Bryan Caraway cemented his position in the top five of the official UFC bantamweight rankings this past weekend when he upset the highly-touted Aljamain Sterling, delivering him his first professional loss. It was a back-and-forth fight on the mat, but Caraway pulled away in the later rounds and extended his winning streak with a split decision victory.
Sterling was very determined to fight Caraway and once the fight was booked, "Funk Master" was just as determined to shut the underdog down at UFC Fight Night 88 on May 29.
According to Caraway, Sterling's hype and trash talk just made it that much better of a victory.
"Anytime you can get a win in the UFC, it feels absolutely amazing," Caraway told BloodyElbow.com's The MMA Circus. "And to get a win over such a talented, highly-regarded opponent as himself. Undefeated, everything was extremely satisfying. To be the first guy to give him his first loss, beating the number four guy in the UFC. All the combined, it was awesome."
Sterling is a very confident fighter, like any undefeated up-and-comer should be, with a handful of very high-level wins under his record. But "Kid Lightning" believes Sterling was over-confident going into the fight with him, which ended up being one of many things that cost him his first professional loss.
"Absolutely," he said. "I think that's why, partially, the reason why he called me out. He was just so confident. It's hard not to be when you're finishing top 10 guys. He finished Mizugaki, he finished Johnny Eduardo. Those are tough dudes. Having an undefeated record puts you up a little bit on a pedestal I think. That's what ultimately got him in trouble."
Caraway struggled early on as Sterling was able to control him for the majority of the first five minutes. He blames his slow 1st round on cage rust. Prior to this past weekend, he hadn't fought since a July 2015 win over Eddie Wineland. That said, cage rust didn't stop him from winning. He got his rhythm back in the second and third rounds and grinded out the New Yorker for the rest of the fight.
"He did a good job first round, but to be honest I contribute it a little bit to more of a mistake I made," he said. "And then he just kind of capitalized on it and was able to control the whole time. I don't feel he really did much at all in the first round. He shot a single leg, I stuffed a single leg. I don't know if the average fans could tell, but I was actually attacking a certain type of special front choke. A little bit of my bad and his good. I didn't really secure the choke before I put pressure on, and he moved out of the way at the same time from the choke and ended up getting my back. I was just a little bit too lackadaisical there.
"Whether it was just being too cautious, I think the ring rust really played into that first round, being a slow starter and not fighting for a long time. I just made adjustments. Having a great corner of coach Robert Follis, Erick Nicksick, Miesha (Tate), they came back and we readjusted the game plan. It took me the first round to realize, 'Okay man, I've been here before.' I knew exactly what to do, we made those adjustments and I came out there, put the pressure on him, took him down, and felt like I was able to do a lot more damage when I was on top of him than when he was on top of me."
13 of 25 media members scored the first round a 10-8 for Sterling (courtesy of MMADecisions.com), including BloodyElbow.com's Dallas Winston. Fortunately for Caraway, all three judges saw it a 10-9, which ultimately awarded him the win (it would've been a draw if two or more judges saw the first round as a 10-8).
Caraway doesn't think Sterling was even close to dominant nor had him in trouble enough to earn a 10-8 scorecard.
"I think that's absurd," he said. "I think a 10-8 round has to encompass everything. Octagon control, position, damage, getting close to finishing the fight. There was never one point at all he was even close to finishing the fight. he wasn't even really trying to attack any submissions at all. He wasn't even really trying to attack the arms except for one time. He cross-faced me, he was no where near my throat at all, he didn't have it locked up, he was on my nose. I just hand-fought it off. At the end of the round, he had me in a full nelson, which is like a WWF wrestling move, it's not even a submission. So I was like, 'Okay, you got me in a pro-wrestling move.' He did absolutely zero damage; I have no damage at all on my face. I think he maybe punched me on the face three or four times, when he had my back. Other than that, he did zero damage, he basically held onto my back like a backpack."
"When I was on top, I felt my rounds should've been closer to a 10-8 than his was. I don't think mine was a 10-8 by any means either, but at least I had him in quite a few front choke catches, guillotines, and I was constantly moving position on top, floating, and that allowed me to punch and grapple. I wasn't just, secure his back and hang on till the end of the third round. So I felt like I did more damage, more control and positioning than he did. So I think it's crazy to say that was a 10-8, he just hung on to me."
Since the biggest win of his career, Caraway has been very vocal about wanting the next title shot against the winner of Dominick Cruz vs. Urijah Faber, which occurs at UFC 199 tonight. Caraway believes timing-wise, rankings-wise and everything in between, a shot at UFC gold next makes sense for him.
