After a controversial win at UFC 259 last March, bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling was forced to sit out the rest of 2021 because of a herniated disc on his neck. His injury was severe enough that he was made to undergo surgery a month after his title fight with Petr Yan.
“Funkmaster” needed the disc-replacement procedure to end the “radiating pain” down his neck. It was a successful surgery which he described as a “life-changing” one.
But for someone like UFC veteran Alan Jouban who went through the same operation, Sterling may not be the same fighter that he used to be.
“I believe it’s C5, C6 disc replacement,” Jouban said on MMA Fighting.com’s The Fighter vs. The Writer. “Those are tough things to come back from. They’re not as bad as sometimes you’ll see, these fighters like Daniel Cormier [and] other fighters that have had the back fusion, a disc in the back. When they get that fusion, they never quite get that mobility that they quite had.
“You saw that in Daniel’s three fights with Stipe. He looked kind of lesser in each one of those – no disrespect to my boy D.C. But he just didn’t seem like the same youthful guy.”
As Jouban explained, the 32-year-old Sterling may have gone for a disc replacement over neck fusion surgery to maintain mobility. But as he also explained, Aljo may also have compromised his neck strength.
“Fighters decline getting fused because they want the mobility in the neck. They want to be able to turn, so that’s why they elect to get disc replacement, but it’s not as strong as fusion upon impact. Football players need that impact.”
Jouban went through the same neck surgery in early 2019 and came back for two more fights: one he won and one he lost before retiring in 2021. He admitted that after the procedure, his approach to training and competition was significantly different.
In Sterling’s case, that difference in approach may also show up in his UFC 273 title rematch with Petr Yan.
“I fought two fights after my neck surgery, but I tell you what, going into the first fight after my neck surgery, I had done a lot of training in the gym, I had guys choke me out, [and] I would tap out right away,” Jouban explained.
“I didn’t want to mess anything up. I was saving it for the fight, but the first time that I got hit hard and my head jolted, I go holy shit, I hope my neck’s all right.
“I’m wondering if Aljamain has any reservations going into it,” he added. “Like, let me play safe. Let me go back to that old stay on the outside, kick, kick, kick, make Petr Yan make a desperate strike and then change levels.
“We might not see as an exciting fighter, is what I’m alluding to – we might see a smarter, safer fighter. Because it didn’t go well the first time, and now he’s had neck surgery, whether he doesn’t want to get caught with an uppercut or something crazy much less a knee, he might play it safe and play to the outside on this one.”
According to Jouban, fighters may lose “20 to 30 percent mobility” after going through such a procedure.
UFC 273 happens this Saturday, April 9 in Jacksonville, Florida. Headlining the event is a featherweight title fight between Alexander Volkanovski and “The Korean Zombie” Chan Sung Jung.
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