Aljamain Sterling is ready to make a leap in the UFC’s bantamweight division. | Keith Mills/Sherdog.com
You might know Aljamain Sterling as a rising star in the bantamweight division who faces the most significant test of his career against Takeya Mizugaki at UFC on Fox 15.
You probably weren’t aware, however, that the 25-year-old New Yorker does a pretty mean Matt Serra impression, or that he is capable of incorporating words like “funk-taculous” into his everyday vernacular.
No, the talented “Funk Master” isn’t a household name just yet, but it might not be too long before Sterling makes a giant leap into the mainstream MMA consciousness. If he can get past Mizugaki -- a notoriously tough gatekeeper -- at the Prudential Center in Newark, N.J., on Saturday night, the next stop could be the division’s upper echelon.
“I think my skill set is there,” Sterling said during an appearance on the Sherdog Radio Network’s “Beatdown” show. “I’ve shown time and time again I can hang with these guys. I train with high level guys that go out there and bang. I’m going with killers. I think that right there gives you the confidence to know you’re ready.
“On paper, I definitely think I can compete with those [top-ranked] guys for sure. I think I match up with anyone.”
While the Serra impersonations are all in good fun, the former Cage Fury Fighting Championships titlist credits much of his development to training under the guidance of the former UFC welterweight champ as well as striking guru Ray Longo.
“I think that’s the difference with me being down here training. Before, I was doing these things without me having an idea of what I’m doing...I know what I’m doing now,” Sterling said. “I’m setting it up and I can flow what I’m trying to look for; I know what [my opponent] is going to do now. That’s what helped me grow as a fighter: these guys being in my corner showing me different things and making it make sense with my style. Now I know what I want to throw, and I know why I’m throwing it.”
It also doesn’t hurt that the Serra-Longo combo is one of the most audible corners in the sport today.
“They’re so loud that you can hear everything that they’re saying,” Sterling admitted. “It definitely works out to our advantage, I think. It’s definitely helped me out a lot. Sometimes you don’t see things that they see.”
Although he owns a 10-0 professional record, including triumphs over Cody Gibson and Hugo Viana in the Octagon, Sterling’s ascent has not been as quick as he might have liked. A lingering hand injury forced him out of a proposed clash with Mitch Gagnon in October, while a November date with Frankie Saenz was eventually canceled.
As a result, Sterling’s showdown with Mizugaki will be his first appearance since last July. Even nine months of inactivity is a far cry from when the bantamweight began his professional career in 2011 with five fights in a six-month span.
“That’s kind of the way I like to do it,” Sterling said. “I like to go after it. Obviously you get a little bit older; you get a little bit smarter. Your body doesn’t recover the same, and sometimes you don’t recover the way you used to. I think that’s what started to play out in my career.”
In a perfect world, Sterling would have built momentum for his matchup with Mizugaki by earning another victory or two along the way. Since various circumstances didn’t allow that to happen, Sterling will have to reintroduce himself to the masses.
“It’s a high profile fight. The only thing I think could have been a little bit better was maybe me having one or two more fights to kind of build the hype around that fight,” he said. “I think stylistically I match up well with him, and it’s gonna be a great fight. He’s a former title contender. He’s tough; he’s been around the block. He’s fought a who’s who of the bantamweight division.
“I’m ready to make my claim to this division and show people who I am and what I bring to the table.”