UFC 288: Aljamain Sterling vows to 're-retire The Cringe' and win respect he deserves

Exclusive: Bantamweight champion talks to 'The National' about this weekend's headline title clash with Henry Cejudo, silencing the doubters and taking out Sean O'Malley next

Bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling after his victory over TJ Dillashaw at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi. Chris Whiteoak / The National
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As Aljamain Sterling concedes, it can depend on whom you ask, but still it feels as though the UFC bantamweight champion does not garner the respect his résumé deserves.

Not least from upcoming opponent in the UFC 288 headliner this Saturday, when Sterling welcomes former champion, and previous two-division titleholder, Henry Cejudo back to competition.

Cejudo, who goes by the “Triple C” moniker in a nod to his dual UFC belts and a wrestling gold medal mined from the 2008 Olympics, returns to the world’s lead Mixed Martial Arts promotion at the Prudential Centre in Newark, New Jersey, following his retirement little more than three years ago.

For Sterling, who won the bantamweight belt in 2021 and defended it successfully for a second time at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi last October, this weekend simply provides another opportunity to silence the doubters.

Chief among them, Cejudo.

“I think it’s ballsy,” Sterling tells The National. “I don’t know if he thinks this is the perfect fight for him to come back to. I’ve heard him say some stuff like he doesn’t think I’m dangerous in any way.

“And I feel like so many have said the same exact words and then, right after the fight, they’re slowly playing the world’s tiniest violin. They’re all playing it.

“They realise it’s a different game when you step in there with me, man – my style, the way I adapt, the way I come into each fight, is completely different than what you saw last time.

“And I’m only getting better. I’m in my prime, where the mental meets the physical. And we’re going to see on May 6.”

At the age of 33, and riding an eight-fight win streak, Sterling is looking forward to adding the diminutive-but-dangerous Cejudo to an increasingly impressive cast list of the conquered.

“The next opponent is a big one and I can’t wait to go out there and remind the world once again that my work speaks for itself," he says.

“I get to go out there and remind this Oompa Loompa that, you may have this shiny Olympic gold medal, but this ain’t a wrestling match, brother. This is a fight. So bring your best game, I’m going to bring my best game, and we’ll figure this out.”

Sterling, 22-3 as a professional, has figured out a lot of rivals since his last defeat, some time ago in December 2017. The American may have won the belt in controversial circumstances – in March 2021, then-champion Petr Yan was disqualified for striking Sterling with an illegal knee – but he prevailed in the rematch by split decision.

UFC's Aljamain Sterling reflects on time in Abu Dhabi before new title clash

UFC's Aljamain Sterling reflects on time in Abu Dhabi before new title clash

The most recent addition to the unbeaten run came in Abu Dhabi, when Sterling dominated TJ Dillashaw, another former champion, albeit severely compromised by a shoulder injury, at Etihad Arena to win by second-round TKO.

The trip to the UAE was a huge success, professionally and personally.

“Just the people over there being very hospitable, taking care of us,” Sterling says of the experience. “The culture in general. Learning a way of life from a different perspective, different walk of life, different religion, different type of faith.

“Everything over there was really fun, a very eye-opening experience, and something that I’m never going to forget in the sense that you just take a piece of that with you.

“I can’t wait to come back out there. Hopefully we get it done again, on May 6, and maybe we can plan something coming back out that way.”

Sterling beats Dillashaw at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi

Sterling says the steadfast self-belief heading into UFC 288 stems from a gruelling preparation. A supreme grappler with brilliant Brazilian jiu-jitsu, the New York-native has boxed hard, gone through the sequences and situations with several partners, often in the same session.

In getting ready for the five-round fight with the 36-year-old Cejudo, he has tagged on extra time and grappled through that as well. He is convinced the hard yards will pay off.

“When I look at it, I just go, ‘How can this one man do any of what these guys are doing to me?’,” Sterling says. “I’m fighting one person, not three different guys like I’m doing in the room. And that’s going to put me in a very good spot mentally, which it already has.

“All I have to do is go out and execute. Yes, it’s a fight, anything can happen. But I like my odds, I like my weapons against his. And that’s what it comes down to: who’s going to have the better toolbox and who’s going to use that toolbox the best. And I think that’s going to be me.”

Display those tools, get the job done and Sterling has already mapped out his future: another defence at bantamweight then a move to featherweight to try for champ-champ status.

Sean O’Malley, a genuine UFC star ranked No 2 contender at 135lbs, is an obvious next challenge should Sterling see off Cejudo (Sterling's training partner and close friend, Merab Dvalishvili, represents the division’s No 1-ranked challenger, but the two have said they won't fight one another).

O’Malley’s most recent win arrived also at UFC 280, when he came through a gruelling split decision against Yan. With Sterling now firmly in the business of taking out major names, they don’t come much more hyped than O’Malley.

“Respectfully, I don’t consider O’Malley a hype train any more,” Sterling says. “I think the guy is good. The guy has shown he can fight. People can say whatever they want about the Petr Yan fight; a close fight is not a robbery. I got the same flak in the rematch.

“I look at O Malley, he’s a tough competitor, he’s really good. The only thing we don’t know about him is how good is he on the ground. He talks a big game, that he knows what he’s doing down there. But if he did, he would have taken the title shot [against me] when it was offered.

“Because it was offered … 100 per cent offered. He opted not to take it. He opted to take more time to get better with his ground game because they think, and he thinks, that if he were to take the fight now against myself or Henry, he probably would get [badly beaten]. And with me, he’d probably get ground-and-pound and put out.

“All fights start standing; he has his problems that he brings to the octagon that you got to solve. But there’s good fighters and then there’s great fighters. And I don’t think he’s in the category of great. I think he’s got some chinks in his armour. The one time we did see it he got TKO-ed [the 2020 loss to Marlon Vera remains O’Malley’s sole defeat in 18 pro bouts].

“But time has passed since that fight, and he’s gotten a lot better. Hopefully, it’s me that gives him that title-shot opportunity and to just show him that there are levels.

“And then, after that, I can [move up and] let Merab reign terror on the rest of these bantamweights.”

First, though, the outspoken, typically dismissive, Cejudo. Three years out or not, the supposed "King of Cringe" has never been too far from public view, often making known his take on what he considers to be a paucity of proper talent at bantamweight.

Thus, Sterling wants to make Cejudo eat his words.

“A win over him just further cements my name in the history books,” Sterling says. “Another big scalp to get, that’s more so what it is. Another notch in the win column for the bantamweight division, having the most wins in bantamweight history.

“I don’t think anyone has fought more top-five bantamweights than I have – and beaten them. That’s the difference coming into this: I'm more bout-tested in this division.”

Just maybe, a convincing victory would go some way, too, to convincing the naysayers.

“At the end of the day you have to remember, we all signed the contract, we all make the walk into the octagon, and it’s whoever wins and whoever’s the better man that day and that night,” Sterling says. “And fortunately for me, I’ve been coming out on the right side of things since, what, 2017?

“So when we look at it like that, adding Henry’s name to the grocery list just makes it that much sweeter. I can’t wait to go out there and just re-retire The Cringe.”

Updated: May 04, 2023, 6:35 PM