Wrestling allowed Aljamain Sterling to make his own path

Editor's note: This story was originally published ahead of UFC 238 in June, 2019. Sterling scored a career-changing victory at UFC 250 with a first-round win over Cory Sandhagen.

GARDEN CITY, N.Y. -- To escape the life he knew, the life he once envied growing up, Aljamain Sterling had to isolate himself. Gang life dominated his town. His brother would come home with black eyes after fights, and friends were shot. Some died.

Depending where you went to middle school in Uniondale, New York, you joined the Bloods or the Crips. He stayed away from the gang life as a freshman in high school, but he also followed it. He watched his brother, who joined a gang, and some friends fight. Then his brother got arrested. He had seen enough.

Sterling knew if he wanted a chance at a life -- at a future -- he had to find something else. When his older brother -- one of the 19 full or half-siblings Sterling has -- would go one way, he went another. Back then, he believed he would play football or basketball. Only 5-foot-4, he was cut from the basketball team as a sophomore.

Tim Godoy, a physical education teacher at Uniondale High, was the wrestling coach and a former All-American at the State University of New York College at Cortland. Sterling's strong but small frame made for a good wrestler, and MMA wasn't a thought then. Neither was the UFC and being one of the top bantamweights in the world.

This was just an opportunity. Wrestling would keep him away from everything else.

"My first day, I was just scrapping," said Sterling, 29, who will face No. 4 Pedro Munhoz, 32, at UFC 238 on Saturday. "And I fell in love with the sport. After that, wrestling was my avenue to go to college."

Wrestling gave Sterling the structure and the path he needed. It forced him to become more serious in school. It started to allow him to think about something else too:

Go to college -- maybe even get it paid for -- and graduate.

Sterling's upbringing wasn't easy. He has seven full brothers and sisters with the same mother and father -- Cleveland and Sophia Sterling. His mom has two other children, and his father has 10 other kids. He is not even sure about the numbers; there's possibly another half-sibling.

At the peak, 14 of them lived in the same Uniondale home, first on Commodore Avenue, then on Arcadia Avenue. Sometimes four or five kids packed into one bedroom, staying up all night playing video games, wrestling each other WWE-style or trying to stave off sleep so they could avoid pranks kids often pull when a sibling goes to bed too soon.

When they did sleep, it was often sardine-style -- one kid head-to-toe and the next kid opposite to make it work. When all else failed, some would migrate to the pullout couch in another room. It was a hectic childhood, rushing to get to the TV first to control the remote or fighting over the computer to use AOL Instant Messenger or type out papers for class.

Going out to eat -- at IHOP or Red Lobster -- always came with a wait. At home, there would always be food on the table. If they really needed things, they got it, but it wasn't an easy lifestyle.

For fun, their father created scavenger hunts in the yard or the family would play Dandy Shandy -- a Caribbean game that is a cross between dodgeball and keep-away.

"You pretty much try not to get hit," Sterling's sister Younique said. "But being that it's us as siblings playing, it made it a bit more intense. It was definitely fun."

Living like this told Sterling he wanted something more for himself. He knew about wrestling because his younger brother Troy had picked up the sport in 2003, the year before he did. Troy wasn't particularly good then -- he got better and also became a pro fighter -- but it gave Sterling a chance to observe and learn about it.

"Wrestling was always an individual sport," Troy said. "My coach would always tell [Aljamain] that, and whatever you wanted out of it, you could get. And he liked that part of it. He was able to put in his own work to get results."

Sterling was a year or two too late to put himself in scholarship contention. When he started wrestling, he had been doing the minimum in school -- just enough to get a passing grade so he could matriculate. He hadn't thought much about wrestling at that point or going to college. Sterling said that both his parents were high school dropouts and no one in his family, to that point, had finished college.

Wrestling came naturally. He reached the county tournament his first year and was ranked in the state by his senior year. After his junior year, Sterling met a man named Dave Mattana and became friends with both him and his son, Josh, who wrestled in the same weight class.

After a coincidental first meeting at a workout at Nassau Community College, Mattana extended an offer to Sterling: If he wanted to wrestle in offseason tournaments, Mattana would take him and Troy along with his own son.

Sterling went to his first tournament -- a Suffolk County qualifying meet in Bay Shore, New York -- after calling Mattana at 11:45 p.m. the night before to ask if he was going. Mattana said yes -- and that he would pick him up at 5:15 a.m.

Going to the freestyle meets became a ritual in the spring and summer of Sterling's junior and senior years of high school. The repetition of matches -- Mattana estimates they went to 20 tournaments over the two years -- allowed Sterling to catch up on wrestling experience he otherwise wouldn't have had.

As Sterling progressed, he tried picking up his grades to get a Division I scholarship. But he learned early he wouldn't be able to do enough -- at least not to get him a scholarship so that he could afford it.

"It's very much the culture of the sport of wrestling," said Mattana, now the golf coach at Nassau Community College. "When you see a kid with talent who doesn't have [everything], why don't you do what you can do to help the guy get a chance to reach his potential.

