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McKenna: Aljamain Sterling’s bantamweight belt as legit as they come

| Wednesday, March 10, 2021

Before UFC 259, I was not the only one to predict that Petr Yan and Aljamain Sterling’s bout for the bantamweight crown would be the Fight of the Night on a main card featuring three titles up for grabs. 

Now, I’m likely one of the few standing by that claim after Saturday night (with the official distinction going to Kennedy Nzechukwu and Carlos Ulberg’s undercard fight). 

After seeing the GOAT of female MMA, Amanda Nunes, expeditiously dispatch Megan Anderson to defend her featherweight title before Jan Blachowicz ground out a professional victory over the aspiring “double-champ” Israel Adesanya to retain his light heavyweight belt, the first 19 minutes of relentless pressure from Sterling and devastating counterpunching by Yan was by far the most compelling action during the title fights.

However, the bout suffered an anticlimax it did not deserve. With Yan up on two of the judges’ scorecards after three rounds and clearly ascending in the fourth against a fatigued Sterling, Yan threw away his title defense with a blatantly illegal knee to the head while Sterling maintained a guard that rendered him a “downed opponent.”  

Sterling won the title due to Yan’s disqualification after being deemed unable to continue. From a cynical perspective, Sterling would have had little incentive to convince the referee and doctors he was fit to continue (which, again, he most obviously was not), which prompted ridiculous and deeply problematic accusations from Henry Cejudo, Darren Till and many others that the Jamaican American was faking an apparent concussion. 

Sterling was visibly distraught about the nature of his victory and tossed the belt aside immediately after getting his hand raised. Despite requiring assistance to exit the octagon, Sterling made his way to a brief post-fight interview so he could apologize to the fans for an unsatisfying conclusion that was clearly not his fault. 

“The Funkmaster,” however, had every right to proudly adorn his newly acquired bling all the way to the hospital if he so wished. Just because he likely would not have won without the egregious mistake committed by his opponent does not make his victory any less authentic.  

After all, I didn’t hear anyone argue Florida deserved a mulligan for their loss to LSU and a spot in the College Football Playoff just because Marco Wilson thought it best to celebrate a critical third-down stop, which would have given Heisman finalist Kyle Trask nearly two minutes to lead a field goal drive against a historically bad and shorthanded Tigers defense, with a now-infamous shoe toss.  

Changing games by penalizing minuscule self-inflicted infractions, never mind punishing illegal knees, is a commonly accepted dogma by fans of other sports. 

If a receiver drops the football millimeters before the goal line without a defender in sight, we do not yell at officials for looking at replay to take away points the scoreboard operators were putting up when the receiver was at the 20-yard line, but instead laugh at the humiliating unforced error. 

The team that almost gave up the big play does not “deserve” to have recovered a fumble purely based on their recent performance, but it is, nonetheless, considered to be the most just outcome. 

Serena Williams lost a match point in a 2009 U.S. Open semifinal against Kim Clijsters after being penalized for verbally abusing a line judge and dropped an entire game due to a similar code violation in her 2018 U.S Open Final defeat to Naomi Osaka. While both rulings were controversial, they did not “cheapen” Clijsters’ or Osaka’s respective achievements. 

If fans want MMA to gain further mainstream acceptance as a sport and not a bloody gimmick, they will regard Sterling’s title with similar respect. 

If someone kneed me in the face when they did not have the right to do so, I would, at the very bare minimum, expect my lawyer to win me a gaudy, oversized belt in damages.

So until the two scariest men in the world at 135 pounds inevitably have their rematch, Mr. Sterling has the right to flaunt his new girdle whenever and wherever he pleases without facing a peep of critique. 

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