Aljamain Sterling doesn’t remember too much about the moment he got blasted with an illegal knee by Petr Yan at UFC 259 other than a flash of white light and then the murmur of voices buzzing around his head afterwards.
This past Saturday night, Sterling became UFC bantamweight champion after he was unable to continue following the foul committed by Yan that referee Mark Smith deemed deliberate, which led to a disqualification and the belt changing hands.
For his part, Sterling remember most everything leading up to the moment when the knee landed but the impact and the aftermath are still fuzzy days later.
“I wanted to change the tempo and see if I could maybe trip him up and take him down and try to get the hooks in and try to win back the round, even though the fourth round was definitely going his way,” Sterling explained when speaking to MMA Fighting. “But I did have some moments in that round.
“When I was down there, this was like the third time we were in that position and this time, he decides to throw the knee. I was just really confused. I remember Mark [Smith] saying out loud and I’m pretty sure everyone heard it ‘he’s a downed opponent’ or ‘he’s down.’ I remember him saying the word ‘down’ and he blasted me like a couple seconds later.”
Sterling stayed on the mat for several minutes, asking for additional time to recover while purposefully refusing to stand up because he knew if he lost his balance and tumbled over, the fight would almost assuredly be stopped.
In the haze of the illegal blow, Smith talked to Sterling about his condition before sending in the ringside physician to look at him. Sterling was asked if he could continue and how he was feeling before Smith finally made the judgment call to stop the contest.
While Sterling commends Smith on a job well done throughout the fight with Yan, he admits putting the onus back on the athlete to make a decision about continuing or not in that moment is probably not the best idea in the world.
“I don’t think the fighter should have that responsibility because most of us, probably all of us are going to say ‘no, let me continue,’” Sterling said. “When a lot people they do wish they had a little bit, like a safety net to fall back on so they don’t have to look like they’re quitting.”
Because Yan was disqualified, Sterling was declared the champion but almost as soon as UFC president Dana White put the belt around his waist, he was reaching to take it off again.
Sterling then leaned on his coaches to help him out of the octagon while asking to do a post-fight interview despite the devastating shot he just absorbed. While he remembers calling for the interview, the New York native says now he doesn’t actually recall anything that was actually said.
“I remember asking for the interview because I just wanted to apologize to my friends and family that were here,” Sterling explained. “I don’t even remember the freaking interview at all. I have no recollection of that. It’s crazy. I remember going, sitting down, I apologized. I just remember apologizing. I don’t remember what Joe [Rogan] asked me. Not a thing.
“I think I was babbling. Honestly, I don’t know what was actually being said. I couldn’t remember the words that were actually used.”
It didn’t take long after the fight ended for Sterling to receive a huge swath of messages about his inability to continue and the disqualification that led to him becoming UFC champion.
While many people were supportive that Sterling did nothing wrong except eat an illegal shot from Yan, numerous others were quick to criticize him.
Notably, former referee turned Bellator color commentator “Big” John McCarthy took aim at Sterling on his podcast while suggesting that he exaggerated the effects of the illegal knee strike in order to escape with a win.
“You’re hearing things from John McCarthy, who by the way thinks he’s God’s gift sent to Earth, who thinks he’s never wrong,” Sterling said in response. “Thinks he’s the best referee. Thinks he’s never made a bad decision. The guy’s out of his mind. The stuff that guy says, absolutely ridiculous and the fact that he has such a big following and people listen to him as if it’s almost a cult, it’s so troubling and concerning.
“Cause the guy is a regular person. He makes mistakes and some of the stuff he says when you listen to him it’s like dude, how far up your own ass can one person actually be?”
Sterling also took exception to the reaction to some photos and videos that surfaced after the event was over that showed him with the UFC bantamweight title on his shoulder as he celebrated with friends.
