Sterling hasn’t been in action since his championship crowning at UFC 259 in March. At the pay-per-view, “Funk Master” faced Petr Yan. The Russian previously dominated José Aldo across four-and-a-half rounds to win the vacant 135-pound gold. His first title defense looked to be going in a similar fashion.
“No Mercy” was clearly on top and appeared on his way to a successful retention. However, in the fourth frame, Yan delivered an illegal knee to Sterling. His disqualification saw the challenger become the first champ to have been crowned via DQ.
Sterling’s first defense was slated for the end of the year after he took time away from the cage to undergo neck surgery. He was scheduled to run it back with bitter rival Yan at UFC 267 on October 30. After failing to receive medical clearance due to the lingering issues from his surgery, the champion as forced to withdraw just one month out from the event.
Sterling has now revealed the events and triggers that led to his decision to pull out. During a recent interview with The Schmo, the bantamweight champ said that while he was in Las Vegas for teammate Merab Dvalishvili’s fight, he’d told the UFC that he was planning to fight through the issues.
“I came out to Vegas for Merab’s fight. And I came a little early, so I saw my matchmaker Sean Shelby. I guess he heard about the interview I did with Ariel [Helwani]. And he was like, ‘Dude, what’s going on? Are you OK?’ And I was like, ‘I don’t know, man. I’m gonna fight, though.’ I just told him straight like that: ‘I don’t know; I’m gonna fight.’”
Sterling added that the promotion sent him to have his neck examined by a doctor in Los Angeles. The 32-year-old was told an injury like his could take well over a year for the nerves to fully heal.
“[The UFC] flew me out. I went to the doctor again, LA, and he said the same thing I said. He said this injury takes 12-18 months for the nerves to actually heal. So it’s not even about the surgery itself. The procedure, that’s a three-month recovery. So I recovered. I’m good to go. I’m strong. I feel good. I feel like this is the best physical shape I’ve looked like in a very long time. No pain in my neck. No residual pain, like waking up sleeping, driving, training. The part that sucks is the endurance side. And you need those connective tissues, those nerves, just from a neurological standpoint, to reconnect. Because it’s almost like they’re still severed and they’re still trying to do what they’re trying to do and heal up. So it’s a weird, complex situation where you just don’t know what’s going on in there.”
Sterling also revealed that the trigger for him to pull out of UFC 267 came during training. After getting his “ass kicked” by fellow bantamweight Dvalishvili, “Funk Master” knew he wasn’t competing at the same level as before.
“I was not fun to be around. Ray [Longo] was like, ‘Dude, I haven’t seen you smile in God knows how long.’ I was like, ‘I’m not happy. I’m getting my ass kicked in training. Like, I know Merab’s good, but we battle. It’s never that one-sided.’ He was like, ‘Yeah, well, you know, he’s peaking.’ And I’m like, ‘Yeah, I know, even when he’s peaking in the past, it’s never been this one-sided. There’s clearly something going on.’ And here we are.”
Following Sterling’s withdrawal, #3-ranked bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen stepped up to face Yan at UFC 267. The pair will compete in Abu Dhabi for interim gold, with the winner setting up a unification bout against “Funk Master” later down the line.
Who do you think will have their hand raised at UFC 267, Petr Yan or Cory Sandhagen?