At UFC 280 this past Saturday, "Funk Master" successfully dispatched of T.J. Dillashaw in the second round to retain his bantamweight title and maintain his top ranking in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings. However, after the decisive victory, it was unclear who Sterling would face next.
There are many contenders in the bantamweight class, and Sean O'Malley was focusing on a championship chance, but there is no assurance that "Sugar" will be given the opportunity, particularly following a close and contentious victory against former champion Petr Yan on Saturday. At the evening's post-fight press conference, UFC President Dana White appeared more interested in challenging Sterling with Olympic gold medalist and former two-division UFC champion Henry Cejudo.
“I like Dana on a personal level, outside of the cameras and everything, I like Dana,” Sterling said. “But some of the things he actually says are beyond me sometimes. You go on record, you say whoever wins [the O’Malley-Yan] fight is clearly getting the No. 1 shot because it makes sense. After the fight, everything completely changes and then you throw Henry ‘Cedoodoo’ in the mix and I’m just completely confused because this guy hasn’t fought in over two years. You don’t want to give him a [featherweight] title shot to go be triple champ, which I’m not opposed to because I think if anyone deserves it based on merit, it’s him. I’m not a hater by any means. But then the guy comes back after two years, fought at 125, fought twice maybe at ‘35, and he’s supposed to come back and get an immediate title shot after doing what?
“So now it’s like I almost feel—and I could be completely wrong—I almost feel like they’re looking for a last hope of someone who can take out Aljamain Sterling. They’re hoping that they can make this narrative of the Olympic wrestling now. D-1 wasn’t good enough, now the Olympic wrestling might be good enough to take out the D-3 wrestler. But I can tell you one thing for certain, this ass-whooping is an equal opportunity employer. All races, all colours can get it. It really doesn’t matter. If it’s Henry, if it’s ‘Chito’ [Marlon Vera] from Ecuador, if it’s O’Malley with the colorful hair, Mr. Sugar T***, if it’s a rematch with Yan because we know the UFC likes to give title shots to people coming off of losses, if they want to give it to [Cory] Sandhagen, there’s plenty of options.”
When asked who he'd like to face next, Sterling said he was interested in O'Malley, though he's not sure how O'Malley's near-miss and subsequent reaction will affect the matchmakers.
“If I’m being honest, I haven’t even thought about it,” Sterling said. “I literally tweeted to O’Malley that I would have actually hung out with the guy. I felt bad for Yan, I did think he got robbed, I think O’Malley was a little shocked and perplexed at the decision as well. I think it kind of caught him off-guard, that was a split decision, I think it caught him even more off-guard that he won.
“Now he knows what it feels like when I was in the same position [with Yan] and the difference is I actually knew I won the fight and he’s on the side where he won the fight and he doesn’t even know if he really won the fight until he goes back and watches it. While I knew, based on the strike count, that I freakin’ won the fight, so at the end of the day this is the most competitive division. People are going to try find any way to discredit me.”
Sterling concurred that O'Malley had taken the required steps to establish himself as the top contender, including enhancing the appeal of a possible title match by developing his brand.
“I think if anyone is the biggest fight maybe it’s O’Malley, in terms of name value, in terms of performance,” Sterling said. “I think he saw what I did to T.J., he saw what I did to Yan and any of these previous opponents that were in the top five, top 10. Remember, my third UFC fight I fought the No. 6 guy ranked in the world and since then I haven’t fought anyone that was unranked. So my resume speaks for itself.