Sometimes, people just have “it” — that intangible aura about them that distinguishes them from the crowd. “It” translates into star-power potential, but substance has to support that energy, and with one right hand, Sean O’Malley put to rest any doubt about whether his “it” was just hype. That one right hand ended Aljamain Sterling’s historic reign as bantamweight champion and started “The Sugar Era” at 135-pounds.
That said, there’s a reason Sterling made history in defending his belt three times — the division is loaded. Defending the bantamweight throne is a whole task in and of itself, and now O’Malley gets his shot at carving out his own championship legacy with a multitude of contenders chomping at the bit for their shot at the new champ.
This is where we stand in the bantamweight division:
Outlook: “Sugar” proved he is a big-game player in his title-winning effort. Despite the bulk of the media attention pointed toward him, O’Malley appeared calm all fight week. With the Boston crowd behind him, he delivered an epic championship moment, putting to rest any doubts about his worthiness of the title shot. Afterward, he had his callout prepared like a good champ would, citing interest in a rematch with Marlon “Chito” Vera in December. That lone loss is a fight O’Malley considers null-and-void, but it’s also a matchup dripping with narrative intrigue. Whether he does fight Vera, has a rematch with Sterling or something else comes up, the world will be watching where he goes next.
Last Fight: TKO Loss vs Sean O’Malley (8/19/2023)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: Just when it felt like “Funk Master” had started to earn the flowers he rightly deserved for his resume as bantamweight champion, his reign ended. The respect keeps flowing in, however, because of the way Sterling has handled the loss in interviews. The former champ hasn’t made any excuses despite a wicked-fast turnaround from beating Henry Cejudo at UFC 288, and he expressed his desire to get a rematch against O’Malley. It seems like talks of him going up to featherweight cooled dramatically, but given how big Sterling is for the division, it could still be in play. Should he stay at 135 pounds but not receive an immediate title shot, his path is a little murky. He has wins over Cejudo, Sandhagen and Yan (x2) in his pocket already. Fights against Song Yadong or Umar Nurmagomedov feel a little low for a former champion, but he might be in a position where he needs to get a solid win in before getting a chance to regain his belt.
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Win vs Petr Yan (3/11/2023)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: While Sterling took the toughest loss of the night, Dvalishivili’s own championship aspirations ranked right underneath that. The two friends have adamantly said they won’t ever fight one another, and it was assumed Dvalishivili would get his chance at UFC gold if Sterling won and made good on his word to move up to featherweight. However, that is all up in the air after O’Malley’s victory. It’s not any more likely that “The Machine” would ever fight his friend, but it’s also unknown if he has enough to get the title shot in lieu of Sterling’s move up. His win over Yan proved he could compete with the very best in the division, but if O’Malley wants to fight Vera instead, Dvalishvili could find a path to the title via a matchup with Sandhagen, who called him out in March, or Nurmagomedov, who Dvalishvili has had words with in the past.
3) Henry Cejudo
Last Fight: Split Decision Loss vs Aljamain Sterling (5/6/2023)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: Cejudo declared his comeback as more than a one-off when he signed to fight Vera in Boston, but a shoulder injury took the former double-champ out of the equation for the time being. “Triple C” is a master of staying relevant in the midst of inactivity, though, so if he has another run at the title in him, he could make an appearance in the next month as the title picture shuffles. If Vera doesn’t fight for the title, rebooking that bout would make sense for both men. Cejudo could also fight a former champion in Yan, but much of it depends on how things look once Cejudo is healthy and ready to go.
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Win vs Rob Font (8/5/2023)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: Sandhagen remains a quiet but steady fixture in the title picture. His wins over Vera and Font were dominant, but the latter bout left some cold because of his grappling-heavy approach. That said, it was proof of his skillset rounding out into an elite all-around game, and UFC President Dana White seemed to not feel any type of negative way about it during his press conference after UFC 292. That said, Sandhagen did suffer a torn triceps early in his fight with Font, so while he might be the most deserving of a title shot at the moment, his health is going to hamper things for the time being. Whether he gets a shot once healthy or needs yet another No. 1 contender fight victory under his belt might depend on if, when and how a rematch between O’Malley and Vera plays out in the next few months. Sandhagen could also return against Nurmagomedov, whom he was originally booked against before Nurmagomedov pulled out of their bout due to an injury.
5) Petr Yan
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision Loss vs Merab Dvalishvili (3/11/2023)
Next fight: N/A
Outlook: The peculiar case of Petr Yan continues. The illegal knee he threw against Sterling remains one of the biggest “what ifs” in recent memory, considering his dominant run to the title. Since then, he has lost three in a row. It says something about his strength of schedule and quality of performances that he remains in the Top 5 without any real controversy. However, he is obviously in desperate need of a win. Fights against Vera, Rob Font or Song Yadong all make sense, as does one against Cejudo if the former two-division champ is indeed staying around.
In the Mix: Marlon Vera, Yadong Song, Umar Nurmagomedov
Outlook: Vera knew a win over Munhoz was all he needed if O’Malley beat Sterling, and things played out exactly in his favor in Boston. O’Malley made his dig at Vera, the lone man to hand O’Malley a defeat in the Octagon, and it’s a fight most MMA fans would love to see again. Their first fight, though definitive in the way of a Vera TKO in the first round, still feels unfinished because of Vera’s leg kicks causing O’Malley to have drop foot. The build-up and promos write themselves if that bout is booked again.
Down the rankings, young contenders in Song Yadong and Umar Nurmagomedov seem on the precipice of the title picture. Song was slated to fight Font in Boston before pulling out due to injury, but that would be a perfect fight for him to prove himself against a battle-tested veteran. Nurmagomedov had a golden opportunity in a main event against Sandhagen, but he also had to pull out of that matchup. Whether he gets another chance against someone in the Top 5 is unknown for the time being, but despite his No. 11 ranking, he is tabbed as a fight nobody really wants to take because of his prodigious talents.