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Fighter on Fighter: Breaking down UFC 292’s Aljamain Sterling

MMA: UFC 280-Sterling vs Dillashaw Craig Kidwell-USA TODAY Sports

Professional backpack, Aljamain Sterling, seeks to defend his crown opposite rising knockout artist, Sean O’Malley, this Saturday (Aug. 19, 2023) at UFC 292 inside TD Garden in Boston, Massachusetts.

There’s been odd moments and controversy, but Sterling has successfully defended the Bantamweight belt three times now. That’s rarified air, and as a result, “Funkmaster” is encroaching on Dominick Cruz’s status as the all-time Bantamweight great. One way or another, this is to be his final bout at 135 lbs., and it’s hard to imagine a more perfect situation for Sterling should he win. One more strong showing will allow the champion to leave the division riding a 10-fight win streak and simultaneously shutting up a talented contender. That’s greatness, plain and simple, but it still requires victory this weekend.

Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:

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MASSIVE MIDDLEWEIGHT MATCH! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) makes its highly anticipated return to Sydney, Australia, for the first time in five years on Sat., Sept. 9, 2023, with a 185-pound world title fight inside Qudos Bank Arena. In the ESPN+-streamed pay-per-view (PPV) main event, Middleweight roost-ruler, Israel Adesanya, plans to silence No. 5-seeded contender, Sean Strickland. In UFC 293’s hard-hitting Heavyweight co-main event, No-6-ranked fan favorite, Tai Tuivasa, locks horns with towering Russian, Alexander Volkov (No. 8).

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Sterling is a high-volume striker who pretty evenly attacks the head, body, and legs. He’s no knockout striker, but it never feels good to eat a clean calf kick or step-in elbow from a man who’s giant for the weight class.

Sterling’s boxing is really defined by his ability to jab from both stances. A 71 inch reach at Bantamweight is significant, and Sterling makes good use of it by constantly peppering and prodding with his jab. Initially, that was the extent of it, but Sterling’s offense has developed considerably to the point that he’ll now stick jabs and then counter from the back foot as his opponent tries to respond (GIF). Against Cejudo, he did well in jabbing to the body as well.

Sterling’s foot work has grown considerably in this regard, as he used to just run away from the pocket. Now, he likes to step backwards once at an angle, often switching stances in the process. He’s able to fire back as a result. Most notably, Sterling won the first round against Petr Yan on the strength of his back foot kickboxing, including a slick intercepting elbow that seemed to wobble the Russian striker.

Sterling’s kicks make up a huge percentage of his offense. His standard round kicks are long, quick, and powerful, and he’s happy to work different targets. Muddying the waters further is Sterling’s frequent addition of the front snap kick to the body. It’s such a great long range weapon for the wrestler, a low-energy way to keep his opponent at his preferred distance and sap some of their fighting spirit.

Interestingly, Sterling is far from the best at setting up his kicks. At most, he’ll flash a jab or feint, but it’s quite rare to see Sterling advance forward with a combination then finish with a kick — it’s not his style. He’s definitely been clipped on the counter while leading with naked kicks, and his kicks have been caught too.

Fortunately, Sterling does the inverse, meaning he often punches after his kicks. This is an excellent way to build combinations, but for Sterling, it commonly results in counter lands. As his opponent tries to close distance while he’s returning his leg to stance, Sterling will be snapping a jab or resetting his stance with a hook (GIF). It makes countering his kicks a less appealing concept.

I will say that Sterling generally did a better job of setting up his kicks opposite Cejudo. There were still plenty of naked kicks, but range helped keep him safe against the shorter man. Instead of setting up kicks with punches, Sterling set up kicks with other kicks. He was constantly feinting with his hips, or showing the right low kick but instead stepping into Southpaw and blasting his left leg to the body. Sometimes, he’d show the right leg step then just pop a jab.

That’s the great part about attacking all areas of the body equally: basic strikes like a left body kick are more unpredictable.

Thanks to his high-volume and multi-targeted approach, Sterling excels at forcing opponents to shell up. There’s no better example than his win over Jimmie Rivera. If you watch the duo throw combinations side-by-side, there’s no question that Rivera is the sharper, more fluid boxer. Given that Rivera also has a tremendous calf kick and excellent defense, it would seem absolutely vital that Sterling take down Rivera in order to win, right?

Wrong! Sterling shut out Rivera 30-27 without landing a single takedown, and it wasn’t a close fight. Sterling scored a bit of control time with failed takedown attempts, but really it was his ability to constantly stay in Rivera’s face with jabs and front kicks safely that frustrated the boxer so badly. Rivera’s counter swings didn’t land from Sterling’s range, and he couldn’t come up with an alternative answer for fear of exposing himself to the takedown.

It’s important to note that Sterling takes huge defensive risks with his head movement. He takes his eyes off his opponent, ducking off to the side when retreating or leaning forward when advancing into takedowns. Often, his length and the threat of the takedown allows him to get away with it, but Marlon Moraes put him away with a high kick for a reason.


Sterling is a collegiate wrestler who has flourished in the cage, becoming a true master of MMA wrestling with some odd wrinkles to his appoach.

This section will focus on takedowns rather than ground control, and Sterling has a few approaches to scoring takedowns, and some are pretty creative. For example, Sterling is one of the best at catching kicks and converting them into takedowns. Since he’s so often peppering his opponent with long jabs and snap kicks, kicking back is an expected response. Sterling can often see it coming, loop the ankle with a wide grab, and then run his opponent over easily.

