Bantamweight is arguably the deepest division in the UFC. The list of potential fighters who could one day be champions is long, perhaps longer than in any other weight class in MMA.
Two of the athletes closing in on title shots will compete Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night in San Antonio (4 pm ET on ESPN+). marlon vera will put his four-fight winning streak on the line against the stunning striker cory sandhagenin what is expected to be an extremely entertaining matchup.
The winner will put his name on a very short list of fighters who could challenge for the UFC bantamweight belt in 2023, including the likes of Sean O’Malley, Merab Dvalishvili and more.
aljamain sterlina defends title against former champion henry cejudo in the main event of UFC 288 on May 6 in Newark, New Jersey. O’Malley appears to be next up later this year. But beyond that, bantamweight is wide open and packed with some of the most talented fighters in the sport.
Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi take a look at the best fighters in the 135-pound weight class and their path to the title or their path to retain it.
Can Sterling continue to be the king of the bantamweights?
Sterling’s path to holding the UFC championship is the easiest of all involved, because it’s already around his waist. However, “easy” probably isn’t the right word because he has a lot of work ahead of him the rest of the year. A title defense against Cejudo looms on May 6, and that’s a tough matchup. Sterling’s fight for losing should be considered, as he has been more active and has excelled in his last two outings against petryan and T. J. Dillashaw.
That being said, Cejudo is one of the most successful combat sports athletes of all time, and his track record of Olympic gold medals will negate many of Sterling’s strengths in the wrestling department. Beyond Cejudo, a big-money title defense against O’Malley is in store for Sterling. So, it’s simple for ‘Aljo’ for the rest of 2023: he only wins two fights. Let’s say Sterling defends the belt against a two-weight champion in Cejudo and a popular contender in O’Malley. In that case, his stock will go up exponentially and he’ll probably consider moving up to 145lbs in 2024. – okamoto
Cejudo’s chance for unprecedented glory
Cejudo’s actual road to the title is pretty straightforward with the next title shot coming at UFC 288. By the way, it’s a title Cejudo once held and never lost in the Octagon. Former Olympic wrestling gold medalist and former UFC flyweight champion retained gold against dominick cross in May 2020 and then abruptly announced his retirement in the post-fight interview. This will be Cejudo’s first fight, almost three years to the day. And it’s a credit to him and how nice it is that he’s just a bit of a loser against Sterling.
If Cejudo beats Sterling, he’s in for the big money fight against O’Malley. There’s a bit of a story there. O’Malley and Cejudo train just a few miles apart in the Phoenix area. The coaches and training partners of both sides know the other side very well. And trash talk should be plentiful between the two men. O’Malley had expected his title challenge to be in July, but that doesn’t seem so realistic now, with Sterling vs. Cejudo in May. But it could go down in late summer or fall.
After that, things could get pretty interesting. If Cejudo gets the better of both Sterling and O’Malley, it’s likely he’ll petition to move up to featherweight and try to win a third UFC divisional title, something no one else has achieved. Cejudo expected to fight the featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovsky before retiring. Winning the 135-pound title and defending it might give you a compelling case. — Raimondi
Suga Sean has the following
Love him or hate him, you have to appreciate what O’Malley has done. He has built himself up as a contender in every possible way.
Viral finishes? Check.
Social presence? Check.
Memorable moments on the mic? Check.
Potential rivalries in the works? Check.
Most importantly, he has developed as a mixed martial artist. That was shown in his last win when he took a massive he stepped up in the competition to face former champion Yan and won by split decision. Yes, there was a scoring controversy in that match, but what ultimately matters is the ‘W’ next to that fight on his resume. O’Malley has said that he will be ready to step in on May 6 if Sterling or Cejudo are forced to pull out of their scheduled title fight. O’Malley fighting for a title is good for business – the UFC is good with ‘Suga’s’ position as No. 1 contender behind the scenes, so there’s a narrative to build as we wait and see what happens on May 6. O’Malley has done almost everything right in his rise and is in the best possible place in the game. The last piece is delivering his best performance in a five-round title fight against either Sterling or Cejudo. — okamoto
The riddle of the machine
Merab Dvalishvili stuns Petr Yan in unanimous decision win
Merab Dvalishvili takes home the unanimous decision victory over Petr Yan.
