As someone who is familiar with both the cheers and jeers of millions of fans worldwide, Big E has advice to offer Aljamain Sterling.
The WWE’s reigning Intercontinental Champion weighed in on the controversy surrounding UFC 259’s bantamweight title fight, which saw Sterling take Petr Yan’s belt when Yan was disqualified for an illegal knee to a grounded opponent in the fourth round. Sterling has been quick to fire back at critics who have questioned the validity of his championship win and how he’s conducted himself afterwards, but Big E doesn’t believe this necessarily makes him the bad guy in the situation.
If anything, he still thinks Sterling can be the “babyface” (pro wrestling vernacular for a character with a good guy alignment) should a rematch against Yan be booked as expected.
“Here’s the problem, when you’re determining heel and babyface roles, you have to know who your opponent is,” Big E said on MMA Fighting’s The A-Side live chat. “His opponent is a frightening Russian man named Petr Yan. So if Aljo was to turn heel, he needs to do it against a guy who can be a babyface. I like Yan, I’m thoroughly entertained by him, I don’t find him to be the guy we can get behind as a babyface. So I would say no, I think Aljo is our babyface.
“He’s a charismatic guy. He comes out with the gold, dookie chain, he’s got the sweet, sort of like, high top ‘fro. That’s our babyface. I’d be okay with the heel turn if maybe, like, [Cory] Sandhagen I think is a babyface we can all get behind, maybe we do a bit of a turn there. I think if our next opponent is gonna be Yan, if I’m the booker here, I say we fight it, let’s keep our babyface Sterling here and let’s let Yan be the scary Russian man who knocks people’s heads off.”
Big E is familiar with juggling babyface and heel dynamics, having played both roles during his 12-year run with the WWE. Though he is currently one of the sports entertainment giant’s most popular performers, he saw several stops and starts in his career. Most notably, when he and fellow WWE stars Kofi Kingston and Xavier Woods were repackaged as “The New Day,” they were initially booed by fans despite seemingly being booked as babyface characters.
The trio soon learned to embrace the hate, turning heel and becoming a white hot act as villains before that infamy later allowed them to revert to the babyface characters they were originally intended to be, though known more for their offbeat and unpredictable antics than traditional good guy stereotypes.
Now a solo act once more, Big E understands what it’s like for a fighter like Sterling to be on an island following the first title change by disqualification in UFC history. He sees the new bantamweight champion as only having so much control over how peers, media, and fans react to UFC 259 and its aftermath.
“I will say it felt like Aljo had a lot of good will—and I’m not saying this is his fault by any means—he was a guy that I thought a lot of people got behind and it’s kind of hurting me a little bit to see the way things have unfolded and now people have kind of soured on him because of things that aren’t really his fault,” Big E said.
The situation itself played out like a pro wrestling angle, with Yan’s illegal knee causing instant confusion and potentially leading to a pay-per-view rematch with Sterling. Big E remembers when light heavyweight title challenger Anthony Smith was in a similar situation with Jon Jones at UFC 236 and he wonders why commissions haven’t worked out a better process for how to handle fouls, especially in title fights.
“You know, we do a lot of weird things in pro wrestling, but one of the things I think we get right is the title should not change hands with a DQ,” Big E said. “I don’t know if that means that the title is now vacant, I’m not sure exactly. It feels so wrong that Aljamain is wearing a title now after a DQ win. I think that’s problematic. And I think the fact that the fighter has to decide whether they can continue or not, I think you put that into the hands of the referee or the doctor. I think to have the fighter be in position where he almost has to perform, because let’s say Aljamain comes back and says I can continue, but maybe he’s not out from the knee but he’s damaged by it. Now you put this onus on a guy who you expect to be a warrior, to be a fighter, and now you expect to fight for another round or more depending on the circumstance, and he’s behind the eight-ball a little bit because of this knee.
“So that whole system needs to be tweaked and looked at because you shouldn’t put the fighter in that position. Because if I’m Aljamain, he made the smart decision, whether he was acting or wasn’t. Now you have pay-per-view points, the fact that he can put on his resume that he is a former and current UFC champion, there really is no incentive for Aljamain to continue fighting. What reason besides the fact that he’s a warrior or this is what he does? Financially, career-wise, he’s pretty much guaranteed himself another Yan fight or, if for some reason they decide not to go with another Yan fight, he’s going to have another title fight next, that’s guaranteed.”