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UFC Atlantic City’s Aljamain Sterling: Cornering Al Iaquinta for UFC 223 ‘lit a fire under me’

Top ten ranked UFC bantamweight Aljamain Sterling spoke about his bout with Brett Johns, recovery from first career KO loss, and being inspired by Al Iaquinta at UFC 223.

UFC Fight Night: Shevchenko v Pena Photo by Matthew Stockman/Getty Images

Aljamain Sterling (14-3) is looking to bounce back this Saturday night and regain the momentum he lost after suffering the first stoppage defeat of his career. To do so, he’ll take a short trip to Atlantic City, NJ to face Brett Johns at UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs. Lee.

Johns, who is undefeated at 15-0, is coming off a Performance of the Night finish of Joe Soto (via calf slicer) at The Ultimate Fighter 26 Finale in December. Sterling, who debuted for the UFC in 2014, admitted to being somewhat impressed by the surging Welshman.

“I think he’s very well rounded,” said Sterling to Bloody Elbow. “However, I’m yet to see his strong suit. I know he’s good on top position, but at the same time he doesn’t seem overly impressive with it. But he’s a tough dude. He’s well rounded, which is more and more what the sport is becoming and I think he’s hungry and motivated and ready for his step-up in competition.”

Sterling’s tempered appreciation of his opponent’s game extends to the calf-slicer Johns executed last year (which was only the second fight-winning calf-slicer in UFC history). “Yeah, that was cool. Definitely a cool thing,” murmured Sterling.

“I think the best part about it is he caught it on a leg-lock specialist, in Joe Soto,” added Sterling. “I do attribute that to Joe having maybe taken him, I don’t want to say lightly, but he didn’t seem — when he was in the position he was in — to have any panic on his face. I think he was a little too relaxed and, by the time he recognized that Johns knew what he was doing in that position, it was too late for him to get out of it.”

The modest buzz Johns is carrying into their fight, thanks to that submission, paired with an undefeated record has Sterling reminiscing on the early stages of his own UFC career.

“I remember being that young guy as well,” he said. “Right before I fought Bryan Caraway, I came up short with a split decision, but it was the same thing; I asked for a step-up in competition. I got it and it just didn’t go my way. So I’m familiar with the feelings he might be having as well.”

Johns current career trajectory isn’t the only aspect of this fight that has Sterling feeling nostalgic. The fight will happen in Atlantic City, NJ, approximately two-and-a-half hours from Sterling’s hometown of Uniondale in Long Island, NY. It’s a city he knows well, especially as a fighter.

“I used to fight there all the time in the beginning of my career, as an amateur, as a pro, so it’s going to be good to get back to my old stomping grounds. I think I, from what I remember, I’m undefeated in New Jersey; so let’s keep that thing going.”

Staying perfect in the Garden State would go some way to erasing what happened last time Sterling stepped into a UFC Octagon. But Sterling knows, thanks to how sensational his knockout loss was (via a Marlon Moraes head-kick), it may be difficult to completely shake-off his association with that oft-repeated highlight clip.

“I was really looking forward to a good fight, a barn-burner with Marlon, and it just sucked how everything ended up shaking out,” sighed Sterling. “Like, what kind of shit luck was that? I want to say Marlon lucked out that day. He was the luckier one. He happened to throw a kick when I was shooting in... from Guam. I made a mental mistake, I had a mental lapse and made a rookie mistake, shooting from so far away without setting it up and I paid for it. Everything is just a learning lesson, but I just want to get back in their and fight.

“The Renan Barao fight was a great fight. The Augusto Mendes fight was a great fight. A little bit of back and forth, that’s what I want, a good fight. You train so hard; you go in there and the fight’s a minute and it’s not a minute that goes your way — that kind of... it sucks. At the end of the day, I’m just looking forward to getting in there and mixing it up with another tough competitor.”

After the Moraes fight, Sterling took some time off to recuperate. That loss was the first time he’d been stopped in his fighting career and Sterling explained that he wanted to make sure he had a chance to heal before going back to training.

“I didn’t have any symptoms or anything, which is good, but I wanted to make sure I gave my body and my head some time off from sparring. I only sparred for about five weeks of this camp, which is a really good thing. I think not having all that contact in between, it’s only going to give me more longevity in this sport and it’s making sure that I can still take a shot if I need to in the heat of the moment, in a fight. So I’m ready to go, I’m excited to get back in there and build up my momentum again.”

While Sterling was preparing for Johns, he was gifted a front row seat to one of the wildest 72 hours in UFC history. Earlier this month Sterling accompanied his friend and training partner Al Iaquinta to UFC 223 in Brooklyn. He was expecting to corner Iaquinta versus Paul Felder. However, after Conor McGregor attacked a bus full of fighters, and Max Holloway was pulled from the main event by doctors, and the New York commission put the kibosh on Anthony Pettis or Felder filling in in the main event, Sterling saw his friend catapulted into a lightweight title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov.

Team Iaquinta was unsuccessful that night, but the experience that Sterling takes away from that weekend is something he thinks may pay dividends in the future. “It was amazing,” said Sterling of UFC 223. “I think being a part of something like that really opened my eyes.”

“Knowing the guy I’m training with, knowing what it takes to get into a position like that, that was pretty dope. I was really blown away by the atmosphere, just being in the corner and being along for that ride. I thanked those guys for letting me be a part of that experience and it kind of lit even more of a fire under me; knowing that I could one day have my title shot as well if I keep doing what I’m doing. Get some wins and you never know when you might get that break, as long as you’re in the right position at the right time. And if you’re prepared you’ll be ready to seize the moment.”

Sterling’s next opportunity to prove to the UFC that he belongs in the elite class of the bantamweight division, and is worthy of an opportunity like Iaquinta’s, comes this Saturday. Aljamain Sterling vs. Brett Johns goes down on the main card of UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs. Lee. The action starts at 10PM ET on FS1.