Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling, the current UFC Bantamweight Champion and former wrestler at SUNY Cortland (2008-2011), made a surprise visit to his alma mater Dec. 13.
The visit, which lasted until Dec. 16, gave Sterling the opportunity to train with the wrestling team, visit with fans, old friends and favorite spots and reminisce about his time at Cortland that helped prepare him for the life as a professional mixed martial arts fighter. It was an exciting experience for the champion to be back on campus, though it is not exactly as he remembers it.
“I haven’t been here in a while; everything is so different,” Sterling said. “We did not have the (Student) Life Center when I was here. All the renovations; it is almost like a brandnew school except for the familiar places I know like the wrestling room, Park Center, where I took most of my classes, and the hill that I used to walk up and dread walking up every single day I had class.”
The visit also benefited Sterling more than he thought and gave him the opportunity to train how he used to during his time as a student-athlete at Cortland.
“Just coming back here, I wanted to get back to those roots of just wrestling,” Sterling said. “Just to get a workout as a wrestler is completely different in terms of conditioning and your mindset in order to go the entire practice. It was very helpful, even though it might not seem like much, but just being able to go to the room and hang out with the kids and get some workouts in has been reinvigorating, to say the least; to just wake me up on some of the things I used to do.”
It was a roller coaster ride during his time with the program, but the sky was always the limit for Sterling, who recalls both the good and bad. “I’ve had some rough run-ins with the coach before (Brad Bruhn),” Sterling said. “It is funny because we butted heads so much because my personality was different and I liked to do my own thing. It was not until I lost my last match in the conference tournament my sophomore year. That was the day I told coach ‘Whatever you want me to do, I’ll do it your way because clearly my way is not working.’
I kept losing to the same guy from Ithaca (Chad Winowich). It was frustrating losing to the same guy that many times and I also had coach on my back. I made it a point to try something different. That was my biggest breakthrough moment.”
Sterling bounced back his junior year and showed the importance of that moment in the Ithaca Open Tournament where he clashed with Winowich and a number of other talented wrestlers all in the same day.
The results, motivated him even more.
“This time I beat him, a returning all- American and another kid who was a national qualifier, all in the same day,” Sterling said “That was a huge moment for me. To realize that I could actually be good at this sport and be better than just a middle-of-the-pack guy. I can do something that will cement my name in history.”
Sterling’s career at Cortland ended with a sixth-place finish in the NCAA tournament and an 87-27 overall record, but the vision and work ethic remained the same as a future of professional fighting was inevitable. Around a month and a half after the NCAA tournament, Sterling made his professional MMA debut and picked up a win over Sergio da Silva.
He built an 8-0 professional record before signing with the UFC in 2014, where he debuted against another newcomer in Cody Gibson, a match he will never forget.
“We both took it on short notice,” Sterling said. “I won that fight and I had a big gut-check moment. I won the first round and lost the second round. In the third round, I knew I had to win it in order to win the fight and make a good impression with the company. You lose that first one, it is really hard to get back on track. Sometimes if you lose two fights in a row, they will cut you. Your job is literally on the line. So, to beat him, was a huge a huge feather in my cap to finally get that marquee win.”
That moment certainly sits toward the top for Sterling, but a number of other matches also sit up there with it.
“The other ones are against Cody Stamann and Pedro Munhoz,” Sterling said. “Those were just two really fun fights with a lot of action. The Munhoz fight really sticks out for me because of the output. I think I broke through bantamweight record for strikes in a three-round fight both thrown and landed. It was a really high-pressured fight. Having the trash talk with Cody and Pedro and rising to the occasion and to be that guy and show that DIII wrestling is better than what you think.”
Sterling would build up a nice record in the UFC the following years and found himself on a five-fight win streak from 2018 to 2020.
Building momentum like that in the fight game is something that does not come easy, but it helps you evolve as a fighter more and more each match.
“You 100% get more confident each fight and during all those wins in a row I feel elevated my game little by little,” Sterling said. “I almost look at fighting like Pokémon because when you win a battle, you get more experience points.
It is super cheesy but that is really how I look at it. Each battle, each conflict and each adversity that you deal with, you get better whether you win or lose.”
The win streak gave Sterling the No. 1 contender spot in the bantamweight division, the 135-pound weight class, and he faced Petr Yan for the UFC bantamweight championship on March 6. He won by disqualification on an illegal knee from Yan.
The rematch was initially set up, but Sterling had major neck surgery and has been recovering since.
The rehab process has been going very well, however, and he is fully prepared for the rematch.
“Petr is the next fight 100%,” Sterling said. “We are going to unify the belts and figure out who really is the No. 1 guy. This time I will be at my best in terms of my conditioning and there won’t be any excuses. That is the fight that they are going to make I am just waiting for them to give me a date and a location. I can’t wait to just shut everyone up and keep this belt here in New York.”
Sterling currently holds a professional record of 20-3-0.
The champ is proud of where he came from and his visit and consistent connection with Cortland proves that.
Though every one has a different path, especially students, he preached the importance of every moment in college.
“I miss the days like that where you did not have responsibilities,” Sterling said. “I just hope all the kids take advantage of that and realize this is only going to be a very temporary thing and once it is over, it is over. So, make sure you enjoy those moments as much as you can, but at the same time, make sure you are focusing and doing what you need to do to get you to where you want to be.”