"I believe that I've earned it," he said. "I've beaten two or three guys that are top 10 ranked opponents. My last two outings, I beat the number six ranked guy. And people try to discredit (Eddie) Wineland. That guy's tough as nails. You're gonna say, 'Oh, he hasn't fought in this long.' Well, when I fought Wineland, I had an eight or nine month layoff. 'Well, he got his jaw broken.' People are making excuses. That guy is tough. That guy was the WEC champ. He's a high-level guy, and yeah, he might've been on some losing streaks before that, but he was losing against the best guys in the world. Urijah Faber, Johnny Eduardo, these are top guys he's losing to. I out-struck Wineland at his own game, showing off my well-roundedness (sic)."
"Then I come to the fight, and I'm going to get killed by Aljamain Sterling, he's the number four guy, he's 12-0, phenomenal wrestler, phenomenal grappler. I'm going to get killed and choked by him, and I go in there and beat him at his own game. I'm beating these world-class guys at their own games. Right now, being in the fourth position, I'm the highest ranked guy that hasn't fought for the belt yet besides (Raphael) Assuncao. I believe he's the true guy who should be fighting for the title, but he's already scheduled to fight T.J. Dillashaw. And I just think timing-wise, Faber's fighting Cruz for the belt, Dillashaw and Assuncao are already scheduled for a fight, and I'm the next guy right in line. Faber and Cruz are fighting right away, a week away, and I just think it's timing. I think I've earned that; I've been around the sport for a long time. I think a lot of fans would want to see me, whether they want to see me get killed because they hate me, or the fans that I have that want to see me win, I think I'd be a draw."
Caraway lost to Assuncao in late 2014, but the Brazilian has been out of action since that victory due to reoccurring injuries. Especially with Assuncao booked to fight Dillashaw, Caraway says he deserves to leap-frog Assuncao in the title run because he's been out for so long and because their fight was over a year ago.
"That was two years ago, I'm a different fighter," he said. "Two years is a long time ago. That's like saying, 'Hey, you lost your fourth pro-fight in 2005, so you don't get the title shot.' That has no relevance. I just beat the number four guy who was undefeated, and that is now and today. Two years ago, I lost to Assuncao, I felt it was a close and competitive fight. I think I won round two in that fight. I felt a little bit over-trained for that fight but I know my potential. I know I'm right in the mix. I believe anybody of the top 10 guys could fight for the title and possibly win it. We're all very high-level guys. But I'm number four."
Cody Garbrandt, who beat Thomas Almeida in the main event of UFC Fight Night 88, has recently publicly called out the Xtreme Couture product, stating Caraway is scared to fight him, but Caraway isn't buying his call out one bit.
"I just don't understand people's bully mentality these days," he said. "Originally, the first day, he said, 'Ah, maybe Caraway.' Then another two, he's like, 'Ah, I want to fight Caraway, he's a really tough guy, he's a top ranked guy.' Then third or fourth he's saying, 'Yeah, Caraway's scared of me, I'll knock him out. I think ultimately [this is] bad for the sport. Yeah, there are people that like all the trash talking and stuff but I think it's the wrong image we're trying to send to these up-and-coming, young fighters. It doesn't work. I'm not afraid of anybody. I've fought world-class guys. It doesn't make me mad, I don't know. I don't like seeing that's where the sport is going, a bully mentality to try to bully people into a fight is not going to work. It has nothing to do with Cody, I think he's a great, talented fighter."
"I completely understand why Garbrandt wants to fight me. I'm the number four ranked guy, I'm the highest ranked guy right now that doesn't have a fight. It makes sense (for him to call me out). Just like it makes sense that I want to fight guys that are ranked ahead of me. You don't see Garbrandt calling out guys that are ranked thirteenth, fourteenth, twelve, ninth, you don't see him doing that. He's calling out, looking ahead and that's exactly what I'm doing."
At the end of the day, Caraway is still open to fighting a fellow top contender, and not the champion, if that is what is offered. Whatever the quickest path to the UFC bantamweight title is, that's the path Caraway wants to take.
"I believe that I earned a title shot, I want to fight for the world title, and if that doesn't happen, I'll fight anybody in the world," he said. "Anybody inside the top 10, top fifteen, I want to fight top-level guys. If people want to fault me for wanting to fight for the world title and wanting to look ahead, that's absolutely crazy. So, that's all I'm doing. I want to keep moving up the ladder and I want to fight for that title, but like I said, ultimately, I'm not the matchmaker, I'm the fighter. I have a manager, the UFC, they make the matchups. I'll fight anybody in the world if it's going to get me that next step. I don't want to fight anybody just to fight them. This sport isn't about animosity and who's tougher. It's about getting the next step, building my career. Whoever the UFC says that's going to get me that title shot, that's what I'm willing to do. But I feel like I've earned that title shot now."