By Briggs Seekins
Two MMA fighters with strong Southern Tier connections are preparing to step into the cage for the biggest fights of their careers in the weeks ahead. This weekend on the undercard for UFC 170, 8-0 Aljamain Sterling will make his big league MMA debut against 8-3 Cody Gibson. And on March 7, tough veteran Anthony Leone makes a bid to become a world champion when he faces Bellator featherweight champ Eduardo Dantas.
Photo courtesy of njmmanews.com
Known as the “Funkmaster,” Sterling is a former SUNY-Cortland wrestling standout. Like current UFC champion Jon Jones, Sterling launched his career with Ryan Ciotoli and the Ithaca-based Bombsquad. In recent months he’s returned to his native Long Island and linked up with the highly regarded Team Serra-Longo. Sterling has been among the sport’s most-watched prospects for two years and local MMA observers have known it would only be a matter of time before he got called up for a big show. Sterling is a focused, cerebral athlete who mixes a powerful wrestling game with an inventive and athletic standup attack. He’s held a few regional titles, including the Caged Fury Fighting Championships featherweight belt.
Photo courtesy of thefightnation.com
A long-time member of Team Bombsquad and a popular grappling instructor at Ultimate Athletics in Ithaca, Leone is a well-traveled veteran of top promotions WEC and Bellator. In the past two years he has based himself for much of the year in Phuket, Thailand, where he and his brother Andrew have become popular stars with local fight fans. A surfing aficionado, Leone told me in an interview last year that “the lifestyle for a fighter in Thailand is easier. You can afford to eat out on nice, healthy food every meal and just focus on relaxing and training.”
Leone is a former high school wrestler and a purple belt in Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with very solid all-around MMA game. His Muy Thai has been honed through working for years with national champion Primo Bellarosa and his time spent sparring with local fighters in Thailand. The highlight of his professional career so far has unquestionably been his December 2012 split-decision victory over former Bellator champion Zack Makovsky. Leone lost to Rafael Silva by unanimous decision in the finals of last year’s Bellator Bantamweight Tournament, but was tapped to face Dantas when Silva had to withdraw due to injury.
This writer has been lucky enough to spend time on the mat with both these young rising stars, inevitably getting my butt kicked despite outweighing both by about 40-50 pounds. If I were to grapple with Sterling with my eyes closed, unable to see what he looked like, I’d guess he was about 210 pounds, instead of a 145-150. Grappling with the redheaded Anthony Leone I can only liken to what it must feel like to get mugged by a leprechaun.
These are just two native New Yorkers with Southern Tier connections who have managed to reach the world-class level of MMA, despite our state’s continued oppressive ban on the sport.
Editor’s Note: Those of you who received New York State Assemblywoman Donna Lupardo’s constituent survey, be sure to check “yes” on the question about “legalizing Mixed Martial Arts” and return it today!