Another great tactic of Sterling is using the single leg to off-balance his opponent. Sterling isn’t afraid to shoot from afar and really dive for takedowns — a habit Yan punished repeatedly — but he’s more effective when able to duck down and simply grab the leg. Once in on the single, Sterling will attempt to run the pipe or club the head and dump, creating movement. Even if his opponent doesn’t touch the mat, these attempts often create an opening to chase the back.

It should come as no surprise that Sterling wrestles well along the fence. For a Bantamweight as lanky and powerful as “Funkmaster,” it’s trivial to finish the double leg once his hands are connected. In addition, he transitions well along the fence, using those same off-balance attempts to potentially lock his hands.

Interestingly, Sterling did a lot of his best work against Cejudo in the upper body clinch along the fence. He did a great job of locking his hands then attacking inside and outside knee position. Often, it wasn’t a trip that dragged Cejudo down, but the simple pressure and body position of Sterling imposing his size and strength.

If Sterling can get behind his opponent, it’s pretty much a wrap. He’s an expert at putting in one hook standing, at which point he has a couple options. For one, he can just jump at the back with his other hook, which he did to Cory Sandhagen. Alternatively, Sterling can use the single hook to trip up his opponent’s legs, allowing him to bundle them over and land in back mount.

Takedown defense is an interesting topic, because Sterling’s isn’t amazing. Yan took him down several times in the first fight and reversed several of his shots in the rematch, and even fighters like Cody Stamann and an older Renan Barao scored multiple takedowns on Sterling. More than anything, that’s a result of his naked kicking and occasional positional laziness, which can result in takedowns along the fence.

It doesn’t usually matter much though. Sterling is perfectly content to wrestle up from his back, as he’s beyond comfortable (too much so) hanging on his opponent’s legs from the sprawled out position. At worst, he’ll use that sequence to stand, but sometimes, he’s successfully able to wrestle up into his own takedowns.

Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu

A jiu-jitsu black belt, Sterling is the sport’s finest backpack since Demian Maia has retired.

Let’s talk taking the back, and what makes Sterling different from the many other backpackers in MMA. Two differences stand out right away. First and foremost, Sterling is way more aggressive in throwing hooks than most wrestlers. He jumps at the back more like a lifelong BJJ player a la Charles Oliveira than someone with a scholastic wrestling background.

Secondly, Sterling does an excellent job of getting the far hook in first. Often, the temptation when an opponent turns away — from standing or on the canvas — is to slip in the near side hook, the side of the body that Sterling is already situated on. It’s easier, and one hook is better than none, right? That strategy can work, but it also can alert the opponent to the potentially back take, causing them to lock up the opening for the far hook. Holding one hook on the same side is tricky, and it’s often the position where fights slip off and end up on bottom.

Note how in this clip (GIF), Sterling inserts his knee on the near side, but reaches far around the body to insert his other hook first. This puts him in a much better control position and less likely to fall off as soon as the hook is in, and it makes it far easier to secure the second hook.

Once on the back, Sterling is a master. Opponents do not escape. I’ve personally seen in the UFC Apex, body triangling one medicine ball and rear naked choking the crap out of another, straining as hard as he can for repetitions. He’s done some neat technical things to control — like pinning the arms behind the head with a WWE-esque master lock — but really, it comes down to being long, strong, and able to squeeze for long periods of time.

Sterling’s back offense is more than just the rear naked choke, though his success with that submission is amplified by his ability to squeeze and extend his opponent. Notably, he submitted Stamann with the Suloev stretch in classic fashion. When his opponent attempted to tripod and shake him over the top, Sterling based with his hands briefly before reaching back and hooking the leg. As he yanked it forward, Stamann lost his balance, allowing Sterling to really crank on the hamstring (GIF).

Against Takeya Mizugaki, Sterling capitalized on his opponents attempt to spin into the guard. When hip heisting back into guard, it’s essential that the defending fighter clears the elbow. Mizugaki tried, but Sterling kept his head glued to the armpit, allowing him to isolate the head and arm in an arm triangle position. Mizugaki successfully spun into guard, but he was also locked in a choke. Sterling scooted his hips to the side, squeezed, and forced the finish (GIF).

Finally, Sterling has attacked front chokes on several occasions, which fits naturally with his wrestling and back taking game, because a failed front choke can often result in a back take. Opposite Johnny Eduardo, Sterling wrapped up a guillotine from topside half guard, but he finished the submission by powering his way into a high mount, something he does often to convince fighters to turn away and expose the back.

This time, however, he had a nice wrap on the neck. While hover above Eduardo from this mount-like position, Sterling was able to nastily torque the head and neck. Watching it back, it’s no surprise the tap came very quickly, because the positioning was brutal (GIF)!


Sterling has one of the most unique skill sets and approaches to MMA of any recent champion. He’s entirely his own fighter, and he’s one that takes definite risks defensively. Opportunity is there for O’Malley to catch him, but it’s just as likely that Sterling simply dominates him on the floor.

Andrew Richardson, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu brown belt, is a professional fighter who trains at Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California. In addition to learning alongside world-class talent, Andrew has scouted opponents and developed winning strategies for several of the sport’s most elite fighters.

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