Editor's note: This story was originally published ahead of UFC 273. Sterling defeated Yan in that rematch to retain the UFC bantamweight title.
WHEN ALJAMAIN STERLING finally arrived home from the biggest night of his professional career, the first thing he did was apologize to his friends and family. The second thing he did was throw up.
It was early morning on March 7, 2021, and Sterling was still dealing with the signs and symptoms of a concussion. Sterling had challenged Petr Yan for the bantamweight championship at UFC 259 (Watch this fight on ESPN+) inside the Apex in Las Vegas a few hours prior. The title bout ended in an unfortunate and historical fashion when Yan was disqualified for landing a blatantly illegal knee to Sterling's head in the fourth round.
It was the first time in UFC history a belt changed hands due to disqualification -- and a confusing scene for everyone involved. Ray Longo, Sterling's head coach and a veteran of the sport, wasn't even sure what the rules said under that scenario and was genuinely surprised when UFC president Dana White awarded Sterling the belt. Back at Sterling's home, not far from the Apex, a group of about 40 of his supporters had assembled to watch. They weren't allowed to attend the fight in person due to COVID-19 protocols. When Sterling became the UFC champion, the mood was not celebratory.
"I don't think anybody really knew what to think or how to feel about it," says Al Iaquinta, Sterling's longtime teammate at Serra-Longo Fight Team. "I didn't want to cheer and be all happy, because I knew Aljo didn't want to win that way. The whole thing was confusing. Even when the knee landed, it was like, 'Well, they can't just take a point and restart this thing. That's not right. But what does that mean for the belt?'
"Honestly, my main reaction was, 'F--- [Yan]. What a piece of s---.' That's how I felt about it. I don't think people around the world realize how f---ed up throwing a knee like that is. It can cause permanent damage."
Moments after White placed the 135-pound title belt around Sterling's waist in the Octagon, an emotional Sterling took it off and threw it to the ground. He exited the arena with the assistance of his coaches.
Had that been the world's final image of Sterling that night -- throwing his championship belt to the floor in disgust -- everything would be so different. Sterling (20-3) and Yan (16-2) meet again this weekend at UFC 273 in Jacksonville, Florida (Saturday, 10 p.m. on ESPN+ PPV), and even though it was Yan who ruined their first bout with an illegal knee, many see Sterling as the heel going into this rematch.
Glad to see champ is fine now... https://t.co/0PgQS1dYdy— Petr "No Mercy" Yan (@PetrYanUFC) March 7, 2021
And that's because there was another image fans saw from that first night in Las Vegas. One of Sterling proudly holding the belt with his friends at home, seemingly toasting his win.
"As soon as that picture went up [on social media], all the bad comments started to come," says Merab Dvalishvili, UFC bantamweight and one of Sterling's closest teammates. "The entire world started talking s---."
TO THIS DAY, Sterling doesn't remember much of what happened once he made it backstage at UFC 259.
"I don't remember talking to the referee after the fight or much of anything before the ambulance," Sterling says. "I really can't remember who rode to the hospital with me."
Longo accompanied Sterling to the back and watched him get in an ambulance. Longo has been a professional MMA coach for decades, and his reaction to Yan's knee was similar to that of Iaquinta. He was angry. Yan was ahead on the scorecards when the knee landed -- and Sterling was clearly in a downed position, making the strike illegal. It was a dangerous, ill-advised thing to do, and Yan's reason for doing it is still mystifying.
"Listen, the guy was on his knees and took a f---ing knee to the head," Longo says. "I don't care if a 12-year-old threw it, that's a big shot. And why did he do it? What was the point? I still don't get it at all. Aljo was definitely hurt and he was 100% concussed."
Sterling was transported to a hospital for a CAT scan. While there, he called Iaquinta to let him and all of the supporters at his home know he was OK. He also sent a text to White, who was still at the Apex for the final two fights of UFC 259. Sterling still has that text conversation on his phone. The first message is from him to White, time stamped 9:51 p.m. PT the night of the fight.
"All good kid."
"I really want to run that back ASAP."
Sterling was eventually released and sent home, where his entire support system still awaited his arrival. MMA teammates, such as Iaquinta and Dvalishvili. Former teammates from his amateur wrestling career. Family members from his hometown of Uniondale, New York. The father of one of his childhood friends, who used to give Sterling rides to wrestling practice. Most of them had traveled across the country to be there that night.
"He came home and he wasn't happy," Dvalishvili recalls. "He said he was sorry. He went into the bathroom and threw up because he was sick from the concussion. He was still crying. Of course, all of his people from New York, we told him, 'Stay positive. You are a champion. You already deserved this. You've been a champion.' We wanted him to know we were proud of him."
Dvalishvili pressed Sterling to pose with the belt. He placed it on Sterling's right shoulder and took a picture alongside him in the kitchen, smiling. Dvalishvili posted the photo on social media in a public show of support for his friend and teammate. Sterling was one of Dvalishvili's first friends when Dvalishvili moved from the former Soviet Republic of Georgia to the United States to train. Sterling has given him financial advice, cornered him in multiple UFC fights and traveled with him to Georgia. Sterling, to him, is his brother.
