'This is my time': Waiting game finally pays off for frustrated Aljamain Sterling

LAS VEGAS — There were any number of times over the last five years it would have been easy to foresee Aljamain Sterling fighting for the UFC title.

He came close a few times, the most significant when he was knocked out by a brutal knee from Marlon Moraes in 2017 that lifted Moraes to a title shot.

Circumstances intervened each time he was close, though, and it’s only now, as a veteran 31-year-old with more than seven full years in the UFC, that the opportunity has finally come his way.

“Perfect timing for him,” UFC president Dana White said in an interview with Yahoo Sports.

Sterling will face bantamweight champion Petr Yan on Saturday (10 p.m. ET, ESPN+ PPV) at Apex in the first of three title fights at UFC 259. Mentally, physically and emotionally, Sterling has never been better.

He was frustrated in the past and even explored moving on from the company, but if he performs on Saturday the way he has during his current five-fight winning streak, it will all have been worth it.

He’s emotionally matured and on top of his game. He’s run through elite opponents like Cory Sandhagen and Pedro Munhoz and has positioned himself perfectly to fulfill the immense potential he entered the UFC with in 2014.

Yan is in the minority — the vast minority — when he sneers and doesn’t speak highly of his challenger.

“No, I don’t think he’s the best I’ve faced,” Yan said, sneering. “But I’ll be the most dangerous opponent for him.”

Sterling has thrown a few jabs in Yan’s direction, most notably referring to him as a paper champion, but he’s handled everything as well as could be expected. He hasn’t thrown tantrums, he’s made the case for himself and he’s stayed ready.

LAS VEGAS, NEVADA - MARCH 04: Aljamain Sterling poses during the UFC 259 press conference at UFC APEX on March 04, 2021 in Las Vegas, Nevada. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Aljamain Sterling poses during the UFC 259 press conference at Apex on March 4, 2021 in Las Vegas. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

There was always this sense that the UFC might be trying to push someone else to get the shot in Yan’s first defense, but Sterling was stoic and didn’t lose his cool.

“The way it felt, the company was trying to find a different angle to use for a different person to slide into that title shot situation, the title shot picture,” Sterling said. “Fortunately for me, Sandhagen didn't prove he’s as good as he says he is and as good as he’s advertised.”

Sterling submitted Sandhagen in arguably the greatest performance of his career at UFC 250 on June 9, choking him out in 1:28. Sandhagen rebounded with a remarkable flying knee knockout of former lightweight champion Frankie Edgar.

It was evidence of how far Sterling has come, decisively defeating a quality opponent like Sandhagen with huge stakes on the line.

He’s developed a professionalism that keeps him on an even keel. He doesn’t get outraged when things don’t go his way, and he doesn’t think he’s the greatest fighter who ever lived when he has a good day in the gym.

The experience and the highs and lows he’s been through have positioned him perfectly to claim the title from Yan. Yan is a slight favorite at BetMGM, now at -120 while Sterling is even money.

“That’s what life’s all about, how you handle the good times and the bad times,” Sterling said. “This sport’s so crazy because it has the highest highs and the lowest lows. You wouldn’t really understand that unless you jump into the sport yourself to see what it actually feels like.

“It’s one thing to be a teammate of somebody, but it’s another thing to actually be the fighter and know what it feels like to have a devastating loss or a big loss, [getting] knocked out, a submission loss, whatever the case may be and to feel like your world is crumbling around you. Kudos to the people who can bounce back, because I think it shows stuff about your character.”

He’s done that time and again, both in and out of the cage. He’s not only rebounded from devastating defeats, he’s handled his personal life and the money he’s made in the UFC well. He owns three homes and is investing in his future.

He’s not out spending every last dime he’s made on cars, jewelry and fancy vacations. He’s got a plan, and he’s sticking to it, just like he has in the cage.

In Yan, he’s facing a rising star on the verge of breaking out. Yan is 28, in his prime, on a 10-fight winning streak and coming off of a complete destruction of the legendary Jose Aldo at UFC 251 on July 12 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates.

Sterling, though, is nonplussed.

“This is my time,” he said.

Observing him from afar over the years, it’s hard to disagree. For Aljamain Sterling, there’s no better time than the present.

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