The Ultimate Fighter
It seems like every other fight card, there’s a young, up-and-coming fighter competing at 135 pounds in the UFC. Making it to the top of any division is a tall task, but the men’s bantamweight division seems like its own special kind of shark tank.
When TJ Dillashaw was forced to give up the title, Marlon Moraes and Henry Cejudo put on an exciting contest for the vacant belt, and Cejudo pushed through plenty of adversity to come back and secure his second UFC strap. Cejudo has kept himself relevant in the eyes and ears of UFC fans, but several worthy contenders have made their case to earn a title shot within their next couple of fights.
Here’s a look at the men’s bantamweight division:
More Divisional Breakdowns: Strawweight | Women's Flyweight | Women's Bantamweight | Women's Featherweight | Flyweight | Featherweight | Lightweight | Welterweight | Middleweight | Light Heavyweight | Heavyweight
Champion: Henry Cejudo
(15-2, 7 KOs)
Last Fight: TKO Win vs Marlon Moraes (6/8/2019)
Next fight: vs Jose Aldo @ UFC 250
Outlook: It’s easy to forget how good Henry Cejudo is as a mixed martial artist because of how much noise he chooses to make online and in interviews, especially since injuries have kept him out for about 10 months now. But don’t get it twisted, Cejudo has the goods. He’s the only flyweight to beat Demetrious Johnson in the Octagon, and he showed off his ability to grind out a win when he fought through a brutal lower body assault in his bantamweight title fight against Marlon Moraes. The adjustments Cejudo made in that bout were a testament to his fight IQ and toughness, and with two belts and an Olympic gold medal on his resume, his claims as the greatest combat sports athlete isn’t unfounded. He made the controversial choice to defend his bantamweight title against Jose Aldo, who is coming off two losses, but Aldo is still as tough a matchup as they come, so it would still be a real feather in his cap should he come out victorious. Cejudo has called for a featherweight bout against Alexander Volkanovski on social media, and his management mentioned his intentions to fight at 125 pounds, as well. Ultimately, as long as he keeps winning, the options are aplenty for “Triple C.”
1) Marlon Moraes
(23-6-1, 10 KOs, 6 Submissions)
Last Fight: Split Decision Win vs Jose Aldo (12/14/2019)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: “Magic” Marlon Moraes seemed like he was on a direct course to a UFC belt. After a long reign as the World Series of Fighting bantamweight champ, Moraes bounced back from a split decision loss to Raphael Assuncao in his UFC debut and racked up four straight wins, including three-consecutive first-round finishes. After he avenged his loss to Assuncao, he earned a shot at the then-vacant bantamweight belt and ate Henry Cejudo up at range for the first five minutes of the fight. Cejudo made adjustments, however, and the tide turned so suddenly that it was Cejudo earning the belt with a third-round finish. Moraes, though, welcomed Jose Aldo to 135 pounds in his next fight, earning a close – albeit controversial to some – split decision. Given his loss to Cejudo, a rematch for the title was up in the air, but it probably feels a bit more sour that the man he just beat is the one competing for gold. That said, Moraes remains as dangerous a contender as there is in the division with his dynamic striking and slick submission game. One of the most impressive physical specimens on the roster with good technique paired with it, another title shot is not hard to see in his future. In the meantime, though, a bout with anyone inside of the top five makes sense as he tries to reestablish himself as the next person who deserves a chance at a UFC title.
2) Aljamain Sterling
(18-3, 2 KOs, 7 Submissions)
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Win vs Pedro Munhoz (6/8/2019)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: Aljamain Sterling looked as good as ever when he took a unanimous decision victory over Pedro Munhoz the same night the new bantamweight king was crowned. It was an all-around performance that showed his ability to strike at a high level out of both stances, which is a scary prospect given his wrestling acumen. It was the right path to victory against Munhoz, who loves to snatch a guillotine submission on his opponents. The bout had a solid pace as both fighters took turns pressuring each other, and Sterling was able to gut out the solid win. It was a nice pronouncement that Sterling is coming into his own as a mixed martial artist. He might be one more definitive win from solidifying himself as the next person who should earn a title shot, but the “Funk Master” isn’t far from bringing another championship bout to the team at Serra-Longo.
