With a key matchup between UFC men’s bantamweight contenders Marlon Moraes (23-6-1) and Cory Sandhagen (12-2) set to headline this weekend’s event on “Fight Island” in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, it feels like a good time to talk about one of the UFC’s most intriguing divisions.
As far as the promotion’s overall landscape goes, the 135-pound weight class has changed more than just about any division over the past year. There was a sudden retirement by the champion; a new champ taking his place within months; the emergence of new faces; an influx of familiar faces who are new to the division; and the emergence of a lightning-rod prospect who has drawn attention from the very top of the sport.
So, let’s take a look at some of the storylines at 135 pounds and discuss how Saturday’s result might impact them.
What’s on the line this weekend?
A title shot is at stake, possibly, if you’re Marlon Moraes.
Right now, the de facto No. 1 contender in this division is Aljamain Sterling, for good reason. Not only has Sterling won his past five fights — against good competition — he has done so in impressive fashion. Ask just about anyone who follows the sport closely, “Who is the most deserving men’s bantamweight title challenger?” The answer is Sterling.
Come Sunday morning, that answer might change for some. If Moraes wins, he’d be 6-1 in his past seven, with his only loss coming against the now-retired champion, Henry Cejudo. Moraes also knocked out Sterling in the first round of their fight in 2017 and was actually scheduled this past summer to fight Petr Yan, who is now champion, before the coronavirus pandemic shook up the schedule.
If Moraes wins impressively on Saturday, I think the UFC will book him in a title fight against Yan in late 2020 or early 2021. That would be a tough pill to swallow for Sterling, but that’s my guess.
Once the title fight is booked, how does the rest of the division shake out?
Frankie Edgar fights his way all 25 minutes vs. Pedro Munhoz to win via split decision, becoming the 11th fighter in UFC modern era history to win in three different weight classes.
You know who is the crucial puzzle piece to this question? Frankie Edgar. And I know that’s going to ruffle some feathers. Edgar has kind of become that guy — as beloved by the fan base as he is — where it feels like he’s getting a title shot every year, and the fans are tired of seeing it.
Regardless, Edgar made himself immediately relevant in this division when he beat Pedro Munhoz in a five-round main event in August. If Sterling gets passed up for a title shot, I think he would fight Edgar. And if Sandhagen were to win this weekend and Sterling gets his title shot, I believe Sandhagen would fight Edgar. So this fight on Saturday has major ramifications, and either way it goes, I believe Edgar’s immediate future will be impacted.
Is Cejudo still a factor in any of this?
Brett Okamoto and Ariel Helwani discuss Henry Cejudo’s retirement announcement, with Helwani not believing Cejudo is stepping away.
I don’t think so. Cejudo’s retirement in May was surprising, but it gets less surprising with every day that passes. It makes sense. Cejudo wasn’t motivated enough to stick around and fight guys like Yan, Sterling, Moraes (again), etc. The juice wasn’t worth the squeeze for him. Will he fight again? I still say yes. But he’s in a position where something really has to fall in his lap. An offer he can’t say no to. And as good and competitive as bantamweight is, there’s not a fight right now that brings Cejudo back. That could change at any moment. This sport moves quickly. But there’s nothing looming right now.
Who are the wild cards who could shake this division up over the next 12 months?
TJ Dillashaw says he has no excuses and explains the factors that led to his positive drug test for EPO.
First and foremost: TJ Dillashaw, the former champion who tested positive for EPO in January 2019 and returns to eligibility in January 2021. Dillashaw is a name and a world-class fighter. There’s going to be plenty of intrigue about his return — plenty of questions over whether he’ll be able to repair the damage he has done to his reputation. Dillashaw rejoining this weight division has the potential to shake things up massively.
Second: Merab Dvalishvili. He is near the top of the list of UFC fighters who have set themselves apart during these unique pandemic times of 2020. He’s already 3-0 this year, and he’s scheduled to fight Cody Stamann in December in Las Vegas. He’s a nightmarish wrestler, a perpetual ball of energy. He’s a potentially bad matchup for a lot of guys, and he wants to fight every weekend. That equals a dude who can shake things up.
Third, and we’ll make this a tie: Marlon Vera and Sean O’Malley. I know some will say, “O’Malley? Give Vera his credit! Don’t lump him in with O’Malley! He just beat O’Malley!” And yes, that’s true, but the truth is, O’Malley still has a lot of star power in this division, and that has not been undone by one loss. O’Malley is not going to disappear for the rest of 2020 and 2021. He’s going to get relevant, high-profile fights, and we’ll see what he does in them. And he’s probably going to keep doing his thing on social media and grabbing attention.
Vera is riding the momentum of that TKO win over O’Malley in August. Vera has never been hotter in his five years with the UFC, and I believe the UFC knows that and will take advantage of it. Vera is going to get a meaningful fight, and he’s going to have eyeballs on him when he does. If he wins his next one, he’ll break into title contention, and he has a personality that will resonate with fans.