"And it ended up with him going to college and wrestling in college and out from a tough spot."

With Division I not an option, Sterling enrolled at SUNY Morrisville, where he met another young wrestler -- Jon Jones. Yes, that Jon Jones. After a year, Sterling transferred to Cortland, the same college as his old high school coach.

He also reconnected with Jones on Myspace, where Jones posted training photos. Sterling was intrigued, even if he wasn't sure he wanted to fight in MMA. He messaged Jones, who invited him to join him for a training session -- but also said, "Man, you're not going to show up."

Sterling did. The next day.

When he wasn't wrestling, he started learning MMA. In season, Sterling became a two-time All-American wrestler. Out of season, he became an amateur MMA fighter.

After finishing his wrestling career in 2011, Sterling turned pro and beat Sergio da Silva a few weeks later in Morristown, New Jersey. Sterling stayed in Cortland as a part-time wrestling coach, where Troy was then wrestling, making $100 a week while training for his own fights. To get by financially, he would wake up at 5:15 to drive past cornfields through Dryden, New York, every morning to work at a sawmill, spray-painting and moving wood.

Chris Weidman saw one of Sterling's early fights and knew he was a Long Island guy. Weidman asked Sterling why he was still training in upstate New York and told him if he returned to Long Island, he could train at his gym. The timing was right. Troy's career was almost over, and Jones had moved, so Sterling chose to go back home.

Sterling also completed something more important. He finished his degree -- the first in his family to do so.

Wrestling had done what he needed it to. It got him out of Uniondale and gave him a college education and a future he might not otherwise have had.

"I wanted to be the first one to do something right," Sterling said, "and kind of lead that path and direct the younger ones to set a path to kind of follow and not get caught up in all the other nonsense."

Even with a degree and a burgeoning career, Sterling needed money when he returned to Long Island. He sold women's shoes. In a separate job at Zara's, he had to show up twice a week at 4:30 a.m. to help unload stock.

"I like to think I defied the odds my entire life, definitely my entire athletic career." Aljamain Sterling

He got fired because MMA became his priority and he missed shifts to recover from training. He knew he was close to breaking through, and less than a year later, he was fighting in the UFC.

Sterling was still "chasing this crazy-ass dream," but it was about to work. Sterling won his first four UFC fights. After two split-decision losses to Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao, he won his next two fights against Augusto Mendes and Renan Barao, before taking the roughest loss of his career -- a first-round knockout by Marlon Moraes on Dec. 9, 2017.

Sterling hasn't lost since, winning three straight fights and starting to assert his name as the third-ranked contender in the bantamweight division.

He also found a more stable non-fighting career, working in real estate -- another avenue he is trying to convince his siblings to join him in. He purchased his own home in Massapequa, New York, then rented out two of the four bedrooms as an Airbnb to help bring in some extra cash. One guest even came with him to watch a UFC card.

Sterling has done all of this while focusing on both himself and his family. Sterling wants to be the example and to provide for the family that surrounds him. The motivation is twofold: "Secure my own legacy" and "be there to help."

The UFC career allowed him to do something unexpected for his mom, who along with two sisters had been living with a member of their church since his parents separated five years ago. They were about to get kicked out.

Sterling said his mom thought he might help her rent a place. It made more sense to buy -- an investment in both property and his family. As long as the overhead is covered -- they might eventually rent out rooms in the home -- he doesn't want her to pay for it.

He didn't tell her, instead surprising her on Mother's Day with her own home.

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God blessed you with birthing 10 healthy kids and the last 5 years have been tough for all of us not being able to see you genuinely smile anymore. 😔 But this year, Mother's Day was different! It took me longer than I thought it would, but I worked my ass off and it was well worth seeing the glow back in you! 🏡 - Ppl don't get to see what happens behind the scenes. Without getting into crazy personal details, just know all your kids love you! You gave us your best years of your youth, literally raising kid, after kid. The roots you raised me with helped mold me into the man I am today. I'm glad you love the new house- YOUR HOUSE! Love you ma! ❤️ • #MothersDay #NewHouse #Family #Mom #DreamChaser #ABC #AlwaysBeClosing!🏡

A post shared by Aljamain Sterling (@funkmaster_ufc) on

It left Sterling in a small financial bind entering Saturday night's fight. He accepts that constraint, for now. All of this -- the career, the family, the new home -- has him thinking back to his past. To where he came from and how, if his high school coach hadn't pushed him to start wrestling, he might have ended up somewhere else -- somewhere much worse.

"I like to think I defied the odds my entire life, definitely my entire athletic career," Sterling said. "You wouldn't think a kid that just started wrestling in 10th grade would have this type of success this fast. There are people who start wrestling in 10th grade, their junior year, and they become All-Americans and things like that.

"But to go from that and then do this, it's two different spaces. It's a different type of pedigree and testament to your skills and your desires and everything. Just your focus and what you want out of life."