Aljamain Sterling compiled a record of 87-27 at SUNY Cortland (Photo/SUNY Cortland Athletics)
Like many successful MMA fighters, Aljamain Sterling got his start in the wrestling room. The UFC bantamweight contender will return to his roots for a freestyle match against Penn State's Roman Bravo-Young on Tuesday.
After a successful high school wrestling career at Uniondale High School in New York, Sterling chose to wrestle on the Division III level. His collegiate career began at Morrisville State before moving to SUNY Cortland. In the end, he finished as a two-time All-American and threw in a few amateur MMA fights along the way.
The following looks back at some of the key moments from the collegiate wrestling career of Sterling.
Freshman year at Morrisville State (2007-2008)
Aljamain Sterling's collegiate wrestling career began in 2007 at Morrisville State. At the time, the school was transitioning from a junior college to a four-year institution, and therefore the athletic department was moving from NJCAA to NCAA Division III. To help ease the transition, the program added over 30 freshmen and a high profile transfer named Jon Jones. Jones, the eventual UFC champion, had won a NJCAA title in 2006 for Iowa Central.
Sterling was a member of the freshman class, and per a preview from D3Wrestle.com, he was expected to split time with New York state placer Mike Smith at 133 pounds. As a freshman, he had some moments, including a fourth-place finish at the RIT Invitational. Sterling entered the bracket as the No. 2 seed and defeated his first two opponents before running into Josh Pauling (Wilkes) in the semifinals. Pauling would go on to win the tournament.
Even though Sterling showed promise during his first year on the college mats, Morrisvile was not allowed to compete in the NCAA tournament due to the transition from NJCAA. Following the season, Sterling chose to transfer to Cortland.
Aljamain Sterling rides his opponent (Photo/SUNY Cortland)
Sophomore year at Cortland (2008-2009)
After moving to Cortland, Sterling started his career with an extremely active November. In the first month of the season, he wrestled in three open tournaments with his best performance coming at the Oneonta Invitational. In the bracket, he scored three straight bonus point victories over Michael Slabinski (Gettysburg), Alex Pittera (Worcester Poly) and Richard Wingert (Worcester Poly) to make the finals. Sterling then forfeited to teammate Dave Colagiovanni to finish second.
Sterling traded the starting job at 133 pounds back and forth with Colagiovanni. However, as the calendar moved to January, it appeared as if Sterling had locked it down. He started all four of Cortland's duals at the North-South Duals and picked up three straight bonus point wins over Michael Testa (Johns Hopkins), Peter Caruso (McDaniel) and Jack Bostrom (Gettysburg).
In late February the Cortland squad entered the Empire Collegiate Wrestling Conference tournament, and Sterling indeed secured the nod at 133 pounds. For the season, the conference was allocated 15 qualifying spots for the NCAA tournament. The champion of each weight class would automatically qualify, and the final five wild card selections would be awarded by the coaches.
Sterling got off to a hot start with victories over Eric Grecco (Lycoming) and Glen DiStefano (Brockport) and found himself in the finals. His opponent, Chad Winowich of Ithaca was already quite familiar.
Prior to the conference tournament final, Sterling and Winowich had already wrestled three times. Their first meeting came at the season-opening Ithaca Invitational where Winowich scored a 2-0 decision victory. The rematch occurred at the New York State Collegiate Championships, and Winowich took a 4-3 decision. Less than a month before the conference tournament, the two wrestled in a dual. Once again, Winowich handed Sterling a decision loss this time by an 8-3 score.
In the 133-pound final of the conference tournament, Winowich improved to 4-0 against Sterling with a 6-2 decision. Sterling would go on to win the true second match, but the coaches did not reward his efforts with a wild card. He missed out on the NCAA tournament for the last time in his collegiate career.
Three months after the conference tournament, Sterling made his amateur MMA debut and defeated Vincent Morales.
Junior year at Cortland (2009-2010)
Sterling returned for his junior season, and it was clear for the start he was on a mission. After 0-4 against Winowich during his sophomore season, he defeated his rival in the finals of the season-opening Ithaca Invitational.