3) Petr Yan
(14-1, 6 KOs, 1 Submission)
Last Fight: KO Win vs Urijah Faber (12/14/2019)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: Urijah Faber was the bigger name heading into his bout with Petr Yan at UFC 245, but the contest proved to be a coming out party for the Russian. Yan’s slick striking and finishing instincts were on display against Faber, who was a willing dance partner until Yan connected with the head kick that finished things. He also displayed a solid grappling game and got the better of Faber in a handful of those exchanges. Against Faber and Jimmie Rivera, Yan’s patient, methodical and devastating striking stood out, and anyone at the top of the division is well aware of the fight-changing power Yan holds. His well-rounded game makes him an entertaining matchup with anyone who dares to stand with him.
4) Cory Sandhagen
(12-1, 4 KOs, 3 Submissions)
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Win vs Raphael Assuncao (8/17/2019)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: The most under-the-radar member of the top 5 was all set to solidify his claim as yet another young, dangerous, well-rounded bantamweight when Cory Sandhagen signed up to fight Frankie Edgar in the former champion’s 135-pound debut. Instead, Edgar stepped in on short notice to headline UFC Busan against Korean Zombie, and Sandhagen was suddenly out of a fight. The 27-year-old is eager to prove he’s the best in the world but knows he needs a signature win, even poking fun at the fact that he might be the only person Henry Cejudo hasn’t aimed a joke toward in the division. When he does get the chance, though, Sandhagen is an all-around dangerous opponent who is as rangy as anyone in the division. At 5-foot-11 and with a matching reach, Sandhagen compounded those traits with his cerebral and patient approach. He looked at his best against Rafael Assuncao in his biggest win to date, and is now a squeaky-clean 5-0 inside the Octagon. When Sandhagen gets his next big chance, it’ll be well-earned.
5) Raphael Assuncao
(27-7, 4 KOs, 10 Submissions)
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Loss vs Cory Sandhagen (8/17/2019)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: Looking at Raphael Assuncao’s record, it’s almost a marvel he hasn’t competed for the belt at some point. The Brazilian holds wins over TJ Dillashaw, Pedro Munhoz, Marlon Moraes and Aljamain Sterling. And although he missed almost two years to injury, the 37-year-old has remained in top contention for a long time at this point and doesn’t appear to be slowing down. Coming off a pair of losses to Cory Sandhagen and Moraes, he originally was looking to get back on track in a high-profile matchup against Cody Garbrandt before Garbrandt had to pull out due to medical issues. The card, however, was postponed anyway due to COVID-19, and so it’s not out of the imagination to think the matchup could get rebooked.
In The Mix:
Jose Aldo, Pedro Munhoz, Cody Garbrandt
Outlook: It’s a testament to Jose Aldo’s reputation and how he looked in his bantamweight debut against Marlon Moraes that, coming off two straight losses, he’s getting a shot at the 135-pound crown. The longtime featherweight king made the cut down 10 more pounds look like it wouldn’t be a problem, and his contest against Moraes was razor close. At 33, Aldo looks like he has plenty left in the tank if he wants to go for it. Another 33-year-old Brazilian, Pedro Munhoz was on a nice run, winning seven of eight before dropping a fun contest against Aljamain Sterling. Always a dangerous submission artist, his bout with Cody Garbrandt was as fun a brawl as they come, with Munhoz showing he has the power to be the one left standing. As far as Garbrandt goes, it’s wild to think that the former bantamweight champion is only 28 years old. A little more than three years have passed since his stunning performance over Dominick Cruz, and Garbrandt suffered knockout losses in his last three fights. He was set to return after a year away against Raphael Assuncao, but medical problems forced him to pull out of the fight. Once he does return to action, though, it’ll be interesting to see the changes in his game after working with Mark Henry, Frankie Edgar and company in New Jersey. While there’s plenty of veteran talent, the likes of Marlon “Chito” Vera, Song Yadong and Sean O’Malley are just a few of the young bantamweights loaded with talent and looking to make noise within the next year. If there’s a bantamweight fight on a card, you’re almost guaranteed to see high-level mixed martial arts.
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