Aljamain Sterling has spoken out in more detail about the inner torment that finally led to him making the decision to withdraw from a bantamweight title rematch with Petr Yan at UFC 267 recently.
Sterling said that he’d been struggling in training due to ongoing issues with a neck injury that he’d underwent surgery for earlier in the year, but he was trying to battle on regardless due to feeling like he had no option but to go ahead with the rematch against Yan.
“I trained my ass off and I just wasn’t getting any results of what I wanted,” Sterling said on the Schmozone podcast. “Talk about doing all those rounds, strength and conditioning work, early mornings, and then going into sparring sessions and after one round of grappling and throwing strikes and your arms are just super heavy, I’m like, ‘Yo, I feel like I’m in the Petr Yan fight all over again.’
“That’s exactly what it felt like. I was, like, ‘I feel like I’m living a nightmare that just won’t end.’ It was just crazy.
“I told my roommates at the house after the last sparring session that I had with Merab — I think it was the week before his fight — and I told the guys I said, ‘Listen, man. I don’t know what’s about to happen. I don’t think I can pull out of this fight because it just feels like if I do, I’m gonna get a lot of shit.’ And this is my personal opinion, I don’t know if the UFC would be happy.
“I know it sucks, it’s a big fight, they want to get the division moving, it’s a hot division. All these things I’m thinking about and they’re like, ‘Why would you do that?’ I was, like, ‘I think I’m just gonna go in there and I’m just gonna wing it. I think I know what he can do. I think I just gotta be smart and I think if I could catch him with one of those flying knees again, I think this time I can end the fight.’
“That’s honestly what I said to my roommates, and they’re like, ‘Dude, that’s crazy. Why would you ever put yourself in that position?’ I’m like, ‘I almost feel like I have no choice.’
However, in the end it was taking too much of a physical and mental toll on Sterling and so he pulled the plug on the fight, knowing that even if he did face a backlash, it was still preferable to jeopardizing his long-term health.
“That was the most down I’ve been in a very long time. Super depressed. ‘Cause, that’s how much this sport means to me. I’d been able to provide and how much I love it and I like competing, and not being able to do those things and feeling like you’re gonna get hurt.
“I felt like I’m gambling my quality of life all in one fight to try to make the fans happy when I know I’m doing the wrong thing. It was a really complex and difficult situation, but all in all, I made the right decision for the longevity of my health.
“I wasn’t fun to be around. Ray was like, ‘Dude, I haven’t seen you smile in God knows how long.’ I’m not happy. Getting my ass kicked in training.
“I know Merab’s good, but we battle. It’s never that one-sided. Even when he was peaking in the past, it was never this one-sided. There’s clearly something going on, and here we are.”
Sterling will now continue to rehab from the neck surgery without having to worry about defending the title for the time being, while Yan will instead fight for the interim title against Cory Sandhagen at UFC 267 instead, with the winner meeting ‘The Funk Master’ to unify the belts at a later date.