In December of 2015, a 26-year-old Aljamain "Funk Master" Sterling followed an impressive submission defeat of Johnny Eduardo with a rousing post-fight interview, demonstrating incredible skill and undeniable marketability in rapid succession. Though this big night would not earn Sterling a bantamweight title shot or establish him as a pay-per-view megastar, it did solidify his status as one of the division's brightest young contenders. And because this fight marked the final obligation on his current UFC contract, his emergence as such couldn't have occurred at a better time.
Riding high on the biggest performance of his career, Sterling followed this win by demonstrating the kind of gutsy business savvy you don't generally find in 26 year olds, stepping away from the bright lights of the UFC to test his value on the open market. He was one of the hottest bantamweights in the world, and his services were available to the highest bidder.
After a highly publicized period of flirtation with other major MMA organizations, that highest bidder turned out to be the UFC. The MMA major league coaxed the bantamweight star back toward its Octagon with a boosted salary and the promise of a big, promotional push. It was a brand new year, and things had never looked better for Aljamain Sterling.
In the first fight of his shiny new contract, however, Sterling's career took an abrupt and ugly turn to the south. After a buzz-generating war of words with his opponent, Bryan Caraway, the 26-year-old gave up an early lead to gas out and ultimately surrender a split decision to his foe. It was the first loss of his career, and unfortunately, it significantly deflated the hype he'd generated by submitting Eduardo and rocking the boat with his brief stint as a free agent.
Sterling's status as an elite bantamweight, of course, didn't change. While he took a small tumble down the divisional rankings, he remained a member of the divisional top-15. His hype had taken a hit, but a win or two was the clear and readily available remedy.
Regrettably, Sterling followed his loss to Caraway with a long stretch on the shelf, going the entirety of the summer and fall without a win—or even a fight. Though he was briefly scheduled for a December battle with the UFC's number-four ranked bantamweight, Raphael Assunção, he was ultimately forced out of this anticipated return to action with an injury. So, the once hyped bantamweight entered 2017 having not fought in eight months, with only the occasional interview and social media post to keep the notoriously forgetful MMA community aware of his existence in the crowded bantamweight division.
In a little over 24 hours, Sterling has the chance to correct the unfortunate downward slide he endured throughout 2016. On the undercard of the UFC's latest trip to beautiful Denver, Colorado, he and Assunção will engage in the battle that was originally supposed to occur in December.
While Assunção doesn't typically get the props he deserves in the bantamweight division, he is undeniably one of the best 135-pound fighters on earth. As such, this is likely to be an incredibly difficult—and losable—fight for Sterling.
A win for Sterling, however, is of the utmost importance. This fight is his opportunity to show the world how he copes with defeat—something we don't yet know. It is his opportunity to show us how he responds to long stretches of inactivity—something we know that established stars like Chael Sonnen and Ronda Rousey do not handle well. It is his opportunity to thrust himself back into the bantamweight spotlight, which is currently being dominated by fighters like Cody Garbrandt, TJ Dillashaw, Dominick Cruz, and Jimmie Rivera.
A defeat of Raphael Assunção in Denver will not earn Aljamain Sterling a title shot. It probably won't even earn him a number one contender fight. It will, however, give him a sorely needed push back toward the incredible position he was in at the beginning of the year 2016. It will serve to remind the world that, despite a rough year, he remains one of the bantamweight division's most buzzworthy fighters, and very possibly, a future bantamweight champion.