Aljamain Sterling felt like he was ‘just there to be a participant’ after being coerced into Sean O’Malley fight

Aljamain Sterling wants to close the chapter on one of his biggest regrets.

At UFC 292 in August 2023, Sterling saw his two-year reign as bantamweight champion come to an end when he lost to Sean O’Malley. Prior to the contest, there was much controversy over the Sterling making a relatively quick turnaround (he had just defeated Henry Cejudo in May), with Sterling himself suggesting that he may be returning to the cage too quickly.

Sterling now finds himself having to relive the talks that led to his UFC 292 loss after clips began to circulate from the documentary Fight Inc., a behind-the-scenes feature on the UFC’s business operations. In the documentary, Chief Business Officer Hunter Campbell is shown asking Sterling to take the O’Malley fight in August, a conversation that Sterling now looks back on with renewed aggravation.

“From that night, I said, I don’t know what he’s talking about,” Sterling said on his YouTube channel. “‘I have no desire to fight right now.’ And that was the whole thing I was saying. I have to heal up and see how my body holds up. We can fast forward, yes, I came into the fight compromised, into the training camp compromised. O’Malley got hurt during his training camp, two completely different things, but still the same. Both guys came into the fight with some lingering injuries.

“I think the difference was, in my personal opinion, the mind set. I think O’Malley was there to win at all costs. I was there to win, but I was also just there to be a participant. I hate to say it, but it’s the harsh reality. There’s a complete difference when someone is on, when they’re in the zone, and you can see when someone’s flowing, everything just went perfect. In a basketball game, in a football game, fighting, wrestling, when someone’s just on. You ever see those guys in wrestling tournaments that end up winning the whole thing as an unseeded person because something just clicked? They want to be there, they’re excited, and everything was just in sync for them. I didn’t feel that that night in August. No excuses, once again, no excuses. The better man that night won.”

It’s become a common refrain from UFC CEO Dana White that the promotion doesn’t book future fights immediately following an event. That’s the answer White typically gives when questioned by the media about what’s next for a card’s standout fighters, preferring to save that chatter for Tuesday matchmaker meetings.

Sterling found it odd that his bosses would deviate from that policy when it came to booking his fight with O’Malley, one of the promotion’s rising stars.

“I wasn’t really excited to see that clip again because I had to relive all those emotions again,” Sterling said. “It kind of riled me up a little bit, because it really did piss me off in that moment of time back then, just how everything kind of unfolded. Because if you look at the series of events, I had just fought. I had a really hard training camp to make that weight cut. I fought one of the greatest combat athletes of all-time in Henry Cejudo. People can say whatever they want about his layoff, whatever — still one of the best guys to ever step in there.

“Five rounds, hard fight, and then the night of the fight — and this is just the series of events — they don’t make fights the night of the fight, but somehow, for whatever reason, my fight in particular just happened to be made that night.”

Were it not for the clip of his talk with Campbell making the rounds on social media, Sterling would be happy to let the issue lie. However, the discussion on social media caused by the documentary prompted him to issue a response.

“I’m not trying to whine about it or anything, I think facts are the facts,” Sterling said. “O’Malley knows what it is. He got away with one. Again, the guy is skilled, he’s very talented. I’m not saying that even if I was sharp that night, and at my best, he wouldn’t have done that. I don’t know. But I do know I didn’t get a fair shake coming into that one, and again, it was my grown decision to say yes. After saying no, I kind of got beaten down, and I don’t think people understand what it’s like to be in that hot seat with the pressure.

“I’m not trying to bash my bosses. These are guys who cut my check for me, I like those guys. I do think from a business standpoint they prefer ‘A’ over ‘B,’ and there’s nothing wrong with that. I completely get the business side of things and it’s not their fault that it’s harder to market me over a guy who has tattoos on his face and colors his hair all kinds of crazy colors. I think kids are into that, I think some adults are even into that, and he’s a popular guy, so there’s nothing wrong with that. So from a business perspective, I get that 100 percent.”

Sterling has since bounced back with a win over Calvin Kattar at UFC 300. That bout marked Sterling’s debut at 145 pounds, and he’s putting the O’Malley feud behind him unless they somehow meet at featherweight farther down the road.

With a fresh start in a new division, Sterling is done talking about UFC 292, but he did express disappointment about his decision not paying dividends in the end as the highly anticipated title fight clash was rumored to have done mediocre at the box office.

“The only thing I say I regret is if I knew the pay-per-view numbers were going to be what it was, I would have just sat until January, February, March, and waited to fight,” Sterling said. “That’s the only thing I regret, because I felt like it was the opportunity of a lifetime after saying no, being coerced into doing it. Nobody put a gun to my head. I eventually succumbed to the pressure and said, ‘OK, fine. I’ll do it. And after this I’m going on my vacation.’ I said, win or lose I’m going on my vacation.”

“In hindsight, I wish I stuck to my guns and just waited, because the bag of loot, the golden pot, Lucky Charms, or whatever at the end of the rainbow — I mean, I made good money, but it wasn’t what I was thinking it was going to be, and I’m motivated by money,” he added. “I’m a freaking prizefighter, I fight for money. We all do. So if the bag was going to be that and it was known, obviously, hindsight 20/20, I would have just opted to chill.”

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