Three days. Sixty fighters. It’s going to be a long weekend, but it’s also an early Christmas for fight fans.
Beginning Thursday, the UFC will hold three fight cards in a three-day stretch, concluding with UFC 194 on Saturday evening. Many of us will gather around the TV, whether it’s at home or the local sports bar, and cheer for our favorite fighters as they look to turn months of sacrifice into a moment that culminates with a hand raised and a celebratory picture with the cornermen who have been there every step of the way.
With so many fights in so few days, it’s easy to forget these men and women are more than objects placed on the screen for our viewing pleasure. They’re human, many with present hardships and complicated pasts much like our own. Success hasn’t been handed to them. They’ve had to earn it, each in their own unique way. Some have had to overcome more than others.
As Aljamain Sterling prepares to face fellow bantamweight contender Johnny Eduardo as part of Thursday’s UFC Fight Night 80 lineup, he does so knowing his rise to the upper echelon of one of UFC’s most competitive divisions has come after hurdling a myriad of obstacles.
“I grew up in some tough neighborhoods in terms of Long Island,” Sterling told Combat Press. “I grew up in Roosevelt. [It had a] very high gang rate back in the day when I was in elementary school and middle school as well. I ended up moving over to Uniondale, where now I consider to be my hometown. I was on the path to joining a gang. It was either that or I was going to hang out after school and do absolutely nothing with myself. Eventually, I was going to go astray and I would’ve followed in my brother’s footsteps, because he was the guy I really wanted to be like growing up.
“Back then, you were either a Blood or a Crip or you were, I think it was MS-13 at the time. So it was a lot of gangbangin’. One of my brothers was a Blood member and just sometimes he’d come home with the craziest black eyes and things like that. I thought it was the coolest thing to be part of a gang and I wanted to be part of it so bad, and me and one of my other brothers were really talking about joining and whatever. Good thing that never happened.”
Life had other plans for Sterling. Soon after entering high school, he was introduced to the sport of wrestling. It’d be easy to come up with a cliché such as “wrestling saved Sterling,” but it’s true. In many ways, wrestling did save him.
“When I started wrestling and I started seeing I could be good at something and my coach started getting in my ear about possibly going to college, possibly being really good at what I’m doing, [and] schools were looking at me, I tried to turn my grades around and things like that,” said Sterling. “But it was a little bit too late at that point for my grades and stuff. But it getting in my ear helped me change a lot of my life and the way I was thinking. Wrestling gave me a sense of family and friends and understand what it is to network and meet people, even though I didn’t really think about it like that, but that’s what was actually happening without me actually realizing what was going on around me.
“People, the juniors and seniors, would preach family and being on time and things like that, not missing practice or they’d beat your ass and shit like that, and that just stuck with me. I was a tough kid, no matter what, but when it comes to character and everything, I think wrestling gave me a guidance. I probably would’ve figured [it] out later on in life, but I think that helped me shape me up a lot faster than what it would’ve taken.”
Sterling excelled at wrestling throughout high school and college. As a sophomore in college, he was introduced to mixed martial arts and started reassessing his goals. He decided to pursue MMA. In April 2011, he earned his first pro victory. During 2011 and 2012, Sterling remained undefeated while obtaining championships for both the Ring of Combat and Cage Fury Fighting Championships promotions. Still undefeated at 11-0, Sterling hasn’t let the spotlight deter him from giving back to the neighborhood he’s still very much a part of. He’s a wrestling coach and mentor at his alma mater, Uniondale High School, and uses his past experiences to help kids prepare and overcome all that life throws at them.
“These kids, man, they know what it’s like in these neighborhoods,” said Sterling. “At the end of the day, in my honest opinion, growing up in those kinds of neighborhoods, you’re at a disadvantage because you don’t have a support system, unless you come from a really good home where you live with your mom and dad and they both work good jobs, the stereotypical American family, it’s almost nonexistent. Especially in my area, I wouldn’t call it a broken household, it’s just different. It’s a different kind of upbringing when you don’t live with both your parents and some of your parents aren’t pushing you to do the right things or work as hard as you should to achieve the things you should be able to achieve, because they just don’t know any better themselves. It’s not a knock on them. It’s just how can someone that don’t know teach kids to do something that they’ve never been able to do themselves? And if they do know, they’re probably not doing a great job of teaching their kids because they’re not on top of them all the time.
“It’s just one of those things. It’s a fine line between going overboard or going over the top in how you talk to the kids, because, at the same time, they don’t… Nobody really wants to hear it. These kids in this generation, they don’t wanna hear it. And I feel a guy like me that can actually relate to them. I’m not that much older, and they can see that I have been successful with what I have been doing. They can understand that well — ‘He grew up in this neighborhood [and] he was able to get out and do some stuff and make it happen, so I can do the same thing if I actually put my mind to it and start listening to some of the things he’s saying and try to figure [it] out on my own.’ At the end of the day, I just want them to figure it out on their own and strive for more.
“You don’t have to be a pro athlete or anything. It’s whatever you want it to be, and that’s what I always preach to the kids. Whatever you want in life, man, you go out there and you go get it and you put it on the wall and you work your ass off. Every day is going to be a hustle. Every day is going to be a grind. It’s not going to be fun every day. You’re gonna get headaches. You’re gonna feel sick, tired. You’re gonna wake up and go, ‘I’m just not feeling it today.’ But what’s the difference between you and somebody else? Are you going to be the guy that pushes for it a little bit harder than the other guy? And that’s the difference right there. That’s the main thing I teach these guys.
“I didn’t have that support system growing up. My parents never came to any of my damn wrestling matches, which really pissed me off. I think they maybe came to two of all my matches, maybe three, no more. On one hand, I can count how many times they came to my wrestling matches or [to] see me compete, and that kind of sucks, man. That was a chip on my shoulder when I go to these tournaments and, again, not to make it a black and white thing, but like I said, you go to these other tournaments in a rich white neighborhood and you see kids with their moms and dads there, and it’s like, yo man, it sucks. It’s fortunate for them, but for me sitting there and watching, one of those things that still bothers me [is] I wish my parents cared enough to come out and watch me, even if it was for an hour, or [to] see one match and then go, or come to the finals when I’m doing well. I’m in the fricking tournament finals and that kind of stuff. I really had nobody pushing me at home to do anything, and my wrestling team was that push and my coach was that push. So, for me to be there and help them feel a sense of pride when they do win and they do succeed, that’s what counts.”
Sixty fighters. Three days. It’s a lot for fans to take in. Sterling might be just one man in this large field of athletes, but his caring attitude is indeed what counts. It’s one of the qualities in this rising star that makes him stand out from the crowd.