In a perfect world, Aljamain Sterling would be days away from defending his UFC bantamweight title for the first time. Instead, he’s still rehabbing and recovering from major neck surgery.
It’s been a rollercoaster year for the 32-year-old New York native, who claimed gold when his opponent Petr Yan was disqualified for an illegal knee strike that ended their fight at UFC 259. Around a month later, Sterling underwent surgery to repair nerve damage in his neck that has caused him severe pain for several years in a procedure he admits probably should have happened much sooner.
The downside has been the recovery time required to bounce back, which prevented him from facing Yan in a rematch at UFC 267 this weekend. But even that won’t make him regret the decision to have the surgery that has altered his life so dramatically.
“I couldn’t be happier with the decision I made,” Sterling said while co-hosting The Fighter vs. The Writer podcast. “To wake up, sleep, stand, and walk and not have constant radiating pain down my neck, it’s life-changing. The quality of life is so much higher. I can’t believe I didn’t do this sooner, if I’m being honest.”
While a six-month turnaround from major neck surgery always seemed like a stretch, Sterling still did his best to push through a rigorous training camp in order to face Yan on Oct. 27. Eventually, he had to face facts that more time was required to recover, and that’s what ultimately forced him to drop out of the fight at UFC 267.
“Just to clarify — I know a lot of people thought I was injured,” Sterling said. “I’m not injured. I don’t know how many times that I can say those exact words. I’m not injured. I had a major neck surgery that just needed more time for the neurological stuff to get to where it’s supposed to be. It didn’t happen fast enough in six months. Obviously, it makes sense. It’s a big procedure. It’s something that I was dealing with for such a long time that once I finally got the problem taken care of, you need time to recover and time to heal. Like relearning for the nerves, to reconnect to all the muscles and do what they’re supposed to do so that they start firing.
“That’s what people don’t understand. It’s a neurological thing, not a physical thing. I look good. In terms of the pictures, you’d think that version of me would be ready to fight, but I just wasn’t ready. Thankfully, I’m feeling so much better now, and I’m excited to watch this fight this weekend and get back out there to compete and see who I’m going to be competing against.”
With the reigning champion sidelined, the UFC opted to book an interim title fight between Yan and Cory Sandhagen on Saturday. The winner is expected to unify the belts with Sterling once he’s ready to compete again.
As it stands, Sterling fully expects to be ready in early 2022, and he anxiously awaits the opportunity to face Yan or Sandhagen to clear up any confusion about who is truly the best bantamweight in the UFC.
“I think January, February, March at the latest,” Sterling explained. “I really don’t want do anything later than that. I’m getting older and I want to capitalize on my youth. I would love to try to get three title fights in a year. That means I would have to win the next one and then try to three within a calendar year, which is a big feat, but I think if I can keep my body healthy, which now that I had this procedure taken care of, I can potentially do that.
“Cause when I was younger, I never really got injured. I get these injuries throughout my career as a fighter, and I just kind of prolonged them, just kind of ignored them, not doing the right thing and making sure they’re taken care of before I get to the fight. I just kind of tough it out. That’s the wrestler’s mentality. Eventually you run your body into the ground. So I’m doing the right things now so that I can keep the longevity and continue to compete for as long as I can and at the best optimal level I can.”
Sterling is also quick to dispel any rumors that he’ll never be able to fight again, because while neck surgery is certainly serious, he’s not the first UFC fighter to undergo the same procedure.
“I think people know about this already — Alan Jouban’s one of those guys,” he said. “He had a major neck surgery, older than I am and he took to it very, very well. He competed a couple times with that procedure afterward. It just takes time. [Chris] Weidman’s had the same procedure.”
While he’s grown even thicker skin to deal with an absurd amount of criticism over the time needed to recover from his surgery, Sterling anxiously awaits the opportunity to prove he’s still the real UFC bantamweight champion.
“I’m in a good spot,” Sterling explained. “I do believe that I’ve made some serious gains. I just need more time. It’s not like Petr Yan, who pulled out of the [previous] fight for undisclosed reasons.
“It’s not cause he didn’t have his visa. The guy had his visa. It’s not cause he had COVID cause he didn’t have COVID. It’s not because of an injury, because I saw him working out and I messaged him on Instagram and he told me he really wants to fight with me — ‘Aljo, I really want to fight with you but not now, we have to fight later.’ OK, but why? But why are you pulling out of the fight? It’s different circumstances.”