UFC champion is fighting ‘against my will’ at UFC 292

A reigning UFC champ claims he is being forced to defend his title against his will at the upcoming UFC 292 card.

By: Tim Bissell | 3 months ago

The UFC and Aljamain Sterling are not on good terms

Aljamain Sterling remains the UFC’s least favourite champion. Both ‘Da Funkmaster’ and company President Dana White have made it very clear that neither see eye to eye. Sterling says that White doesn’t respect his accomplishments and the company is like an ‘estranged father‘. White has questioned Sterling’s potency by deriding his hesitance to fight while hurt and threatened to make a short notice interim championship.

The latest sticking point between the two is Sterling’s scheduled UFC bantamweight title defense against Company-Man Sean O’Malley at August’s UFC 292.

The match-up was made almost as soon as Sterling defeated Henry Cejudo at UFC 288 in May. The match-up was announced despite Sterling making it clear that he hoped he would have some time to rest and heal before heading back into the cage.

Sterling has been pretty obvious over his annoyance at his title defence being set for UFC 292. However, in a video with Eric Nicksick he went a step further and said he would be competing at that event “against his will”.

“People don’t understand how much time I actually put into the sport,” said Sterling on his YouTube channel (ht MMA News). “Sometimes, you could get a little burned out. Sometimes that can take a lot out of you mentally. That’s why after this fight, I had so much things with Henry, so many things planned out, that I just wanted to decompress and stop thinking about fighting for once because I do so much to get to the fight and prep myself to mentally get ready for battle.”

“I had that just kinda ripped from underneath my legs,” continued Sterling. “Now I’m like, ‘Okay, this time you motherfuckers are not doing this to me again.’ So I’m gonna fight, even though it’s literally against my will. People can say whatever — if Dana [White] were to hear this, Hunter [Campbell] were to hear this, they would say, ‘We’re not making him do anything.’ Let’s be real here, bro. Come on, dude, you kinda are. Let’s call a spade a spade… Like I said, I still have injuries… Behind the scenes, they have their ways to kind of make you go, ‘Okay, I’m gonna do this for you guys again, even though I’m not gonna get any thank yous for it.'”

What if Sterling said no?

Let’s play out what might have happened if Sterling stuck to his guns and refused to fight O’Malley in August.

Dana White has already expressed that he would make an interim title fight if Sterling wouldn’t agree to that date. So we have to assume that’s what would happen. The match-up would likely have been O’Malley versus Henry Cejudo. Though, assuming Cejudo’s injury still happened that would have been scrapped.

That would have been the perfect opportunity to say, “Ok, never mind, we’ll do Sterling vs. O’Malley for the title a little later.” But that seems pretty unlikely given the way the UFC does business.

They want Sterling to fight on their schedule and making an interim champion is the best way to do it. Not because the schedule is all that important, but because having authority over fighters is.

They would have matched O’Malley with someone else near the top of the division, maybe Cory Sandhagen (who is now booked to fight Umar Nurmagomedov). The UFC might have made a real sicko move, too, by asking Merab Dvalishvili to step in and fight for an interim belt. I’m sure the Georgian best-bud of Aljo would have told them where to stick that offer.

So let’s say O’Malley vs. Sandhagen became the new headliner at UFC 292, for the interim UFC bantamweight title. One of them wins, let’s say O’Malley (since that would make the most chaotic timeline).

Now the UFC have a more powerful hand to force Sterling’s obedience. Instead of, jump through this hoop or we will make an interim champ, it would be jump through this hoop or we will strip you, since our man Sean is good to go and ready to fight all comers!

The belt is the ticket to big paydays in the UFC, so this threat comes with the ability to remove a fighter’s ability to make life changing income.

Even without the threat of being stripped, having an interim champion diminishes the champion’s ability to sell themselves as the best in their division. That might not translate much financially, since the UFC killed the fighter sponsorship market, but it effects a fighter’s pride. And pride has become a powerful source of manipulation by the UFC, who like to twist their fighters’ arms over threats of smearing them as too afraid to fight.

Making an interim champ also creates an antagonist role that can needle the champ at every turn, undermining their status and forcing them to get in line.

What can a fighter do?

Unless they are willing to lose an incredible amount of money and a chunk of the fleeting years they have to compete, there’s not much a fighter can do to combat these kinds of demands from the UFC.

The UFC holds all the power and, thanks to their contracts, can act unilaterally in the company’s interest. This doesn’t happen in other sports and you know why.

So if fighters don’t want to be ordered to compete where and when under threat of wage, time and opportunity loss, they need to get together and do something about it. That’s easier said than done, though, and it’s going to take a seismic shift in the sport (and in America) to change that.

In the meantime, fighters will always be fighting at the UFC’s pleasure and often against their will.

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About the author
Tim Bissell
Tim Bissell

Tim Bissell is a writer, editor and deputy site manager for Bloody Elbow. He has covered combat sports since 2015. Tim covers news and events and has also written longform and investigative pieces. Among Tim's specialties are the intersections between crime and combat sports. Tim has also covered head trauma, concussions and CTE in great detail.

Tim is also BE's lead (only) sumo reporter. He blogs about that sport here and on his own substack, Sumo Stomp!

Email me at tim@bloodyelbow.com. Nice messages will get a response.

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