It was quite the road, but one of Aljamain Sterling’s main coaches Eric Nicksick believes the bantamweight champion has earned back a lot of the respect he lost from the MMA community when he defeated Petr Yan in April.
Sterling became the UFC 135-pound champ in March 2021 when he took an illegal knee from Yan in their first meeting at UFC 259, leading to a disqualification. A lot of fans threw out accusations that Sterling was “acting,” and didn’t necessarily appreciate the fact that Sterling was leaning into it, playing the villain in some ways. “Funkmaster” ran it back with Yan at UFC 273 and earned a unanimous decision that silenced a lot of doubters.
Now Sterling turns the page as he’s set to defend his title against T.J. Dillashaw in the co-main event of UFC 280 on Oct. 22 in Abu Dhabi. While that time where Sterling was not receiving the admiration of many fans, Nicksick believes it was an important stretch — not just for the fighter himself, but for everyone else on his team.
“We took a lot of s***, obviously,” Nicksick told MMA Fighting. “It is what it is, but it was funny, Aljamain and I were laughing a couple of days ago and said, ‘Hey, man, every time we post a picture we don’t have 9,000 comments from people posting clown emojis and talking s*** anymore.’ It’s a little different. I think he’s gained that respect back from the overall fan base.
“I think the learning from that time really helped everybody involved. We had the ability to go fight Petr Yan and go back to the drawing board, redo it again and figure these things out. But the maturity and the growth, it helped all of us to be quite fair.”
Dillashaw returned from a two-year suspension for a positive drug test in July 2021 to defeat Cory Sandhagen in the main event of UFC Vegas 32 — a fight a lot of people felt Sandhagen actually should’ve won.
Nicksick believes the fight was closer than the masses would lead you to believe, and was impressed with the former champion’s grittiness, especially dealing with a knee injury that Dillahshaw suffered early in the 25-minute battle.
“I loved what I saw from T.J. in that fight,” Nicksick said. “Even with the knee injury, him seeing a little adversity, I loved seeing the switch up in the game plan to attack the legs. You saw a lot of leg kicks out of him to limit the ability of Cory Sandhagen.
“I think that fight could’ve gone either way. Aljo and I watched it again, and it was tough. I think you can judge it either side, but I think what you saw was the grittiness of T.J. Dillashaw in injuring his knee, and being able to find ways to come through. I think, for me, with the way that he approached that fight, I think you saw his championship pedigree — even though he had been out for two years before that last fight.”