- MMA columnist for ESPN.com
- Analyst for “MMA Live”
- Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun
The UFC men’s bantamweight division will assume center stage over the coming months, as eight of the top 10 contenders have fights booked, including champion Aljamain Sterling.
The marquee 135-pound action begins this weekend with a five-round main event between former champion Dominick Cruz (24-3) and Marlon “Chito” Vera (21-7-1) in San Diego. One week later, former featherweight champ Jose Aldo (31-7) will face Merab Dvalishvili (14-4) at UFC 278 in Salt Lake City.
On Sept. 17, Cory Sandhagen (14-4) and Song Yadong (19-6-1) will headline a UFC Fight Night in Las Vegas. That fight likely wouldn’t produce an immediate title challenger, but it features the Nos. 4 and 10 in the UFC bantamweight rankings. And then, the biggest night in the division comes on Oct. 22, when Sterling (21-3) faces TJ Dillashaw (17-4) and Petr Yan (16-3) meets Sean O’Malley (15-1) on the same night at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi in the United Arab Emirates.
Bottom line, this division will look completely different by the end of the year. It will have to look completely different because all of the top names are facing each other. And due to the activity, there are many different ways the top of the division could play out.
Here’s a look at what each contender needs to do — and the help needed — to get the next title shot at 135 pounds.
What would it take for Marlon Vera to get a title shot?
An audacious knockout against Dominick Cruz. Maybe.
Lightning in a bottle, in other words. “Chito” Vera enjoyed a breakout performance in his last outing against Rob Font, and he’s got a lot of momentum going for him. His story is excellent, as a rare Ecuadorian fighter competing at the highest level, and he has a ton of charisma. If things continue to fall right for Vera, he has fan-favorite status and star potential in front of him. He’s flashy, funny and entertaining inside and outside of the Octagon.
But comparing his situation to others, it’s hard to see him getting a title shot straight off a win this weekend. There are just too many other, more likely scenarios at the moment. Unless he were to pull off a viral finish and then absolutely kill it on the mic, a la Jorge Masvidal’s flying knee vs. Ben Askren, which Vera is capable of doing. Otherwise, he’s likely looking at two more wins before fighting for a title.
What would it take for Dominick Cruz to get a title shot?
A convincing win over Marlon Vera, an Aljamain Sterling win, a Jose Aldo loss and a Sean O’Malley loss.
Did you get all that? Cruz can get a title shot with a win, but he would need a lot of help. He would need Sterling to keep the title with a win over Dillashaw and Yan to beat O’Malley. Because if both of those things happen, it would set up a potential trilogy bout between Sterling and Yan — something the UFC isn’t likely keen to do. Not yet, anyway.
So, at that point, Cruz is in the mix. But if Aldo were to beat Dvalishvili, he’s probably getting the next title shot. So, Cruz needs to win, then he needs Sterling and Yan to do their part, and then he needs Dvalishvili to remove Aldo. And if all of that happens, it’s possible.
What would it take for Petr Yan to get a title shot?
A win over Sean O’Malley and a TJ Dillashaw win — a Jose Aldo loss wouldn’t hurt either.
That’s it. Yan is set up beautifully. He’s fighting arguably the biggest name in the division, on the same card as the title fight between Sterling and Dillashaw. If Sterling wins, I don’t see the UFC going back to a third Sterling-Yan matchup so soon. But if Dillashaw wins, I don’t know why Yan doesn’t get the title shot. His biggest threat would be Aldo because there would be a lot of interest in a title matchup between Dillashaw and Aldo. Still, Yan would be more deserving, and he’s fighting on the same night as that title fight. If Dillashaw and Yan both were to win, the sport would be talking about that fight immediately.
What would it take for Sean O’Malley to get a title shot?
A win over Petr Yan.
What else would be left beside a title shot at that point? Yes, O’Malley has been gifted a fast track, but if he does his part and beats Yan, all that’s left for him is a title shot. He’s said he wouldn’t mind if the UFC gave a title shot to Aldo ahead of him, but even if that happened, there’s a good chance O’Malley would wait and fight the eventual winner. If O’Malley beats Yan, he will have asserted himself as a top contender, and his name already is more than big enough. He wouldn’t even need to stay active to stay in the spotlight. This is a No. 1 contender bout for O’Malley any way you draw it up.
What would it take for Jose Aldo to get a title shot?
A win over Merab Dvalishvili and a callout from the champ.
Get one more win and then cross your fingers if you’re Aldo. If he beats Dvalishvili, he will have won four in a row. He’d be very deserving of a title fight. This sport, especially this division, loves Aldo. Sterling would want to fight Aldo because he’s Aldo. Dillashaw would love to fight Aldo because he’s Aldo. Again, O’Malley has said he wouldn’t mind if the UFC gave Aldo a title shot before him because he’s Jose Aldo. I can certainly see a world in which the winner of Sterling vs. Dillashaw calls explicitly for a title defense against Aldo. And if that were to happen, I think the UFC and its fans would be onboard.
What would it take for Merab Dvalishvili to get a title shot?
This isn’t a knock on Dvalishvili, who is on a seven-fight win streak and could go on to win a UFC championship. But it’s not happening in his next fight. Even if he looks excellent against Aldo, there is simply no scenario that leads to him fighting for the belt next, outside of some whacky situation where everyone at the top of the division falls victim to injury. The good news for Dvalishvili is that he’s not far away. Beat Aldo and then get one more solid win and he’ll be right there. At that point, Sterling, his training partner, would either have to vacate the belt or lose it, as I don’t see them fighting one another. We’ll cross that bridge when we get there.
What would it take for Henry Cejudo to get a title shot?
A callout from the champ.
Similar to the Aldo situation, if the defending champion makes it known he really wants to fight Cejudo, the UFC would likely take a look at it. Cejudo doesn’t need to prove anything to anyone to justify an immediate title shot. He was on top of the world when he retired two years ago, a two-weight champ and one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. If Dillashaw were to win, one could easily see him calling out Cejudo, as he wants to get revenge for the quick knockout loss he suffered to Cejudo in 2019, just before his suspension. Sterling has shown interest in Cejudo as well. This scenario is probably more likely than we think, but Cejudo would need help from whoever is holding the belt.
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