“I just saw the one from Ariel Helwani and D.C. (Daniel Cormier) talking about I’m parading around and boasting a belt. One, show me one post on my social media where I’m boasting about winning anything or celebrating anything,” Sterling said. “I’m happy my friends came to my house, had about 30-plus people at my house. They were all excited to see me. I didn’t even see the belt because I left it in the octagon. Somehow it showed up at my house, they brought it over while I’m eating chicken, you can see I’m licking my fingers and they’re like ‘open it’ and I’m like I really don’t want to do this.
“Also, there’s about 30 cameras out so they’re all expecting this big reaction from me to be like ‘I’m the champ.’ Yeah they’re like ‘just celebrate it, you earned this, please bro, just enjoy the night, you worked so hard.’ I get all that but I don’t feel like a winner. They’re there, they want to take a picture with me holding the belt. I don’t feel like the champ but if you guys feel this is going to make you guys feel happy or whatever, just know that I’m not posting any of this, I’m not reposting any of this cause I don’t feel like I did anything.”
Sterling says the photos that were posted on social media from his friends and family all took place around a specific moment when he had the belt on his shoulder, took a sip of champagne to toast all of the people who came to Las Vegas to see him compete and then a few hours later he was head first vomiting in a toilet, likely from the after effects of a concussion suffered in the fight.
“I had a shtty performance, hopefully the next time’s the best one, I get another opportunity and I can validate the belt,” Sterling said when relaying what he told his friends after the fight. “I said I can validate this belt and actually be able to hold this up. I put the belt down, we did the toast, took my sip, put the belt down and then a couple hours later I end up throwing up in a bathroom. That’s my celebration, Ariel Helwani, Daniel Cormier and everybody else who thinks I’m parading around. Shut the f*k up. You have no idea what you’re talking about. Again, the fight will happen and this will get settled. It’s as simple as that.
“These guys, the all-powerful people are saying I’m painting a picture like I don’t want a rematch from Ariel Helwani. Ariel, shut the f**k up. You don’t even know what it’s like to be a freaking athlete. Shut up. Let alone a fighter. Talking about what I should and shouldn’t be doing. You’re telling me this doesn’t look good? Show me what I did that doesn’t look good. What did I do? What did I post that doesn’t look good? Me posting that I got hit with an illegal knee? Yeah, I think rightfully so anybody would be doing that.”
As far as the future goes, Sterling wants to take the necessary time to make sure he’s recovered from the shot he took from Yan before declaring any particular timeline to return.
He’s currently undergoing a concussion protocol with the staff at the UFC Performance Institute and Sterling says now three days removed from the fight, he’s still feeling a little “foggy” in his head.
Once he’s medically cleared to compete again, Sterling promises his first order of business will be to settle things with Yan in the octagon to determine who is the true UFC bantamweight champion.
“I would like to fight him again,” Sterling said. “I do think I have his number in terms of my stylistic matchup. I might not have been able to do what I wanted to with the takedowns, but there were a couple things that were preventing that. I felt like a shell of myself that day.
“Kudos to Yan, he showed up to fight, as did I. My performance and the shape that I came in, something was lacking that day. Hopefully we get to do it again and the best version of both of us gets to show up and we can give the fans the show that they deserve.”
When it comes to the bantamweight title that’s currently sitting at his house in Las Vegas, Sterling can’t bring himself to say he feels like a champion in any way, shape or form but the disqualification ultimately led to him claiming the title.
He promises the belt will stay right where it’s at until the day comes when he can rebook the fight with Yan and they can meet again.
“Do I feel like a champ? No,” Sterling said. “Do I feel I’ve been cheated? I feel I’ve been wrongfully assaulted in a fight against the rules and is that deemed or worthy enough to be deemed a disqualification? I think so but does that make feel like a winner? If I got beat pillar to post and I got handed something does that make me feel like a winner? Absolutely not. I didn’t do anything.
“But the fight was competitive. I was on the losing end coming into that fourth round. I was given the belt via technicalities and that doesn’t do it for me. That doesn’t make me feel like a world champ at all. That belt’s sitting there collecting dust until the day we actually get to fight and make things right. Then from there, we’ll see who really should be the No. 1 guy in this division.”