Check the story stream on the right side of the page or the links at the bottom of the article for previous installments, in which I've discussed the methods behind the selection process and criteria for inclusion.
2) Aljamain Sterling, Bantamweight (8-0)
Years Pro: 2.75
Recent UFC signee Aljamain Sterling has been called "the bantamweight Jon Jones" often enough that it's almost a meme. That's a lot of hype for a 24-year old with less than ten fights to his name, but does the comparison work? Not really, as far as I'm concerned. Jones' rise from total unknown to champion in less than three years will probably never be matched again, and it's completely unfair to drop the label on a young fighter, even one as obviously talented as Sterling. Put it this way: at identical stages of their careers (2.75 years), Sterling is currently preparing for his UFC debut, while Jones was getting ready to fight Shogun for the title.
With that said, there are some parallels. Both are New Yorkers, both had a decorated wrestling career (Sterling was a Division-III All-American), both began their career training at Bombsquad in Ithaca, both are exceptional athletes, both are willing to try unorthodox techniques in the heat of a fight, and both combine their takedown skills with a diverse and rangy striking game. Most importantly, both excel in the transitional phases, a skill that's become absolutely essential to success in the current landscape of high-level MMA. To move the focus to Sterling himself, he's developing nicely as a striker, his takedown skills work beautifully in an MMA context, and he possesses a punishing top and submission game once the fight hits the mat. He's surprisingly polished, if a bit funky, and Sterling is prepared for UFC-level competition under the tutelage of Matt Serra and Rey Longo.
Let's begin with striking. As the Jon Jones comparison suggests, Sterling's striking is unorthodox, with a diverse array of spinning kicks, spinning backfists, and jumping knees. Those funky techniques are built on a pretty solid foundation of fundamentals, however, and Sterling throws a nice jab, left hook, and standard front and round kicks at range to set up his more unorthodox strikes. His left hook is by far his best punch at this point: he steps into it and transfers his weight nicely, and he'll whip it to the body as well as the head. Sterling's punching technique is still developing, but it's clearly improved from his early fights, as he does a much better job of covering distance and keeping his feet underneath him. Nobody's going to confuse him with Jack Dempsey anytime soon, but these are reasons to be optimistic about Sterling's development as a puncher under the tutelage of Ray Longo. We're on firmer ground with his kicks. His front and push kicks are sharp and quick, and he'll often land in the opposite stance after throwing, which helps him cover distance quickly. His round kicks are likewise solid, though he could stand to turn his hip over a little more, especially on his high kicks. The real highlight of his striking game, however, lies in the unorthodox techniques I mentioned earlier. Sterling is adept at using his round and front kicks to move his opponent into spinning strikes, and the net effect of those strikes is to keep his opponent on the outside and near the fence.
Sterling's ability to use his striking to control where his opponent is in the cage allows him to transition to his main strength, wrestling and clinch fighting. His clinch entries and shots are smooth and polished, and he does a good job of disguising them with strikes. He knows how to stay busy and grind away with short strikes against the fence, which shows a surprising amount of veteran polish for a guy with only eight pro fights on his record, but his takedown game is the real threat: he hits a variety of inside and outside trips and a nice array of throws from the clinch, while his shots are explosive and well timed, usually with his opponent close to the fence to shut down a potential sprawl. He's also adept at positional advancements in the clinch, and shows solid mat returns when he has his opponent's back. Once he gets his hands on you, it's likely that you're hitting the mat one way or the other. One aspect Sterling could improve is his close-range striking. As I mentioned, he's adept at staying busy, but his positional game in the clinch is good enough that it creates a substantial number of openings that go unexploited. This isn't a major flaw or anything - after all, Sterling's young and hasn't been fighting long - but adding some elbows and hard knees would make him even more dangerous.
Once his opponent hits the mat, Sterling really goes to work. He's done a fantastic job of integrating his wrestling and grappling games, and this shows strongly in two specific ways. First, he has a great front headlock, and his transitions to the seatbelt position and then his opponent's back (something of a specialty for Sterling) are lightning-fast. As he spends more time at Serra-Longo, it's likely that he'll continue to add to that skill with more guillotines, Anaconda chokes, and D'Arces, which are well-suited to his long and rangy body type. He also does a nice job of turning near- and far-side cradles into back-takes and positional advancements. The second significant point is his scrambling ability, which is a product of both his exceptional athleticism and years of wrestling, and here again he's adept at getting to his opponent's back. From top position, Sterling showcases a heavy base and powerful ground striking, which he integrates nicely with his increasingly skillful guard passes. Defend the ground strikes and Sterling will pass; defend the pass and Sterling will punch you in the face. Even from his back, Sterling's dangerous: he has ultra-quick hips, and will throw up a fast submission attempt as a means of forcing a scramble in which he's almost certain to come out on top. In any grappling situation, Sterling's going to attempt to get the back, and once he does it's only a matter of time before he finds the rear-naked choke.
I'll admit to being a bit underwhelmed by Sterling the first time I took a gander at the film, considering the amount of hype he has behind him. He's unorthodox enough, moves in such an unusual way, and employs such an uncommon mixture of techniques that it's easy to miss the method to the madness. After watching a couple of times, however, I began to notice the flashes of utter brilliance in his ground game, the polished veteran moves like throwing knees to the thigh in the clinch that can be the difference between winning and losing a round, and the way he consistently tries to force his opponent into his most damaging strikes on the feet. He's a deceptive athlete - he doesn't really jump off the screen the way a guy like Sheymon Moraes or Henry Cejudo might - with outstanding quickness and the kind of instincts you can't teach.
Sterling has also improved greatly from fight to fight, even during the year he was out with an injury. He's moved from the Bombsquad to Serra-Longo, a great camp with a fantastic track record of developing talented young fighters, and there's every reason to believe he'll continue to get better at a rapid rate. He's currently slated to face Lucas Martins at UFC 170, and Martins is a talented young fighter in his own right, but Sterling has the physical tools, the skills, and the team behind him to eventually become a legitimate threat for the bantamweight title.
(This is a fairly old highlight, so don't take it as representative of where Sterling's at right now)
25-23: Steve Mocco, Michinori Tanaka, and Nick Newell
22-20: Max Nunes, Gleristone Santos, and Walter Gahadza
19-18: Ramazan Emeev and Rick Glenn
17-16: Georgi Karakhanyan and Jim Alers
15-14: Tyrone Spong and Marlon Moraes
13-12: Mansour Barnaoui and Islam Makhachev