Dvalishvili didn't think twice about supporting his brother at that moment. And Sterling really couldn't do anything but accept it.
"Those are friends and teammates who understand the journey," Sterling says. "What should I have done? Yell at them? Tell them to leave? 'Hey, go ahead and take a picture but don't post it anywhere.' I understood they wanted to be there for me. It was not a fun moment for me -- pretending, 'Yay, I'm the champ.' But when I started this sport, people didn't want to spend the money and fly across the country to support me. It feels good to have that support.
"But as soon as that picture was posted, everything took a 180-degree turn on social media. Petr tried to say I was faking it, faking from the beginning. Are you serious, man? Go f--- yourself."
The following day, by happenstance, Sterling ran into former UFC bantamweight champion Henry Cejudo on the Las Vegas Strip and the two decided to square off in a good-natured stare down. It dawned on Sterling that after what had happened the previous night, posting a picture of himself on social media squaring off with anyone other than Yan would likely draw a reaction from his critics. But by then, he didn't care.
A narrative had already been set. Some believed he'd found "a way out" against Yan and was now taking pride in a "fake win." The disparaging comments on his social media, the clown emojis, the nasty direct messages in his inbox -- not to mention his teammates, coaches and fiancée -- told him he'd probably lost those "fans" forever.
So, if that was already the case, why not really get under their skin? Why not troll them all right back?
"Was I always going to rematch Yan? Yes. So, shut the f--- up," Sterling says. "What was everyone b----ing about? I've been accused of running from a rematch that I literally asked Dana White for while I was in a hospital bed waiting for the results of a CAT scan. It all just made me realize how fickle fans can be. One minute they're for you, the next they don't support you anymore."
ONE OF THE questions Sterling has been asked most in the aftermath of his unusual championship win is whether or not he feels like a champion, given the nature of how he became one. His answer has been consistent.
"Do I feel like a champ? Yes, because of the competition I've had," he says. "I didn't get any handouts. Yan won the belt in 2020 by beating Jose Aldo, who was coming off a loss. I couldn't feel like the real champ if I were him. The competition that I have fought and that I have beaten, especially compared to his road -- yes, I deserve to be called a champ. Now, all I want to do is prove that in a championship setting."
To be clear, Sterling has not done that yet.
Things were not going well for Sterling in his first UFC title fight, even before Yan landed the illegal knee. He appeared to be losing the fight and was just 1 of 17 on takedown attempts. Plus, he was noticeably fatigued heading into Round 4 and without a game plan on how to counter Yan's dominance.
"I was getting my ass kicked," Sterling says. "I have no disagreement with that, and I'll openly say that I was."
Sterling, 32, claims he was flat on fight night because of poor nutritional choices that day. Due to COVID-19, Sterling wasn't allowed to leave the fighter hotel for any meal and says he ate only a small breakfast, resulting in low energy during the fight. He blames himself for mismanaging that.
To some, that story sounds a lot like an excuse. Even Longo acknowledges he had a serious conversation with Sterling over its validity.
"I told him, 'Listen, are you sure this is what happened?' I needed him to be honest with me and honest with himself," Longo says. "Because looking at that first fight, we needed to make some changes for the second one -- which we've done. But if you were really affected by not eating, that's a little bit of a different story. That's a real consideration. But even I had to ask him, 'How did we mess that up? This many fights into your career?' But Aljo is an honest guy, and I believe it."
Within Sterling's camp, confidence is high going into the rematch. He's been almost exclusively in New York ahead of this fight, after splitting camp between New York and Las Vegas the first time. He says he's the healthiest he's been in years. One month after the title fight, he finally underwent neck surgery to address a medical issue he says dates back to collegiate wrestling.
However, the mood around this matchup outside of Sterling's camp has changed. Sterling was a slight underdog for his first meeting against Yan, and now, he's the biggest underdog of his entire career. And because of those social media pictures on fight night, the perceived excuses about his nutrition, the fact Sterling was losing to Yan when the illegal knee occurred -- many people have turned on Sterling.
And they still view Yan, who won an interim title in October by defeating Cory Sandhagen, as the division's true champion.
"Everything that's happened was unintentional," Dvalishvili says. "It happened by mistake. This fight now, it's so important for Aljo, our team, for our reputation. We truly believe Aljo can beat him, and we believe he is better than Yan and we want all the people who have been talking s--- to see what's the real truth. This fight, I want Aljo to win more than I've ever wanted it for myself."
Sterling says he's not putting that kind of pressure on himself. He acknowledges how his career is perceived will be heavily influenced by what happens on Saturday, but his motivation is the same as it's always been. He's wanted to prove himself a champion, and this opportunity has come with plenty of noise around it.
"It can be a lot of pressure," Sterling says. "But I think the best way for me to handle it is to look at my body of work and say to myself, 'You can already sleep at night just fine with what you've accomplished.'
"If I were to lose this fight, I would gladly shake Yan's hand and say, 'You were the better man tonight.' But I want my fair opportunity to show the world I can beat him, which I deserve."