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It wasn’t Aljamain Sterling’s fault that Petr Yan committed one of the most blatant, flagrant fouls ever in a UFC championship match.
It wasn’t Sterling’s fault he got a concussion from a knee to the head when he was down and helpless.
And it wasn’t Sterling’s fault that the rules dictated he be declared the winner when he was unable to continue in a fight he was losing badly.
Nonetheless, MMA fans let him have it, and for the last year or so, they have let Sterling know how they’ve felt every time the UFC bantamweight champion has been shown on camera at an event.
He’s almost always serenaded with boos. He didn’t help it by showing off the belt, further drawing the ire of the crowd.
And though he had serious neck surgery, fans weren’t forgiving. He was only the fourth UFC fighter, following featherweight Tristan Connelly, ex-middleweight champ Chris Weidman and former welterweight Alan Jouban, to have the surgery. NHL star Jack Eichel of the Vegas Golden Knights had the surgery in November 2021 and didn’t return to play until mid-February.
Sterling, who will face Yan in a rematch for the title on Saturday in the co-main event of UFC 273 in Jacksonville, Florida, hasn’t let the negative attention bother him. He’s enjoyed playing the villain.
“It just makes me know that people do care and they actually are paying attention,” Sterling says of the boos. “At the end of the day, other people’s words on how I felt and what I was going through — you can't tell me what’s going on with my body. That’s just the dumbest thing ever. So it's like when people are trying to argue with you that the sky is green when you’re seeing blue and everyone else is seeing blue or whatever, and they’re trying to convince you of something that’s just not true, like you can’t tell me what I’m physically feeling. It’s the same way if you go to the doctor with a stomach pain, the doctor keeps telling you that, you know, maybe it's your thigh. And you're just looking at this guy like, no I'm pretty sure I know what I'm talking about and I'm telling you something else and you're diagnosing something completely different.
“You know, so, that’s really it. So I’m just glad people are paying attention. I’m glad they’re excited for this rematch and I’m excited that people actually give a sh*t about what I’m doing right now. They say if you ain’t got no haters you ain’t doing nothing. So it’s like, the hate is not something I would say I look forward to, but it lets me know that I’m doing something right.”
The neck surgery was performed by Dr. Robert G. Watkins in Marina del Ray, California. He’s the same surgeon who operated on Jouban and got him back to competition.
The surgery went well, and Sterling was scheduled for a rematch with Yan. But things weren’t going correctly and he had to pull out. That, of course, raised the ire of fans who were enraged over the way he’d won the title.
When he couldn’t do everything he could before at the same pace and intensity, it was concerning.
“The only time that I ever really had a scare was after my three-to-six-month window when I recovered and I was training, fully training again,” Sterling said. “I just couldn't sustain the pace and output that I was doing beforehand, and that kind of worried me. I just felt like neurologically the nerves weren’t ready and probably might not ever heal to the point where I could sustain that output and endurance again.”
Watkins quickly assured him he would, eventually.
“Dr. Watkins pretty much told me I just need more time,” he said. “That’s really all it is. He said the body has to do its thing and run its course and get you back to where you once were and that’s essentially what it was. So now I’m firing on all cylinders. I haven’t looked this ripped in so long and I feel so much stronger in the sense of my training output, what I've been able to do, not having to take the days off because I have a kink in my neck and I can’t wrestle today or I can’t wrestle or I can’t train for a week because I’m so tight and the flare-ups in my neck.
“So to have that all just go away, it’s a blessing, man, night and day. And I’m just super excited to be back and people— they can say whatever they want. I'm comfortable in my own skin and I’m just happy that I can actually do this again.”
So Sterling goes into his first title defense fully healthy and bubbling with confidence. He was largely dominated by Yan in the first fight and said he struggled with rehydrating after his weight cut.
His neck injury had been bothering him since he was a freshman in college and had gotten progressively worse.
It all added up to a clunker of a performance the first time against Yan. He said Yan won’t get any breaks this time.
“I’m not going to botch my entire training camp again, and have a f***ed up rehydration the day of the fight and give this man an opportunity to have a freaking walking mummy in front of him. I’m not going to do that again. So I will show everybody who I am, and we can remove all doubt and finally put this chapter to rest.”