Grappling wizard, Aljamain Sterling, will throw down with Olympic gold medalist, Henry Cejudo, this Saturday (May 6, 2023) at UFC 288 inside Prudential Center in Newark, New Jersey.
After picking apart Cejudo’s resume in his fighter breakdown, it’s only fair we turn the microscope on Sterling as well, because “Funkmaster” has found himself in strange situations through little fault of his own. In his case, however, I would argue the outrage is a little overblown. He was getting worked by Petr Yan prior to the disqualification loss — there’s been some revisionism that Sterling wasn’t doing that bad, and it’s wrong — but Sterling adjusted and overcame in the rematch — that’s what champions do.
The T.J. Dillashaw win is utterly meaningless, sure, but the rest of Sterling’s career backs up his title reign. Choking out Cory Sandhagen in a couple minutes by itself is plenty title-worthy, and additional wins over men like Pedro Munhoz and Jimmie Rivera proved his greatness plenty as well.
Let’s take a closer look at his skill set:
The absolute best way to describe Sterling’s stand up style is busy. Early in his career, Sterling kickboxed like an off-brand Jon Jones, throwing hard kicks and ducking into takedowns the second punches came back his way. Over the years, he’s developed a frustratingly effective kickboxing attack that allows him to maintain a high-volume attack at distance and in the pocket while remaining safe.
Being massive for 135-pounds certainly helps in this regard.
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).
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, which brings us to a major factor in Sterling’s kickboxing success: convincing his opponent 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.
Lastly, I’d like to touch on the most confusing dynamic of Sterling as champion, which goes beyond striking. As Bantamweight king, Sterling is scheduled for nothing but five round fights, and he pushes an exceptionally high pace in terms of both strikes and takedowns attempted. What’s so interesting is that Sterling cannot maintain his own pace unless he is clearly winning; he will fatigue considerably in the second half of the fight if met with real resistance in either area.
A high-volume fighter with an inconsistent gas tank as champion is largely unprecedented in the smaller weight classes, and it feels like someone should be able to take advantage. It’s a testament to Sterling’s smarts and strategy, however, that no one has really been able to since Bryan Caraway many years ago against a lesser version of “Funkmaster.”
Sterling wrestled collegiately at the Division III level and achieved great success there. Inside the Octagon, he lives up to his nickname by expertly combining his wrestling and jiu-jitsu skill.
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.
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.
Fortunately, Sterling is pretty difficult to control, and he can turn being taken down into his own takedown.
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 an exceptional mix of skills and great physicality for the Bantamweight division. He’s going to have a significant edge in height and reach opposite Cejudo, as well as being the far more dangerous grappler. However, it will be interesting to see if Cejudo can capitalize on Sterling’s conditioning in the later rounds, as Sterling’s weight cut was significant and likely plays a role in his fatigue.
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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