New York’s Aljamain Sterling has progressed tremendously since his UFC debut.
A lanky, kick-happy grappler, “Funkmaster” earned comparisons to UFC light heavyweight great Jon Jones early in his career.
While Sterling was likely known for his scrambling ability and ability to pass legs as a wrestler, in MMA he has truly found a home as an outside shooter, a master of quick, long penetration shots for his head-inside single.
While his finishes can sometimes fail and even get him into trouble, it’s the entries of Sterling that keep him in the fight and ensure that his grappling attack is viable.
Initiating Wrestling in MMA
It’s easier said than done. Time after time, we see talented and credentialed wrestlers from folkstyle, freestyle and Greco-Roman transition to MMA, only to struggle immensely in finding opportunities to use those skills.
Ultimately, it depends on the skill level of their opposition. Whether you’re looking for leg attacks, or clinch entries, an opponent who rushes forward with their hands high is going to be fairly easy to grapple with.
Likewise, opponents who lack any offense on the backfoot and are easy to pressure will find themselves on the fence in short order.
You also have to consider the base skill competency of those fighters. If someone truly does not know what to do to defend a head-inside single, you can probably still finish the shot even if the entry is ridiculously shallow and ill-advised.
But as fighters approach the higher levels of the sport, if they haven’t developed their striking and ringcraft to support their wrestling, it can become impressively difficult to get any clean entries and takedowns. The fighters that you do see at the highest levels who don’t have well-structured entry games are typically the higher level grapplers and top players. It doesn’t matter as much if you’re whiffing on six straight attempts if you only need one takedown to end the round, or the fight.
If the spectrum is: Chad Mendes (excellent clean entries and finishes, lacking control) to Demian Maia (janky entries, great mat work and elite control), I’d place Aljamain Sterling slightly to the right.
Leg Attacks: Reactive and Proactive
To begin his UFC career, Aljamain Sterling demonstrated a few different looks when it came to initiating wrestling exchanges.
The first, and most obvious for any wrestler transitioning to MMA, was the reactive shot.
In a wrestling match, no one is coming at you “fast and tall,” their hips and legs completely exposed and hands nowhere near that zone. But in MMA it’s fairly common that aggressive strikers will blitz forward with no regard for the consequences. It’s not simply due to ignorance, sometimes it’s a calculated risk to put a wrestler on the backfoot, to deprive them of the chance to set you up or push to the cage.
For wrestlers with deep penetrating or explosive leg attacks, an aggressive entry from their opponent is a takedown being served on a silver platter. Aljamain Sterling isn’t that guy. His leg attacks are fast, but he’s not the type to blow through someone on a double.
As a taller fighter, Sterling’s reactive level changes are often leading to high attacks above the knee, which contributes to the aforementioned issue. Instead of trying to force those attacks, Sterling used the reactive entry to slide up the legs to double underhooks and bodylocks, where he appears to be powerful.
Right from his UFC debut, Sterling seemed to understand the interplay between striking and wrestling. Perhaps it was by accident, by the built-in motion of the overhand right allowed Sterling to weave perfectly into his level change against a solid wrestler in Cody Gibson.
Sterling’s kick-heavy approach contributed to creating these sorts of opportunities. Taking damage from a high volume of linear and round attacks from Sterling, his opponents would grow impatient and aggressively attempt to walk him down and close the gap.
However, when his opponent is a bit more measured in their pressure, like Takeya Mizugaki, Sterling’s finishes are much more labored.
VIDEO CLIP: Takeya Mizugaki slows the entries of Aljamain Sterling with feints and body shots
Because Mizugaki simply feinted his way in and threw to the body, most of the reason’s Sterling’s reactive shots worked were neutered. Luckily, Mizugaki’s skill competency as a wrestler was poor, and Sterling finished most of the attacks anyway.
For simplicity’s sake, I’ve labeled the other half of Sterling’s entries as “proactive.” While both reactive and proactive shots can be intercepting, reactive attacks, while drilled and planned long-term, are more instinctual, and capitalize on forward motion. A proactive attack is set up in that moment, and typically are performed by a more stationary or retreating opponent.
For example - Sterling sees that Gibson is timing his jab with overhand counters, so Sterling shows the jab, then ducks under the overhand for his entry.
Against Hugo Viana, you can see Sterling exaggeration his stance and plant to throw a rear straight, prompting the rear straight from Viana, which he level changes under.
Sterling works proactively to draw out these responses, then capitalizes with his shot entries.
Some of the most creative and effective entries have come off kicks. Round kicking high and linear kicking not only straightens up your opponent, it encourages them to attempt to counter when you appear vulnerable while resetting your stance. Sterling can be seen using naked kicking to stand his opponent in place for a reliable target, or to drop immediate into the shot off the kick. One of MMA’s most reliable takedown artists, Ali Bagov, is a prolific kick-entry user.
