillashaw did when he attempted to dethrone Cejudo — and stated that his own motivation is simply to “become a UFC champ” and “make a shit-ton of money.”
And it would be a lot easier for Sterling to reach those goals if the UFC matchmakers took a look at the rankings and worked from there, which is one thing he and Munhoz do agree on.
“We’re all fighting for a reason,” Sterling said. “We’re not fighting to just fight. There’s got to be some type of reward at the end of the rainbow and that reward is a big, shiny, UFC gold belt. That changes every fighter’s life dramatically for the better. If we’re just going to have contenders fighting just to fight, that doesn’t make a whole lot of sense. Then I might as well just start jumping around divisions too because there’s a lot of fun fights for myself in other divisions that I think I would love to entertain.
“I just hope the UFC does the right thing and actually makes the rankings great again.”