Aljamain Sterling (14-2) has been criticized in the past for a lack of action in his fights. After all, he often utilizes his superior wrestling skills and has won only two of his 16 professional fights by KO or TKO.
Hoping to put on a more fan-friendly show, Sterling has made a concerted effort to remedy that. The Long Island, New York, native -- who fights Marlon Moraes on Saturday night in Fresno, California, at UFC Fight Night 123 -- recently trained with local professional boxers and now has a confidence in his striking that wasn't previously there.
"In my mind, all of my fights are pretty fun, but I think the last few have been more appealing to the masses," Sterling says. "I found that in the [Raphael] Assuncao fight, I was the more dominant striker and was landing at will whenever I engaged. I started to realize, 'Man, I'm better than I gave myself credit for.' That's where I got that trust and belief in my overall well-roundedness. I showed that I can stand and bang with anyone that I want to."
Sterling said he "hung in there" with undefeated fighters from Academy of Boxing in Huntington Station, New York. In turn, they compared him to Tevin Farmer, the current NABF super featherweight champion. The quick hands and strong defense that Farmer is known for must be on display for Sterling when he steps into the Octagon against Moraes (19-5) this weekend.
A former World Series of Fighting bantamweight champion, Moraes has won 14 of his past 15 bouts. He's coming off a split-decision victory against John Dodson on Nov. 11 and took Saturday's fight on short notice after Sterling's original opponent -- Rani Yahya -- was forced out with an injury.
According to Sterling, both fighters will be prepared for each other because of familiarity between the nearby camps. Sterling's coach Ray Longo and Moraes' coach Mark Henry (in New Jersey) have a close relationship. Their teams rarely square off, but they had to make an exception based on options available.
"It just happens to be one of those things where there isn't anyone else for me to fight. Nobody else was willing to fight," Sterling says. "I think I'm the rangier opponent, so this will be a very strategical chess match. I'm looking to push the pace early and see what his cardio is looking like and testing his heart."
Sterling, the UFC's No. 8-ranked bantamweight, believes having his hand raised against the No. 7-ranked Moraes would continue his rise up the charts and allow him the opportunity to challenge for the belt.
"I need to just keep doing me and stay focused," Sterling says. "I need to be there to not get hit. I need to be there to land my kicks. I got to put the pressure on and win the exchanges and land cleaner strikes. If he gets overaggressive, I'll put his ass on the ground and rain down some elbows.
"A win over Marlon would be a hat trick for 2017 and set me up in a prime position to fight for a No. 1 contender spot to eventually challenge for UFC gold."