All of the above examples are golden, but there were definitely less thoughtful entries in the mix.
Against Hugo Viana, Sterling shifted into southpaw as he threw his rear straight to close distance, dropping to the head-inside single once the leg was in range. It worked against “Wolverine” because of Viana’s tendency to throw aggressively whenever Sterling was in front of him, and because Sterling’s height made it easy to stand with the leg and trip out his base. However, unless it’s a shot against the fence, it’s not the best idea to move your opponent backward as a setup for an open space single leg.
Their hips are trending away from you, it basically guarantees that you’re going to have to take a moment to stabilize, build your base and finish the shot. That may work some of the time, but it’s not an efficient, safe, reliable entry at higher levels. I offer a similar criticism of shooting singles in MMA with no setup while your opponent stands still. Unless you’re moving them to the cage, you’ve just initiated an “even” exchange. Your opponent has the opportunity to defend properly and disengage, or at least make it enough of a dogfight that it’s fatiguing.
Wrestling for MMA is so unique because fighters planning to wrestle offensively have the opportunity to take shortcuts, letting their opponents do most of the work for them. There’s a reason that Georges St-Pierre, a fighter with only a few specialized tools, was able to hit the same takedown repeatedly on the best in the world.
An anti-wrestler like Jose Aldo succeeds because he forces his opponents to initiate those “even” exchanges, and commitment to aggressive fundamental defense almost always seems him through.
Keeping all these basic ideas in mind, let’s take a look at how Sterling’s entries evolved throughout his UFC career.
Caraway, Assuncao, Mendes
As foreshadowed in his bout with Takeya Mizugaki, reactive attacks became less effective for Aljamain Sterling as his competition improved.
Uncomfortable on the backfoot, Sterling rushed his entry on Bryan Caraway. His head movement was present, but not entirely functional - without connecting footwork, Sterling was completely out of position to move laterally or set to counter. He had no choice but to level change. This fed into Caraway’s best position, guillotines and front headlock.
Against Raphael Assunção, Sterling could not control exchanges or convince Assunção to attack with feints or strikes of his own. Instead, he moved laterally as much as possible, encouraging Assunção to punt his legs. Assunção took the bait, but was able to shut down the entry with ease. Sterling was leading with his head, so Assunção’s instinctual reaction to grab front headlock and get his hips back was the perfect defense.
It was only against Augusto Mendes, a heavy-handed grappler, that Sterling got the straight-forward windups that he found earlier success intercepting. It was also against Mendes that Sterling had his best look in terms of reactive clinch entries. He was able to get underneath the swinging arms of Mendes and pummel a strong underhook on his lead side, bodylock over the far-side arm, step around and collapse the base of Mendes, using the bodylock to turn him over Sterling’s tripping leg.
At this point, Sterling’s striking was improving, and his confidence was growing. However, the increase in competition had outpaced his own development.
He didn’t have reliable enough tools to convince a striker like Assunção or a crafty veteran like Caraway to bite on his attacks. They felt safe enough just pressuring and picking away.
At least against Caraway, Sterling feinted to draw out offense, then shot under that window to get to his head-inside single. He stood with the leg, but could never truly build to a finish - Caraway made him extremely uncomfortable by firing off punches, while controlling the wrist that would connect and solidify the single. This is what I mean by “even” situations.
Barao, Johns, Stamann
Against Renan Barao, I believe Aljamain Sterling showed the first signs of a wrestling game that could survive a lengthy career. His outside shooting game is largely successful because of speed and hustle, qualities that do not last in mixed martial arts. What Sterling will likely always have at 135 is height, length, and strength.
Even if the finishes aren’t as clean, or if the takedowns take significantly longer to execute, a wrestling game that takes place on the cage is much more reliable for Aljamain Sterling.
Perhaps underrated as a clinch fighter, Sterling demonstrated the craft and comfortability to make this approach his own.
To reach the cage in the first place, he had to pressure. Cody Stamman is generally willing to give up space to facilitate his kicking game, and Renan Barao will often take what you give him, making these two matches uniquely suited for Sterling to find his way as a pressurer.
Against Barao it was largely a function of volume and variety, the pace he set by striking, hitting clinch entries, striking off the exits, striking back in, feinting, level faking, all worked together to overstimulate Barao and leave him frozen. When Sterling finally did throw a single strike and stand in front of Barao, it was simple to time Barao’s counter attempt and enter on a double against the cage.
Finishing shots on the cage was more complicated, but that’s a matter of skill development, more than a byproduct of style that would have to be completely retaught.
Against Stamann the back-and-forth nature of their wrestling exchanges brought them to the fence early and often, but Stamann’s questionable habit of kicking on the backfoot, with his back against the fence no less, was his undoing. Another great look from Sterling was kick-feinting his way into range, using the skip-up knee as bait for a level change against the cage. The most promising improvement from Sterling was the use of his lead hand, he feinted and pawed and stabbed with his jab until he was sure the response was coming from Stamann, then level changed.
