There are currently six UFC champions not booked for a title defense. Aljamain Sterling is not among them. What’s odd about that is Sterling defended his UFC belt more recently than the champions who find themselves without a fight. Which leads to the question, why is the promotion in such a rush to get Sterling back into the octagon?
Sterling defended his bantamweight crown in the main event of UFC 288 on May 6. He defeated Henry Cejudo by split decision in that contest. Less than two weeks later, UFC president Dana White officially announced that Sterling would face Sean O’Malley in the main event of UFC 292 on August 19.
Unbooked UFC champions
UFC light heavyweight champion Jamahal Hill: Won the vacant title via decision over Glover Teixeira at UFC 283 on January 21, 2023.
Sterling and his camp are frustrated
The UFC bantamweight champ was not looking for a quick turnaround, and he seemed displeased with the direction the UFC was going in booking him ahead of other champions who had been inactive.
“I would rather be able to enjoy my summer a little bit more and my birthday,” Sterling said. “So it is what it is. Yeah, it’s a little frustrating, but I know this is a job so we’ll try to figure it out as best we can.”
Meanwhile, Sterling’s head coach, Ray Longo, was more blunt in his assessment of the situation.
“I think it’s the inconsistency of, well, (Islam) Makhachev hasn’t fought in a year,” Longo said. “Why are you forcing me to fight in two months? Like, that’s where I have a problem.”
“I like fairness, and I like the transparency of knowing everybody’s going the same thing,” Longo continued. “Like if Dana wanted to turn everybody around every two months, then that’s it, that’s what you signed up for.
“These are their rules. It’s their company. He built it up. He gets to call the shots, but to do one thing one time and not the other time, I think that’s where it gets a little sticky for me.”
Sean O’Malley’s camp says ‘UFC knows what they’re doing’
Longo’s accusations of favoritism weren’t washed away when O’Malley’s coach, Tim Welch, told The MMA Hour he thought the UFC wants O’Malley as its champion.
“Yeah, for sure,” Welch said. “Having ‘Sugar’ be the champion, what other bantamweight in history has just one-punched people and walked off like Mark Hunt? A bantamweight. A tall, skinny kid with tattoos and curly hair, one-punching people and walking off. The UFC knows what they’re doing. ‘Sugar’ is a big superstar and the UFC helped with that, so I’m sure the UFC would love to see a KO artist that’s as flashy as Sean be the champion.”
Location, Location, Location
The UFC is not above asking (or is that forcing?) its fighters to accept fights because it has a specific date and location to fill. The promotion has TD Garden in Boston booked for UFC 292. With that, it’s not out of the question to think the UFC saw O’Malley’s Irish surname and is attempting to capitalize on that by booking him in a city that has a strong Irish heritage, as well as a healthy hatred for anyone or anything that comes from New York, which Sterling does.
Sterling is being disrespected
White’s response to Sterling’s claims that he and the UFC are not giving him credit for what he’s accomplished and taking fights when he was not at 100 percent, White lashed out at his bantamweight champ.
“We’ll have somebody else fight. We’ll do somebody else for the interim title,” said the UFC boss. “Don’t say you’re going to go out and fight and then start saying stuff like, ‘If my [body holds up].’ What’s the first thing that happened? As soon as I was at the [UFC Vegas 73] press conference, I was asked, ‘Is Aljamain Sterling really going to fight or not?’
Is that what you want the fans thinking? How is that me not giving him credit? I didn’t say anything! That was a Saturday afternoon. I was home, working out, minding my own business when my phone starts blowing up and Henry Cejudo is calling me saying, ‘I’ll take the fight, I’ll take the fight.’ Why? Is Aljo out? ‘Yeah, he’s already making excuses, if his body holds up, just give me the fight, we’ll fight for the interim.’ … Then I walk into the press conference and one of the first things I’m asked is, ‘Hey is Aljamain still fighting?’ How am I not giving him credit? Ridiculous!”
It’s not ridiculous.
White has six UFC champs sitting idle who could fit the bill as the UFC 292 headliner. That the UFC wants to put the challenger, O’Malley, ahead of the champion reeks of favoritism and is reminiscent of when White did his best to bully then UFC flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson into accepting a fight against T.J. Dillashaw.
“At the end of the day, you know how I am with that stuff. Unfortunately for D.J. you don’t make the fights around here – I do. So that’s the fight we’re pushing for,” said White at the time. “That’s the fight. I talked to T.J. Dillashaw yesterday. That’s the fight he wants, he’s ready, he’s already cutting weight.”
Johnson held his ground and refused to capitulate. Sterling should do the same.
Sterling’s mental and physical health should be more important to the UFC than what White and O’Malley want. We all know that’s not the case. Sterling has been around the UFC long enough to know that if he accepts the O’Malley fight against his better judgment and loses his belt, his next fight might not be a title rematch. Plus, that fight will come with a far smaller purse than his current champion’s payout.
An interim title fight at UFC 292 is not a bad outcome for Sterling. That would give him time to heal and rest. It would also build fan interest in the title unification bout and allow him to play the role of the heel ahead of that unification fight. The UFC has let Sterling know he is not one of its favorite champs, as have a vocal group of fight fans. He’s never going to win either of those parties over. For Sterling, it’s better to be healthy and hated than disrespected and bullied.
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