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The Weekly Takedown: Aljamain Sterling embraces place atop UFC bantamweight division

Sterling's ascent to champion changed his approach to preparation. Now he's reaping the benefits of proper nutrition.
aljamain-sterling

Welcome to The Weekly Takedown, Sports Illustrated's in-depth look at MMA. Every week, this column offers insight and information on the most noteworthy stories in the fight world.

Aljamain Sterling had known it for over a year.

He was powered by the belief that, by far, he was a better mixed martial artist than Petr Yan. He even possessed the bantamweight title – though winning it by disqualification was the absolute last way he wanted to be crowned champ. Compounding the matter is that Yan had dominated their UFC 259 bout in March of 2021, before connecting with a vicious, intentional knee to the skull, a blow that made Sterling champion via disqualification.

Thirteen months later, Sterling proved his point. In emphatic fashion, he wrestled Yan to the ground in their rematch at UFC 273. Following endless stretches of mental and physical anguish, reaching a point where his neck was in such disarray that retirement seemed like the only option, Sterling retuned to the cage with zealous fury. He brought Yan down, then held him there in the second and third round – an unrelenting approach Yan had never before encountered in the octagon.

It was a performance that even seized the attention of Dominick Cruz, the greatest bantamweight in UFC history. 

"The way Aljo beat Yan after the way he was losing the first fight, that takes an extreme amount of mental toughness," says Cruz, who would make for a dream opponent against Sterling, even though that is less likely after losing his last fight to Marlon "Chito" Vera. "Yan always looks good, but Aljo flat out beat him."

Despite a modicum of controversy following the decision – people seem to relish hating on Sterling– and a chorus of boos from the crowd in Jacksonville, Sterling had his hand raised when ring announcer Bruce Buffer announced he won the fight by split decision.

Now there is no doubt that Sterling deserves his place as champion.

"I knew the key to victory," Sterling says. "It was eating right, and I followed the food pyramid."

A healthy breakfast was critical for Sterling. Taking better care of his body – i.e., eating nutritious meals on fight day – provided the energy lacking in his first encounter against Yan. On the day of the rematch, Sterling awoke at seven in the morning, then started his day by putting down an array of fruit, pancakes, and an omelet with spinach.

"I threw a little bacon in there, too," Sterling says. "Unlike the last time, I started to prepare for the fight that morning."

Sterling attributed poor dieting as the reason for his underwhelming showing in the cage at UFC 259, an excuse Yan eagerly mocked.

Yet there is validity to Sterling's claims. Meals are meticulously planned for the fighters, explained Nicole Alai, who is a Performance Nutrition Coordinator at the UFC Performance Institute in Las Vegas.

"We provide breakfast and lunch on the day of a fight, and then suggest snacks in between that optimize their muscle glycogen and energy source so they have everything they need going into the fight," Alai says. "We program it so that we're saturating the muscle glycogen and providing a lot of carbohydrates so they can maintain a good energy level throughout the entire day."

Sterling knew he erred by not eating properly on the day of 259. He refused to make the same mistake twice.

"Aljo has a really good foundation of knowledge, and he was asking a lot of great questions," Alai says. "You could tell me cared about his nutrition and wanted to be prepared to perform at a high level."

After breakfast, Sterling cleaned his hotel room ("Cleaning helps me see everything clearer," he said). Once the room was orderly, he met with teammates for a morning shakeout. Some fighters use that time to hit the bag, but Sterling goes through the fight with an intense 20-minute session that prepares his body to function and move in the same manner it did prior to the weight cut.

"On the morning of the (Cory) Sandhagen fight (in July of 2020), we did it outside the Residence Inn in the parking lot in Vegas," Sterling says. "I beat the crap out of my guys, picking them up and slamming them on the concrete. They were so upset that I was ragdolling them. Then I ragdolled Sandhagen and won that fight, so they weren't mad at me anymore."

Since the rematch against Yan took place on the east coast, that meant Sterling would fight later in the night. He planned out his day meticulously, including his afternoon nap. He crushed his lunch – pasta with sun-dried tomatoes and salmon – and arrived at Jacksonville, Florida's Vystar Veterans Memorial Arena hungry to inflict damage.

