Hard work can take an athlete far in their sport, but it doesn’t hurt to have luck on their side. The many hours in the gym and dedication to their craft aren’t always enough to reach the highest stage. Sometimes, it’s a chance encounter with the right person that opens the door to the next level.

Undefeated at 8-0 as a professional mixed martial artist, Serra-Longo Fight Team prospect Aljamain Sterling knows a thing or two about chance encounters. The SUNY Cortland alum experienced a chance encounter of his own when he met a fellow New York native who wanted to wrestle at Morrisville State College. That same young man eventually became the youngest UFC light heavyweight champion ever. Yes, that young man was current light heavyweight kingpin Jon Jones.

Sterling (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Sterling (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

“We kind of kept in touch on MySpace, back when MySpace was the thing,” Sterling told The MMA Corner in an exclusive interview. “And I saw a couple of pictures of him flexing—he had his gloves on—and some of him grappling from one of his fights. I see him on TV and think I’d be good at that, so I mention it to him, and when he told me he was training in Cortland, I said, ‘Oh man! I just transferred to school in Cortland!'”

That was all Sterling needed to hear. He got started and hasn’t stopped since. Sterling posted a 6-1 mark in the amateur circuit. In his pro debut at Urban Conflict Championships 4 on April 22, 2011, he took a unanimous decision verdict over Sergio da Silva, and went on to submit Harley Leimbach at Extreme Fight Club: Bragging Rights 2 almost one full month later. Yet another month later, Sterling received a big break at Ring of Combat 36 against Claudio Ledesma.

Ledesma planned on facing a Texan kid in a title bout, but the fight fell through. Sterling’s manager at the time called him up and asked if he wanted Ledesma, and after checking out what Ledesma could do, Sterling felt eager to get inside the cage and test himself.

“I think it was premature for me to do that,” he admitted. “I don’t think I was ready for a fight like that, but it’s a good thing that I came up on the right side of the stick on the split decision win.”

Despite filling in as a replacement and not feeling as though he brought his best to the fight, Sterling had put in the work to earn the win over Ledesma. Sometimes, a fighter needs to let push come to shove for them to really find what they need in order to to prevail during the fight. What, then, happened when push came to shove for Sterling?

“It was a gut check, man,” Sterling explained. “I had his neck for about three minutes of the first round, and I couldn’t choke him out. And, after that, I felt my legs get pretty heavy, and it made me feel like, ‘Alright, you need to stick to your bread and butter,’ and I clearly lost the second round.”

By the third frame, Sterling knew it had come time to do or die. He thought he did enough to press the action in the first round, but he could not guarantee anything and needed to do something to turn the fight in his favor. In grinding out the decision via his performance in the third round, he showed the world the qualities that made him a guy to watch, proving that he could hang with the world’s toughest bantamweights and cementing Ledesma as unquestionably Sterling’s toughest fight to date.

“I think I was still young in my career, but I definitely grew a lot from that performance and it was good for me to learn a lot about myself,” Sterling said.

After beating Ledesma, Sterling made his way to the Cage Fury Fighting Championships, where he scored a TKO victory over Evan Chmielski, earned a unanimous decision win over Sean Santella and then submitted Casey Johnson, Sidemar Honorio and Joel Roberts, all by rear-naked choke.

After the win over Honorio, Sterling noticed that his shoulder was acting up more than normal. His shoulder was bothering him even before the fight, but he still made it through the training camp and found a way to remain a high-level competitor throughout the bout. This time, though, things went differently.

“The doctors said I had a torn labrum,” Sterling said. “I got a couple of doctors’ opinions on what I should do about it, and I was still up in the air about it.”

Sterling’s brother offered him some advice. He told Aljamain that it was “mind over matter” and cautioned him that he might not be the same after going under the knife.

Sterling (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

Sterling (Keith Mills/Sherdog)

“I just went with it, got the surgery done. The pain was becoming unbearable due to all the times it came out of the socket. I’d sometimes have to take three days off in a row before I could compete again or start training. Then I had the surgery,” the bantamweight revealed.

Sterling worked his way back into fighting shape and took on Roberts with two working shoulders. Once word reached Roberts’ camp about the torn labrum and the partial tear in Sterling’s bicep tendon, however, Roberts targeted the once-injured arm. That move, while understandable, resulted in Roberts’ own undoing.

“I think I overheard his corner saying, ‘Attack the arm! Take it home!’ And I laughed to myself like, ‘Man, I don’t think they realize that there’s nothing wrong with my shoulder anymore,'” Sterling recalled.

Now, Sterling finds himself with almost a week to go before heading to Mandalay Bay Events Center in Las Vegas for UFC 170 on Feb. 22. His opponent, Lucas Martins, is already accustomed to the bright lights of the UFC. Martins also knows the feeling of coming in as an undefeated prospect to fight in the world’s premier MMA league. This time, Martins gets to play veteran to the newcomer, Sterling, who replaces Bryan Caraway in the bout.

When Sterling’s manager came to Aljamain with good news, the bantamweight assumed it involved new sponsors.

“[My manager] said, ‘No, the UFC wants you,’ and once he said that, I was like, ‘What?’,” Sterling said. “I asked who the opponent was and when, and he said Lucas Martins on Feb. 22, and I said, ‘Hell yeah! Let’s do it!’. So then I pumped up the training a little bit.”

At the time, Sterling was preparing for what would’ve marked his second five-round bout under the Cage Fury banner. The bout would have taken place at Cage Fury 32, but the event was pushed back from Feb. 22 to March 22 and Sterling was signed by the UFC.

Sterling had stepped away from training when his original fight was pushed back, but he started sparring again after getting the call from the UFC. The improvements he made in not only his skill set, but also his cardio, will his chances as he prepares for what promises to be an exciting contest against Martins, especially since Sterling recognizes “Mineiro” as a man with a go-for-broke style of combat.

“It almost reminds me of Leonard Garcia, but the only thing is [Lucas] throws straighter punches,” Sterling explained. “Leonard throws a lot more hooks, while Lucas throws more ones and twos. He also throws a lot of inside leg kicks, a couple of head kicks, and it makes for a great fight when it’s two guys coming forward at each other.”

Although Sterling respects Martins’ aggression and killer instinct, he welcomes the challenge. Right now, his focus is firmly on making a statement of arrival in his UFC debut. Sterling will look to nullify the offense of the Brazilian prospect on the feet and test him out on the ground, where Martins may show more than people expect come fight night.

“I’ve fought guys who did a lot of heel hooks, like Honorio, and he actually almost hurt my ankle, but I’ve been able to get out of those, and personally, being at Serra-Longo’s, a lot of those guys are great at a lot of chokes, so they’re having me prepare for that if he does go for anything like that,” Sterling said. “And I think my jiu-jitsu’s getting so much better than where it was at. I think I was more of a scrambling guy, but now I’m actually able to hold position, and if I want to keep you down, I can keep you down. If I want to punch you, I’m going to punch you. If I want to pass your guard, I’ll pass your guard.

“There’s always a method to my madness. You’re going to be seeing a lot of funky stuff on the feet and, hopefully, you’ll get to see me do a lot of scrambles on the mat. And you’ll see an entertaining fight—it’s always entertaining when you watch me fight. I’m always going for the finish, so no matter what, it’ll be high-paced and high-intensity. Don’t blink, because you might miss the rear-naked choke.”

Aljamain would like to thank the Serra-Longo Fight Team, his coaches, his brother, his girlfriend and his manager for getting him the fight. Follow Sterling on Twitter: @FunkMasterAljO