Name a division more exciting from top-to-bottom than bantamweight in the UFC right now. The gap between champion and contenders are quite narrow with seemingly every fighter in the top 10 within one fight of title contender status.
In a sport often log jammed by injuries, super-fights, interim titles and a shortage of believable contenders, the bantamweight lane overloaded with fighters who could all reach the title. Champion Aljamain Sterling and every contender in the top 10 -- excluding Rob Font -- either has a fight booked or has fought in the last 50 days. Sterling's narrow split decision win over Petr Yan only fuels the argument as to how close everyone in the division is. By contrast, heavyweight champion Francis Ngannou is recovering from injury and will end up missing a full year, Alex Pereira is the only viable contender left at middleweight (and only four fights into his MMA career), featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski is eyeing a lightweight title fight and Amanda Nunes and Valentina Shevchenko continue to tear through their divisions with only occasional resistance.
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Let's take a closer look at the fights already on the books for the rest of 2022 as well as where the other rising contenders could slot in and make this division even more bananas.
Fights on deck
UFC bantamweight championship -- Aljamain Sterling (c) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (UFC 280, Oct. 22): An under-appreciated titleholder and a rejuvenated former champion. Sterling has divided the fanbase in his successful pursuit of the world title. Hein a fight led by Petr Yan. Some vilified Yan for throwing a blatantly illegal knee. Others clowned Sterling for proclaiming to be champion on a technicality. but failed to win over doubters with his wrestling-heavy approach and narrow victory. Haters and doubters will likely linger if Sterling produces anything but a dominant win.
But that dominant result may be hard to come by against a former champion known for having close fight. In 2018, Dillashaw set his sights on flyweight champion Henry Cejudo in an effort to join the growing list of simultaneous two-division champions. The UFC appeared to have lost faith in its lightest male weight class as flyweight fighters were released left and right. There was an expectation that Dillashaw was sent to erase the division from existence. But Dillashaw was stopped in 32 seconds and subsequently tested positive for a banned substance. He was handed 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 competing and seems ready to return to his spot 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 leading candidate to fight the world champion (who will be crowned in the fight after theirs). Yan is currently the No. 1 contender and a fresh matchup against Dillashaw is an easy sell. A trilogy fight against Sterling is unlikely but not impossible. A win -- especially a spectacular one -- over a fan-favorite like O'Malley would go a long way in selling the Russian against either man.
O'Malley is the division's most popular fighter and one of UFC's most marketable names. His brashness resembles that of a young Conor McGregor, but "Suga" is very unique. He leaned into gaming and ganja to build a community all his own. O'Malley's penchant for self-marketing and spectacular knockouts gives him more leverage than most. O'Malley (No. 13) is taking an enormous leap in competition and most expect him to fall short. O'Malley was able to salvage his name value among his fanbase after losing to Marlon Vera in August 2020. He should be relatively shielded from a loss to Yan as well. Should O'Malley defeat Yan, he will emerge as an undeniable title challenger poised to become UFC's biggest star in years.
Cory Sandhagen vs. Song Yadong (UFC Fight Night, Sept. 17): Sandhagen and Yadong are trending in opposite directions. Sandhagen has repeatedly been touted as a future UFC champion, yet he continues to fall short in the big fights. Highlight-reel knockouts of Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes are muted by losses to Sterling, Dillashaw and Yan. Former champion Urijah Faber has high hopes for his Team Alpha Male product Yadong. That confidence appears justified with wins over Moraes, Julio Arce, Casey Kenney and Vera in his last five appearances. Another great stroke of matchmaking by UFC brass. Either Sandhagen gets a much-needed recovery or the company has a new star in Yadong to push into the very desired Chinese market.
Merab Dvalishvili: Dvalishvili passed a major test inat UFC 278. Unfortunately, the performance did not warm him up to UFC president Dana White. Dvalishvili entered the Aldo fight with an average of 7.3 takedowns per 15 minutes. Dvalishvili failed on all three takedowns in Round 1 (and 16 takedowns overall). Dvalishvili expertly adjusted and settled for controlling Aldo against the fence to double and quadruple up on total strikes in Rounds 2 and 3, respectively. White subsequently expressed his disappointment in Dvalishvili's performance. That is somewhat absurd considering what we know about the native of Georgia. He uses endless stamina to ground or control opponents. That's what he does. To penalize him for executing the same game plan that brought him to the dance is disappointing. Not to mention that Dvalishvili stated after his fight that he will never fight friend, training partner and current champion Aljamain Sterling. It appears to be reality that he will need a couple of more wins before a UFC title is within reach.
Marlon Vera: Meet the darkhorse of the bantamweight division. "Chito" notched his record 10th bantamweight finish when he. Vera is the fan-friendly action fighter that UFC higher-ups favor and has rallied his fellow Ecuadorians behind him. The only man to defeat O'Malley, their parallel rises through the ranks make for a high-profile rematch down the line -- perhaps for the UFC bantamweight championship. Fights against anyone in the top five are feasible as the dust settles in the coming months.
Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz: Aldo and Cruz are still in the featherweight and bantamweight discussions for greatest of all time, respectively. Their respective losses to Dvalishvili and Vera presumably extinguished their final runs to a world title. If their careers are truly winding down, then a dream match between the two veterans seems appropriate. They are close enough in the rankings to justify the booking. Aldo had a competitive fight with Dvalishvili but was smothered in the latter rounds. Cruz took rounds from "Chito" with superior footwork and output before the knockdowns piled up. Their best days are behind them, but there is still marketing and competitive value in Aldo vs. Cruz.