"I stayed hydrated the whole day," Sterling says. "The only day I didn't take a nap was that first fight against Yan. I took it this time and woke up rested. I didn't eat lunch last time. This time, I did. When I saw my team, I said, 'I feel a lot different this time.' I knew it was going to be a much different fight."

aljamain-sterling

Al Iaquinta was one of the people in Sterling's corner on fight night. The retired mixed martial artist, who once had a five-fight win streak in the UFC, knows the fight realm extraordinarily well – yet knows Sterling even better. The two first met two decades ago, when their high school teams wrestled against each other. They grew close during their first few professional fights and were even roommates in Long Island.

"I'm usually nervous before fights, but I wasn't nervous for this one," Iaquinta says. "The energy was different. Aljo's workouts were so intense."

Iaquinta has always known Sterling to be cerebral but watched in awe as he elevated his approach to an entirely new, elite level.

"Anyone else would have struggled," Iaquinta says. "He's built differently. I even said to him, ‘I don't care if you eat or not, you're not going to beat this guy.' The obstacles he faced, he ran right through them. He was that focused mentally."

For all the physical and mental distress caused by Yan's knee to his head, it created a second opportunity. Had it not occurred, Yan would have won the belt – and Sterling wouldn't have even been considered in the title mix after that weak of a performance.

Instead, in this painfully roundabout manner, Sterling entered a rematch against Yan – and as champion. This was a chance to get it all right the second time around. For all of Yan's bluster and bravado, his "No Mercy" mantra backfired, forever changing the trajectory of both their careers. Yan's recklessness bestowed new life upon Sterling, who didn't let the opportunity slip.

"I had my chance to compete as champion, something I thought was taken away from me, so I did everything I needed to do," Sterling says. "That carried me into the fight. I enjoyed the moment with my team, took it all in, and then it was time to hear my music."

When the song "Farruko" by Pepas hit, Sterling bounced and glided toward the cage. As he stepped into the  octagon, the music changed – just as he planned – to "I Love" by Joyner Lucas. Every detail fell seamlessly into place.

"I made sure to start with 'Farruko' because I knew it would get the crowd pumped up," Sterling says. "It felt right. For a long time, I felt like there was no light at the end of the tunnel. That's when I finally reached the other side."

No words were shared by Sterling and Yan before the fight. Despite his anxiousness to get back in the cage after an absence of over a year, Sterling remained patient in those first five minutes, feeling out his foe.

"I needed to see how he wanted to approach the fight," says Sterling, who used his footwork and angles to create space in the first round. "This time, he came out aggressively. That was perfect for me. I got to play matador."

Poke and pivot, Sterling told himself throughout the first round. Poke and pivot, keep Yan guessing, and then land the fiercest shot of the round.

"It wasn't a crazy landslide, but I felt like I won that first round," Sterling says. "I definitely landed the harder strikes, and the hardest was that step-in elbow."

During the fight, Ray Longo's thick New York accent was a constant for Sterling. Whether it is a fight day, or any other day, Longo's voice is always in his head, guiding him in the right direction.

"Ray cares about me, and he's helped me grow," Sterling says. "Guys like myself, (Chris) Weidman, Merab (Dvalishvili), Al, there's just such a big connection. We're a family. We win together, we lose together. I wanted that win for all of us."

Longo helped coach Matt Serra to an iconic upset when he beat Georges St-Pierre in 2007, then prepared Weidman for his unforgettable victory in 2013, stunning the great Anderson Silva. Now he proudly boasts that he got to witness Sterling defeat Yan after seemingly everyone had counted him out.

"This one was different," Longo says. "Aljamain had to shut out all this noise to prepare for the second fight. His mindset is so strong. He got viciously kneed in the head, and somehow, he was criticized. I still can't believe that. Then he heard how he was going to get killed by Yan. He needed an operation on his neck, and thank God, it was a success. Then he blocked out everything and succeeded."

Sterling trained with Longo for six weeks in Long Island, with a team that also included Dvalishvili and Iaquinta.

"I love a close-knit team," Longo says. "Aljamain did his camp here, which was paramount to me. He had Merab, who might be his biggest fan, and he's a savage himself. Everyone was gelling together.

"The fighter believed it. The team believed it. And that's when the magic happened. He wanted to win for himself, but he wanted to win for his team, too. That whole day of the fight, you felt something in the air."

Sterling was the champ going into that rematch, yet it certainly did not feel that way. Longo is still mystified that the crowd in Jacksonville rallied behind Yan instead of Sterling.

"He got tortured and received all that hatred after he did nothing wrong," Longo says. "All he had to go through made that win even sweeter. What a great night and defining moment for a grounded, smart, sensitive young man."

