Why the UFC’s bantamweight division continues to prove it’s the deepest and most competitive in the sport

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Name a more exciting division top to bottom than bantamweight in the UFC right now. The gap between champion and contenders is quite narrow with seemingly every top 10 fighter in a fight of title contender status.

In a sport often marred by injuries, superfights, interim titles and a dearth of credible contenders, the bantamweight path is overloaded with fighters who could all reach the title. Champion Aljamain Sterling and all of the top 10 contenders – except for Rob Font – either have a fight booked or have fought in the last 50 days. Sterling’s narrow victory over Petr Yan by split decision only fuels the argument about how close everyone in the division is. In contrast, heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is recovering from injury and will eventually miss a full year, Alex Pereira is the only viable contender remaining at middleweight (and only four fights in his MMA career), champion of featherweight Alexander Volkanovski is aiming for a lightweight title fight and Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko continue to tear up their splits with only occasional resistance.

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Let’s take a closer look at the fights already slated for the rest of 2022 as well as where the other upside contenders could slot in and make this split even bananas.

Fights on the bridge

UFC Bantamweight Championship – Aljamain Sterling (c) vs. TJ Dillashaw (UFC 280, Oct. 22): An underrated defending champion and a rejuvenated former champion. Sterling divided the fan base in his successful pursuit of the world title. He won the championship by disqualification in a fight led by Petr Yan. Some vilified Yan for throwing a patently illegal knee. Others made fun of Sterling for having declared himself champion on a technical point. He won the rematch but failed to win over skeptics with his wrestling-heavy approach and narrow victory. Haters and doubters will likely persist if Sterling produces anything other than a dominating victory.

But that dominant result can be hard to come by against a former champion known for his close combat. In 2018, Dillashaw set his sights on flyweight champion Henry Cejudo in a bid to join the growing list of concurrent two-division champions. The UFC seemed to have lost faith in its lightest men’s weight class as flyweight fighters were released left and right. Dillashaw was expected to be sent to erase the division from existence. But Dillashaw was stopped within 32 seconds and later tested positive for a banned substance. He was sentenced to a two-year suspension and forced to vacate his bantamweight title. Dillashaw returned from a 30-month layoff and won a split decision over another rising contender in Cory Sandhagen. It was a promising sign for someone who had gone so long without competition and looks set to reclaim his place at the top of this loaded heap.

Petr Yan vs. Sean O’Malley (UFC 280): The UFC should be commended for this matchmaking. The winner of Yan vs. O’Malley is the primary candidate to fight the world champion (who will be crowned in the fight after theirs). Yan is currently the No. 1 contender and a rematch against Dillashaw is an easy sell. A trilogy fight against Sterling is unlikely but not impossible. A – particularly dramatic – win over a fan favorite like O’Malley would go a long way to selling the Russian against either man.

O’Malley is the most popular fighter in the division and one of the most marketable names in the UFC. His boldness resembles that of a young Conor McGregor, but “Suga” is utterly unique. He leaned into gaming and ganja to build his own community. O’Malley’s penchant for self-marketing and spectacular knockouts gives him more clout than most. O’Malley (#13) is taking a huge leap forward in the competition and most expect him to fail. O’Malley was able to salvage his name value among his fan base after losing to Marlon Vera in August 2020. He should also be relatively safe from a loss to Yan. If O’Malley beat Yan, he would be an undeniable title challenger on his way to becoming the UFC’s biggest star in years.

Cory Sandhagen vs. Song Yadong (UFC Fight Night, Sept. 17): Sandhagen and Yadong are moving in opposite directions. Sandhagen has been touted as a future UFC champion several times, but he continues to fail in big fights. Knockouts from Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes are mitigated by losses to Sterling, Dillashaw and Yan. Former champion Urijah Faber has high hopes for his product Team Alpha Male Yadong. That confidence seems justified with wins over Moraes, Julio Arce, Casey Kenney and Vera in his last five appearances. Another great matchmaking stunt from the UFC brass. Either Sandhagen gets a much needed takeover or the company has a new star in Yadong to break into the much sought after Chinese market.

Potential competitors

Merab Dvalishvili: Dvalishvili passed a major test in defeating former Featherweight Champion Jose Aldo at UFC 278. Unfortunately, the performance did not warm him to UFC President Dana White. Dvalishvili entered the fight against Aldo averaging 7.3 kills per 15 minutes. Dvalishvili failed in all three eliminations in the first round (and 16 eliminations in total). Dvalishvili adjusted deftly and just controlled Aldo against the fence to double and quadruple the total number of strikes in rounds 2 and 3, respectively. White later expressed disappointment with Dvalishvili’s performance. This is somewhat absurd considering what we know of the Georgia native. He uses endless stamina to immobilize or control his opponents. That’s what he does. Penalizing him for executing the same game plan that got him into the dance is disappointing. Not to mention that Dvalishvili said after his fight that he will never fight his friend, training partner and current champion Aljamain Sterling. It seems to be in reality that he will need a few more wins before a UFC title is within reach.

Marlon Vera: Meet the dark horse of the bantamweight division. “Chito” clinched his record 10th bantamweight when he broke Dominick Cruz’s nose with a headbutt. Vera is the fan-friendly action fighter preferred by the UFC’s top brass and has rallied her fellow Ecuadorians behind her. The only man to defeat O’Malley, their parallel rise through the ranks makes for a high-profile rematch all down the line – possibly for the UFC bantamweight championship. Fights against anyone in the top five are doable as the dust settles in the months ahead.

Veteran Battles

Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz: Aldo and Cruz are still in featherweight and bantamweight talks for best of all time, respectively. Their respective losses to Dvalishvili and Vera likely extinguished their final runs towards a world title. If their careers are truly winding down, then a dream match between the two veterans seems fitting. They are close enough in the standings to warrant booking. Aldo had a competitive fight with Dvalishvili but was choked out in the closing rounds. Cruz took turns from “Chito” with superior footwork and exit before the knockdowns piled up. Their best days are behind them, but there’s still marketing and competitive value in Aldo vs. Cruz.

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