For most fighters, a UFC title is the greatest achievement they can reach in the sport of MMA. Not only does it confer a position that the owner might just be the very best fighter in the world (at least at their weight class), but it’s also the only guaranteed way to get the UFC to really open their pocketbook. All things considered, it’s about the single greatest piece of leverage available in mixed martial arts.
Even after being stripped of his title, Francis Ngannou was still able to parlay his position as UFC heavyweight champion into a heretofore unheard of contract with the PFL. Being champion means people have to take notice. Not just fans, but executives too. Which makes Aljamain Sterling’s plans for the future very strange.
Aljamain Sterling nearly certain he’ll vacate title after UFC 292
For many fans, Aljamain Sterling’s title run still feels like a surprise. The longtime Serra-Longo product first picked up gold via a strange set of circumstances: A DQ illegal knee from then-champion Petr Yan, after which Sterling was unable to continue. Sterling followed that performance with a narrow decision win over Yan, and then a pushover fight against a badly injured TJ Dillashaw. A recent split decision over Henry Cejudo was, perhaps, the most convincing performance of Sterling’s title-fight career.
That said, the ‘Funk Master’ has still managed to build a strong resume. One which he may add to at UFC 292 in Boston this coming Saturday, August 19th. After that, win or lose, however, Sterling’s time as champion may be done. Not because he’s planning to retire, but because he sees his future at 145 lbs.
“This is more than likely my last fight at 135,” Sterling explained in a recent interview with the MMA Hour (transcript via MMA Fighting). “There’s a 99 percent chance it’s my last.
“If I win this, for sure, I’m out of here.”
“It’s Merab [Dvalishvili]’s time, man,” he added. “And the second part of that is, I’m a little bit over cutting weight, this much weight. I walk around 165, 170 [pounds]. I think I could hold that frame relatively better, and I think my conditioning and everything could actually go up a little bit more, back to when I was younger, where I was cutting less.
“I’m 34 now, so I think I just wanna get ahead of it before it gets ahead of me.”
Dvalishvili, Sterling’s longtime teammate, positioned himself as a top contender for the belt this last March, with his own win over Petr Yan. Both he and Sterling have made it clear for years now, that they would never face one another inside the cage. Even still, Sterling’s choice to vacate the belt seems surprisingly selfless of him.
A brief history of vacated UFC belts
If Sterling wins and goes through with his plans, he’d mark the 16th time that a sitting champion has volunteered to give up his belt. Even in that field however, his position looks quite unique.
First off, a whole passel of those vacated belts look a lot more like a fighter who saved the UFC the need to strip them of their title instead. Notably, Jiri Prochazka and Jamahal Hill both vacated the light heavyweight title in the past 12 months, after suffering major injuries outside the cage, and after conversations with UFC brass. Dominick Cruz took ~2 years to make a similar move. TJ Dillashaw vacated his belt after failing a drug test that would sideline his career longterm.
Fighters like Georges St-Pierre, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Henry Cejudo, and Amanda Nunes all vacated titles in order to retire. While Daniel Cormier and Cejudo (again) vacated belts after already winning their second championship in a new division.
The fighters that fit something similar to Sterling’s profile are either old school throwbacks like Frank Shamrock & Bas Rutten (who dropped their belts at a time when there wasn’t any money to be made in MMA at any level), and Jon Jones—who ruled LHW for most of a decade before deciding he wanted to move on.
Not one of these fighters dropped their title so that their friend could take it over.
By its nature, combat sports is a selfish game. A team may be there to help a fighter train, buoy them with support, and coach them through hard times. But once they’re inside the cage, they’re effectively alone.
He’ll have to win a fight first, but if Sterling gets his hand raised at UFC 292, he’s set himself up to break new ground in the UFC. A testament to friendship if ever there was one—assuming, of course, that he actually walks the walk and doesn’t just talk the talk.
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