The foundation for the victory was laid in the second and third rounds. Sterling controlled the fight by taking Yan to the ground – and then keeping him there.

"No one's done that to Yan," Sterling says. "I knew I could. This time, he wasn't getting a guy who was a shell of himself. Anyone could have taken me down in our first fight. That's why he looked so stupid going for those trips and throws again even though it worked against me the first time. I told him that sh-t wasn't going to work this time, and I meant it."

Yan helped even the score in the championship rounds. Sterling was fighting under the assumption that he had already won the first three rounds, another compelling argument for open scoring. Had scores been visible between rounds, it would have allowed the fighters to know exactly what needed to be done before the fifth round expired.

"Open scoring would have helped," Sterling says. "If I knew anyone scored that first round for Yan, I would have stepped it up. If I knew the second round wasn't a 10-8, I would have stepped it up even more. I went into the third thinking that I had locked up a 10-8 round.

"I had three minutes and 54 seconds of control. That's enough to warrant a 10-8 round. So that would have changed my mindset going into the fourth and fifth rounds."

Ultimately, Sterling's hand was raised. He finally slayed Yan. Surrounded by his team and family, Sterling became overwhelmed with emotion, struggling to grasp he was the best in the world.

In the aftermath of the biggest win of his career, Sterling hung out with his team until five in the morning. He accepted one drink, a powerful shot of Wray & Nephew rum, but otherwise declined the offers.

"That rum will put you on your heels really quick," Sterling says. "But I don't like drinking after I get punched in the head. It's not the smartest thing for my longevity."

With a clear vision looking forward, Sterling is eager to defend his title against the best challengers in the world. That begins with former champ T.J. Dillashaw at UFC 280 on Oct. 22.

"I'm definitely ready," Sterling says. "I have answers for everything. When I'm on, I'm a dangerous man. The next one is going to be the toughest, but I want to keep moving forward and keep writing my name in the record book.

"And Dillashaw deserves a couple smacks. I can't wait to give them to him."

Only one win away from achieving the longest win streak in UFC bantamweight history, Sterling is ready to move forward and conquer the unknown. His sole focus is Dillashaw, and there is every reason to be excited to see those two scrap.

In order to reach this point, he first needed to triumph over his past. He did that by defeating Yan – who, of course, also fights on the 280 card. But Yan's shadow no longer hovers over Sterling, who has embraced his place as the top bantamweight in the world.

"I've always felt like a champion since the Sandhagen fight, but I needed to do what I did against Yan," Sterling says. "He was my boogeyman, so that solidifies what I already knew.

"I'm the UFC champion. How crazy is that?"

Jose Aldo retires, signaling another end to an era

jose-aldo

After carving out a legacy as one of the greatest featherweights in the history of the sport, Jose Aldo has retired from MMA.

It appeared Aldo (31-8 MMA, 13-7 UFC) had more to give in the cage, but he leaves on his terms. His accolades are remarkable. Aldo is a two-time undisputed UFC featherweight champion and set a featherweight record with seven consecutive title defenses. Also a former WEC featherweight champ, Aldo fought at an elite level for over 14 years.

He lost his most recent fight, a unanimous decision defeat to Merab Dvalishvili, but had put together an impressive three-fight win streak in the bantamweight division. That was on the heels of a three-fight losing streak, where it appeared Aldo had entered the twilight of his career – unsurprisingly, of course, he quickly rewrote that narrative.

Aldo is also leaving as a top competitor, unlike Tony Ferguson, who is fighting as a shell of his former self. The news of Aldo's retirement also signals the end of a glory era, which included the iconic careers of Ferguson, Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone, the Diaz brothers, Robbie Lawler, Alexander Gustafsson and Maurcio "Shogun" Rua.

The Pick 'Em Section:

Bellator 285 lightweight bout: Benson Henderson vs. Peter Queally

  • Pick: Benson Henderson

Bellator 285 light heavyweight bout: Yoel Romero vs. Melvin Manhoef

  • Pick: Yoel Romero

Bellator 285 featherweight bout: Pedro Carvalho vs. Mads Burnell

  • Pick: Mads Burnell

Bellator 285 women's featherweight bout: Dayana Silva vs. Leah McCourt

  • Pick: Leah McCourt

Bellator 285 catchweight bout (150 pounds): Ciaran Clark vs. Rafael Hudson

  • Pick: Cieran Clark

Last week: 4-1

2022 record: 107-62

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.