In his second straight UFC pay-per-view main event, the now former bantamweight champion admits he wanted to put on a show – even if the audience in attendance seemed overwhelmingly on opponent Sean O’Malley’s side. Rather than taking the path of least resistance to ensure victory, Sterling said he didn’t want to deliver a lackluster fight.
“He stayed disciplined,” Sterling said about O’Malley at the UFC 292 post-fight press conference. “I didn’t want the fight to be boring. I could have sat on the outside and kept playing the leg kick game but then I would have had all the criticisms of everybody else. I was like this is the difference.
“He stayed disciplined to his game plan, and I kind of let trying to be a little bit more of an exciting style for the fans play a factor. We’ve seen the [Israel Adesanya]-Yoel Romero fight. We’ve seen bad fights before, where it’s like not much happens, because no one wants to make that grave mistake. I made the mistake, Sean capitalized. I paid for it.”
Heading into the fight, Sterling was a sizable betting favorite with many top analysts believing his wrestling and grappling game would give O’Malley a world of trouble. In just over five minutes spent in the cage together, he only made two takedown attempts, which O’Malley thwarted, and the rest of the fight was spent trading shots on the feet.
Sterling knew striking was going to be O’Malley’s best weapon against him, and he played right into that trap, especially when he lunged forward with a combination and then ate the counter right hand that led to the end of his title reign.
“He was better than what I thought in his footwork,” Sterling explained. “That was one of the things I tried to get guys to emulate, because I knew that is a hard thing to do. I do it myself when I go side to side, but it’s different when someone else is doing it to you, and I can’t track this motherf***** down. I tracked him down a couple of times, but then he would spin out at the last second. I think I threw a side kick, and he was able to pivot out beautifully. He did a couple things really, really well.
“I would have liked to get him down to the ground to really see how good he is down there, but the one thing I knew, we were doing a good job throwing that overhand right into the takedown. He threw the front kick, and I was like, ‘All right, I think I got his timing.’ I threw the left hand, and as I was coming down, he stepped back and threw a beautiful counter right and it was clean.”
As far as the crowd’s reaction – they chanted “f*** you Aljo” during the first round – Sterling promises he didn’t let that get to him.
“I could have made that a boring fight, and I probably wouldn’t be here right now [talking about a loss],” Sterling said. “It is what it is. The short answer, no, the boos don’t bother me. I’m glad the crowd actually has a reaction.”
With the win, O’Malley now takes over as champion while Sterling is left trying to figure out what’s next for him.
While he was previously contemplating a move up to featherweight with a win, Sterling is rethinking that decision off a loss, especially with the hope that he could run it back with O’Malley one day in the near future.
“I would like to think that I’ve earned my right to get an immediate rematch,” he said. “I’m going to remember this night for a very long time. It’s going to fuel me for just bigger and greater things.”