The early season victory set the tone for Sterling. After winning all three of his matches at the North-South Duals on Jan. 9, he found himself ranked third in Division III at 133 pounds, which was the highest ranking of his career up to that point.
After suffering a loss later that month against Joseph Grippi (Springfield), his ranking dropped down to 10th as he headed into yet another meeting with Winowich. The two faced off on Feb. 27 in a dual between Cortland and Ithaca. Sterling was once again able to best his rival as he scored a 3-1 victory.
The win locked up the No. 1 seed for Sterling at the Empire Collegiate Wrestling Conference Tournament. He plowed through his first match as he scored a 16-0 technical fall over Joe Beaumont (RIT) in the opening period. Sterling then edged Eric Velez (Brockport) by 1-0 decision. Those two victories set up a finals rematch against Winowich.
Despite going 2-0 against Winowich as a junior, Sterling was not able to get in done in the finals of the conference tournament. The Ithaca wrestler took the victory by 3-1 decision. Unlike the previous year, Sterling was awarded a wild card by the conference coaches and advanced to the NCAA tournament.
Sterling entered the NCAA tournament as an unseeded wrestler. He drew the No. 2 seed Nathan Fitzenreider (North Central) in the opening round. Despite the seeming long odds, Sterling pulled the upset with a 1-0 decision victory. Sterling then fell out of the championship bracket with a 3-2 decision loss against Nicholas Nothern (Cornell College). After falling to the consolation bracket, Sterling secured All-America status with a fall over Grippi who had previously defeated him during the year.
The Cortland wrestler returned for the second day of competition at the NCAA tournament. Sterling won his first bout over Corey Brown (Thiel) to set up yet another rematch with Winowich. This time Sterling pulled out a 4-2 decision and advanced to the third-place match. There he came up short against William Livingstone (Centenary) and finished fourth.
Following his first All-American season, Sterling continued his amateur MMA career. He suffered defeat for the first time against Zechariah Lange via split decision, but he avenged the defeat as well. For the summer, he went 5-1 to improve his amateur record to 6-1.
Aljamain Sterling finished his career at SUNY Cortland as a two-time All-American (Photo/SUNY Cortland Athletics)
Senior year at Cortland (2010-2011)
Sterling began his senior season ranked at 133 pounds, but he actually moved up to 141 early in the year. After winning the season-opening Ithaca Invitational, he entered the East Stroudsburg Open. At the time, the tournament featured a wide range of competitors including Division I teams. Sterling finished fifth in the tournament and went 2-1 against Division I opponents. He dropped a match against Mike Greck of Millersville, who was in their last year at Division I, but defeated Bradley Molina (Maryland) and Nicholas Murray (Virginia Tech).
During his senior year, Sterling wrestled a bit more sparingly, but he was still clearly a contender in the 141-pound division. Even though he no longer had to deal with his old rival Winowich, he found himself facing off against another Ithaca wrestler in Jeremy Stierly. He handed Sterling a 5-2 defeated in a late February dual meet.
Due to that defeat, Sterling entered the conference tournament as the second seed. He won his first two matches over Jon Khoury (Brockport) and Josh Bressler (Messiah) to set up a rematch against Stierly in the finals. Unfortunately for Sterling, he was unable to correct the previous result and finished second after a 2-0 defeat. For the second straight season, Sterling received a wild card invitation to the NCAA tournament.
Sterling entered his final NCAA tournament as the third seed. The previous year, he upset the second seed as an unranked wrestler. This time, he found himself on the other side of the upset as he dropped a 3-1 decision against Nick Garber (Waynesburg). Despite the defeat, Sterling fought his way back to the consolation bracket and ended up finishing sixth.
The former Uniondale High School product finished his collegiate career at Cortland with an 87-27 record. At the time, those 87 wins ranked 11th on the all-time Cortland wins chart.
On April 21, 2011, about a month and a half after the NCAA tournament, Sterling made his professional MMA debut and picked up a win over Sergio da Silva. He would build an 8-0 professional record before signing with the UFC in 2014.