Aljamain Sterling considered retirement if he lost at UFC 300: ‘I was probably done’

Aljamain Sterling was nervous heading into UFC 300.

The former UFC bantamweight champion had already established himself as an all-time great at 135 pounds with his record-setting title run, but Saturday’s event offered a daunting new challenge. Not only was he still reeling from his first loss since 2017, Sterling’s date with Calvin Kattar also marked the beginning of a new chapter up a weight class at 145 pounds.

“Fight day in the back room was when I really started to second guess a lot of everything,” Sterling revealed Monday on The MMA Hour. “I was just having doubts of, like, ‘Man, if this doesn’t go well, I don’t know where I go from here. Do I continue to keep fighting? Or do I just call it quits?’ [That] kind of thing. And those were real thoughts I had. Because I’m like, at the end of the day, I’m not just trying to just collect a check. There’s so many guys who stick around just to do that. I respect them, but I’m here to be number one, man.

“If it’s just like, I’m just going to be in the pack? I made enough money, I think I’ve done enough with my career where I’m like, ‘Alright, it’s probably time to find a new job.’ That’s kind of the way I look at things. If you’re not first, you’re kind of last.”

Sterling, 34, suffered a knockout loss to Sean O’Malley this past August, ending a run that saw him win nine consecutive UFC bouts from 2018-23 and reign over the bantamweight division as champion for three title defenses. That loss, combined with wanting to clear a path to title contention for his longtime friend and teammate Merab Dvalishvili, prompted Sterling to finally make the move up to 145 pounds. But “Funk Master” admitted Monday that a lot more was on line for his featherweight experiment than anyone truly realized.

According to Sterling, retirement was a very real possibility on his mind.

“It depends on how it would’ve happened,” Sterling said. “I think if I had got my ass completely kicked by Calvin Kattar, I was probably done. And no one knew about that. I didn’t share those sentiments with anybody, even my fiancee. It’s just one of those things. I mentioned to her like, ‘Well, if I can’t beat him, I don’t know,’ but I didn’t really go into detail what that actually meant. I just kind of said it, like, ‘We’ll see what happens. I don’t know what’s going to happen.’ That’s kind of the way I kept it with everybody.

“My internal thoughts were, ‘This guy is good, but if I’m claiming to be who I think I am and who I want to be, man, I feel like I should be able to beat a guy like this. If I can’t, then how am I ever going to expect to beat the guy who’s sitting on top of the throne right now?’”

Sterling ultimately avoided that fate. He dominated Kattar from pillar to post to sweep the judges’ scorecards and inject himself directly into the featherweight conversation.

After struggling for years to make the 135-pound limit, Sterling admitted the weight cut to 145 pounds was still a challenge. He revealed that he was 163 pounds on fight day and admitted his surprise because he expected the process to be easier than it was. Yet as soon as he stepped into the cage with Kattar and started feeling his capabilities at the heavier weight, most of Sterling’s fears about competing at 145 pounds melted into thin air.

“After that first round, I kind of had the confidence like, ‘Oh s***, I actually do belong here. This is where I should’ve been the entire time,’” Sterling said. “And the speed difference was apparent, the strength felt apparent, the height was nonexistent. Like, the height difference was nonexistent. He had a one-inch reach advantage over me, that was nonexistent. I think I used my reach pretty well, more effectively — I out-struck him on the feet. Like I said, this was a guy I was really scared about, and to go out there and do what I did, I think it shows a lot. And it wasn’t just like I eked a win. I dominated from beginning to end.

“It takes two to tango. If he’s not trying to give up position so he doesn’t get finished, what am I supposed to do? I mean, Max Holloway couldn’t even put him away for crying out loud, and we saw how that fight was, right? So with that said, I was pretty bummed about it, until I went back and I watched it — and I was actually very pleasantly surprised with the performance, and I was actually really proud of what I was able to do.”

Sterling is now in the thick of things at 145 pounds. One name commonly mentioned for his potential next opponent after UFC 300 has been Movsar Evloev, the undefeated grappling specialist who sits in the top five of the UFC’s own media-generated rankings.

Sterling doesn’t mind the idea of fighting Evloev, however he has another name in mind.

“I would actually rather [have] the [Brian] Ortega fight,” Sterling said. “I’m gunning for the belt. So if there’s a fight for me, [if] you’re going to give me the option to pick, I’m going to pick the highest ranked guy, because if I could beat the highest ranked guy, I think it’ll just remove all doubt altogether. So it’s not that the fight with Movsar wouldn’t be fun. I think two grapplers, the way we grapple, it could be some very fun scrambles — especially with his Arnold Allen fight, there was some fun scrambles in there.

“But the Ortega fight is just as entertaining because of the grappling styles. I’ve got the wrestling, he’s got some good solid striking, I think I’ve got some decent striking, and we’re both I think pretty solid on the ground with jiu-jitsu, and I think that makes for a great opportunity for a lot of good scrambles and a lot of good grappling exchanges for people who don’t really understand grappling. I think that would be a cool fight for people to kind of engage in and see where the fight actually takes place, because maybe it might take place standing up.”

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