The Brett Johns fight was probably the best for Sterling’s creative entries from space.
A bit more willing to grapple and thus less willing to concede space, Johns forced Sterling to work his entry game in open space.
The first example above is especially fantastic as it shows advanced striking linkages, as well as then transitioning into a shot entry. Sterling low kicks the inside of the leg, hooks to punish Johns as he’s out of stance, then holds position to continue to throw, giving Johns the impression he’s going to overstay his welcome in the pocket. Once Johns recovers his stance and throws back, Sterling level changes. Unfortunately, Johns timed the outside trip of Sterling and pressured in, causing Sterling to essentially pull mount.
Overall, in the Johns fight Sterling showed an understanding of level feinting with his strikes. Johns’ high guard partially obscured his vision and kept his hands out of the picture defensively on initial entries, making the path even more clear for Sterling.
Johns’ habit of holding position on double leg entries and hipping back without the use of his hands lead to Sterling shrugging off to rear-standing several times. It’s worth noting that this is a habit shown by Sterling’s UFC 250 opponent Cory Sandhagen.
Despite these great new adaptations, Sterling hadn’t completely shaken his habit of shooting with no setup from open space.
As discussed in Wrestling for MMA: Khabib Nurmagomedov, shooting low leg attacks from space is generally a bad idea in MMA. The time it takes to rebuild your base and stand with the leg provides opportunities for your opponent to either disengage or make your life miserable.
Predictably, Sterling isn’t as efficient a finisher from these positions as Nurmagomedov, so that effect is amplified. Both Johns and Sterling showed off the best defense to this attack - turn away, limp leg and kick out. With no wrestling shoes, and deep in a fight when both men are sweaty, this is a shockingly effective defense.
Rivera, Munhoz, and Cory Sandhagen
VIDEO CLIP: Aljamain Sterling fails to take down Rivera and Munhoz
The Rivera fight is tough to draw conclusions from. Early on, Rivera seemed to be focused on counter punching, causing him to stand stationary and allow Sterling to control cage positioning. Outside shot entries with little setup were perfectly acceptable, as Sterling was able to build and push to the cage with ease.
Sterling wasn’t especially effective at finishing on the cage, but he racked up “control time” , if that is a real criteria, and clearly effected Rivera as the fight progressed.
However, once Rivera made the decision to hold center - the dynamic reversed. Now Sterling was able to get off his strikes with more confidence, but his outside shot attempts hit a brick wall. Even Rivera’s relatively inert takedown defense was effective, a crushing front headlock and cinderblock hips were more than enough to shut him down.
Munhoz, on the other hand, was hell-bent on pressuring Sterling. His pressure was well-designed offensively, using round attacks to cut off the cage, but Munhoz is generally defensively irresponsible. Sterling was able to tee off on the backfoot and essentially everything he threw, stuck.
On the other hand, constantly having to fight off the backfoot made Sterling’s shot entries reactive, and Munhoz was able to defend in a similar fashion to Assunção.
What can we draw from this? Sterling is soundly confident in his striking - he mixes up levels, he seems to know when it makes more sense to use round or linear attacks, and there’s more to his defense than just “being long”.
Another possible point is that Sterling is willing to accept being pressured, as he’s confident that he can win a kickboxing match off the backfoot and use his shot entries to give himself some breathing room.
As a fighter with outstanding cardio, that’s not the worst strategy.
How does this all factor into his UFC 250 bout with Cory Sandhagen?
First, take a look at Sandhagen’s defensive wrestling habits. Analyst Aidan Hayes made several astute observations in his breakdown of Sandhagen vs. Assunção.
Sandhagen focuses on creating motion and keeping the pace of the fight high, often sacrificing positional control in the process. When Assunção got to his legs or went for a quick shot finish, Sandhagen sat the corner, he funk rolled, he looked for a variety of tactics - but almost never relied on his head-hands defense to disengage from the exchange.
He’s a fantastic scrambler and this strategy has paid off for him, but it may play directly into Sterling’s hands.
If there’s one major takeaway from this article, it’s that Aljamain Sterling has many, many different ways of getting to the legs. His efficacy in finishing definitely depends on the approach, but he’s almost assuredly a sure-thing to at least get his entries off.
If Cory Sandhagen is going to willingly concede, “Yes, we are wrestling now” and initiate a scramble, it means Sterling’s finishes don’t really matter. The entries do.
I expect Sandhagen to assume the pressure role, which definitely increases the likelihood of Sterling taking bad shots. Perhaps he can replicate Munhoz’s gameplan, but with more finesse. That is one path to victory.
I am tentatively picking Sterling based on that “scramble first, ask questions later” approach from Sandhagen, but this will be an intriguing and educational fight regardless.