Aljamain Sterling eager for 145 debut: ‘I’ve been hurting for a very, very long time’

After years of punishing weight cuts down to bantamweight, Aljamain Sterling will finally make his long-discussed featherweight debut against Calvin Kattar at UFC 300.

And regardless of how the experiment plays out, the record-setting former UFC champion is already resolute on one thing: He’s never making 135 pounds again.

“Just the thought of it gives me a headache and makes me nauseous,” Sterling said on The MMA Hour. “Like, people tell me I wear it well and I don’t look like I’m hurting, ‘Oh, you had such a great weight cut.’ I’m like, I am literally dying inside. I could poker face it all I want, because mentally, that’s just the way I’ve always been. It’s like, you don’t show weakness in that way. You always try to show people that you’re good even when you’re not.

“But I know I’ve been hurting for a very, very long time. And I even think my past performances have kind of not been the best of me because of that. I just think I lose a little bit of myself and leave a little bit of myself in the gym. Cardio-wise, I don’t have the same output as I used to. And I’m kind of excited to just see what that’s going to look like at ‘45 and see if I can get back to that — that guy who’s in between rounds and is able to talk to the fans and yell to the crowd, and just show I’m full of energy and I’m ready to go.”

Sterling, 34, is the most decorated UFC bantamweight champion ever. Yet despite setting UFC records for the most wins, longest win streak, and most consecutive title defenses in the history of the division, his debut at 145 pounds is one long in the making. After publicly mulling the move for years, Sterling pledged to finally take the plunge — win or lose — after his latest bout against Sean O’Malley, in part for the sake of his own health and in part to clear a path to the belt for his longtime friend and teammate Merab Dvalishvili.

Sterling ultimately lost to O’Malley via second-round knockout at UFC 292, ending a nine-fight run that saw him defeat Henry Cejudo, T.J. Dillashaw, Petr Yan (x2), and Cory Sandhagen, among others. That setback squashed any potential for him to make his 145-pound debut in a champion vs. champion bout against Alexander Volkanovski, but “Funk Master” still drew a meaningful name for his April 13 showdown in Las Vegas at UFC 300.

“They offered four names and Kattar was the highest ranked,” Sterling said.

“Maybe I’m an idiot for this. Maybe I need to take the Drakkar Klose route and just go, ‘Give me the easiest opponent for the most amount of money,’ the Chael Sonnen route, right? But I want to fight the biggest and baddest dudes, man. At the end of the day, I think that’s what matters the most. How many of those guys were you actually able to beat? How did those fights look? What was your strategy like? My skill set versus his skill set. So there’s a lot that goes into it and that was the fight that made the most sense to me.

“He’s the highest ranked out of the four that they offered, and I think if I beat him and I beat him … the way that I think I’m capable of doing, I think I’m right next in line for title shot. I don’t think that’s too far fetched of a thing. You look at the guys at the top, they already fought for the belt. It Volkanovski wins again, I think the door’s wide open.”

Sterling has a point in that he enters featherweight at a curious time for the division. At age 35, Volkanovski is already the oldest champion in UFC featherweight history and has now lost two of his past three bouts at the hands of lightweight champ Islam Makhachev, the most recent of which ended with a brutal head-kick knockout in October. Volkanovski is set to defend his title against undefeated challenger Ilia Topuria on Feb. 17 at UFC 298, and if he wins, the only viable contender for him would likely be Movsar Evloev, who received surprising criticism from UFC CEO Dana White following a recent win over Arnold Allen.

That could open the door for Sterling to slide into pole position on the 145-pound ladder if he gets by Kattar, but the former champ also isn’t worried about looking that far ahead.

“I’m very grateful for everything,” Sterling said. “And I’m just wanting to see how far I can push this thing now. I hit all my goals. Now it’s, how high can I go? How many more mountains can I climb and see what I could do before it’s all said and done? At 34 years old, three-time defending UFC champion, made the money I’ve made — I don’t want to disclose that — and being able to put up family and certain things in certain positions in life, and I think, at the end of the day, that’s what we all hope to do as fighters. And if anyone hates on that, they’ve just f****** weird, man. They’re just weird people.

“So to each his own, and I’m looking forward to this one on April 13. And I can’t wait, man. I’m excited because Calvin is a badass, and I’m also excited because I like to see what I can do at this weight class, going with these guys that I’m going with now, and to see how I hold up. And I’m not going to be the biggest guy, but I know I can be just as strong, and I know I’m going to have the gas tank to push, and I think that’s going to be my weapon.

“Even if I don’t become a champ, man, I would like to just set record, set goals, and make as much money as I can,” Sterling added. “Because when it’s done, it’s done. There is no, ‘I want to go back in time and maybe I should’ve taken that fight, maybe I should’ve rolled the dice, maybe I should’ve canceled that vacation and did this.’ I don’t want to have those. I don’t want to have regrets. And I can see that there’s a light at the end of the tunnel.

“When I came into the sport to UFC, I was 24 years old. I’ve been with this company just about 10 years now. And to see the stuff that I’ve done over the years, man, literally three opponents unranked that I fought, everybody else has been ranked in the top 15, top 10, top five — I don’t think anyone could say anything about who I am as a person, as a character. Even if it’s not the greatest fight, they’re the toughest fights that I can get. So with that said, man, give me the best guys.”

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