Dvalishvili’s place at 135 is one of the unique situations in any division in a long time. Only Daniel Cormier‘s dropped down to light heavyweight to avoid his former training partner and friend Cain Velasquez it feels similar. Dvalishvili just dominated former champion Yan; prior to that, he had a victory over a legend and former UFC featherweight champion. Jose Aldo. He has put together a resume that would be compelling for a title shot under any other circumstances. But Dvalishvili doesn’t want one, at least not yet, because his close friend and training partner Sterling is the champion.
The UFC isn’t a big fan of these scenarios, and Dana White said as much earlier this month after Dvalishvili’s win over Yan. The promotion doesn’t care if they’re teammates. They want to put together the fights they want to put together. This could relegate Dvalishvili to keeper status as long as Sterling keeps the belt. If Cejudo takes the gold from Sterling in May, that could change everything. Maybe then Sterling will move up to featherweight, clearing the way for Dvalishvili for a title shot. But Dvalishvili is still behind at least O’Malley in the pecking order. O’Malley is the division’s biggest draw. Dvalishvili will likely need one or two more wins before he gets a well-deserved shot at him. — Raimondi
Can Chito jump when the dust settles?
Marlon Vera sends Rob Font to the canvas three times during the main event
Marlon Vera nearly finished Rob Font three times during their main event bout at UFC Fight Night.
Vera might be the most intriguing name on this list for a number of reasons. Her popularity is on the rise, and Vera has that ‘it’ factor among MMA fans right now. Her confidence has grown in recent years, and that has been evident both in and out of the cage. He has plenty of charisma in his media appearances, and inside the cage he’s quietly finding finishes against top opponents, often when he’s behind on the scorecards. Vera doesn’t care about the scorecards because he’s very confident in his ability to finish a fight in 25 minutes, and that’s precisely the style he resonates with the fans.
If he beats Sandhagen this weekend, he can wait and see. As we’ve already discussed at length, 135 pounds is a bottleneck. But if Vera wins and wants a little break, she’ll have plenty of juice for a title shot once she settles the dust. Plus, if O’Malley keeps the belt when the dust settles, Vera is a number one contender. The two have history dating back to 2020, when Vera defeated O’Malley via technical knockout after O’Malley suffered a nerve problem during a kick from Vera that rendered him helpless. — okamoto
Can Sandhagen stay in the mix?
The top of the bantamweight division is so excellent and deep that Sandhagen needs a win on Saturday over Vera to stay in the mix. If he loses, he will have lost three out of four. And he’s already lost to Sterling in less than 90 seconds. With all that being said, a win over Vera changes everything. He wouldn’t make him the number 1 contender or anything, again, that’s O’Malley all the way, but he would put him on the shortlist.
Sandhagen’s loss to Yan and knockout victories frankie edgar and Marlon Moraes They haven’t aged that well. But Sandhagen has a few things going for him. He’s only 30 years old, so time is on his side. Meanwhile, Cejudo is 36 and Sterling is 33. Sandhagen may not be in his prime yet, or if he is, he’s just getting started and can keep improving. And he is already very good. His fighting style, a beautiful display of punches with knockout power, also works in his favor. Sandhagen is rarely in a boring fight and that’s something the UFC at the top of his divisions cares about. Even if he loses to Vera, Sandhagen may still be relevant. But a win would speed up his schedule. — Raimondi
What rising stars could compete for the belt in 2024?
The name “Nurmagomedov” will always catch the eye in MMA, and 27-year-old Umar (Khabib’s cousin) is no exception. Nurmagomedov is a standout candidate poised for 2023. He already looked fantastic in a first round knockout of Raoni Barcelos in January. He tried to get a fight in March, but the UFC had trouble finding an opponent for him. Don’t be surprised if Nurmagomedov books a fight against a high-ranking name next, as the UFC is bought with Nurmagomedov revved up. He has a built-in fan base and a lot of belief in his abilities. He could even be seen fighting Dvalishvili in the near future, as Dvalishvili has made it clear that he won’t be fighting for a championship as long as Sterling holds the belt.
As well as Nurmagomedov, former flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo he has an unlikely path to claiming the belt in 2024. He’s an established name with a track record of finishing. There are a lot of fun fights for him in this new division, and when he’s at it, it can be devastating. Still, there are enough contenders in front of him that he’ll have a hard time breaking through quickly, but if any unranked bantamweight is capable of it, it’s Figueiredo. — okamoto