UFC 280: Dillashaw Targets a Return to the Summit Against the Surging Sterling

Aljamain Sterling and T.J. Dillashaw, UFC 280
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Opponents Aljamain Sterling and TJ Dillashaw face off during the UFC 280 ceremonial weigh-in at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Still clouded in controversy, former champion TJ Dillashaw looks to regain gold against the current king Aljamain Sterling who is at the height of his powers going into UFC 280.

If the bubble was supposed to pop earlier this April, nobody told champion Aljamain Sterling.  More than a year after winning the title in disheartening fashion by disqualification in a bout he was losing, most wrote him off and expected Petr Yan to finish what he had started when they met again in the rematch.  Instead, “The Funkmaster” returned with a masterful performance to overcome the dangerous Yan and cement his place as the best bantamweight in the division.  It was a vindicating result, and one that turned many of the critics of the past year into impressed spectators.

The victory added to Sterling’s already impressive resume that includes Cory Sandhagen, Pedro Munhoz, Jimmie Rivera, and others.  While the competitive bantamweight division still has plenty of contenders to keep him occupied if he gets past Dillashaw, questions will be raised about his longevity in the weight class.  Already a large athlete for the division, Sterling has brought up the idea of moving up to featherweight as to pursue new challenges and to step aside so that his teammate Merab Dvalishvili who is currently on an eight fight win-streak.

While a return to the summit after years away is an impressive feat for any athlete, the reason for TJ Dillashaw’s absence still casts a shadow.  After being suspended for two years and being stripped of his title due to the use of performance enhancing drugs, Dillashaw drew vitriol and criticism from fans and peers that continues even to this day.  His return performance was also not quite enough to exorcise the demons as he went the distance in a razor close split-decision to Cory Sandhagen that many scored for “The Sandman.”  Now competing once again for the biggest prize in the sport on the biggest stage, the emotions regarding his controversy have been reignited across the fan base.

Emotions may be high regarding Dillashaw, his resume still speaks for itself.  He is one of only two male bantamweight champions in promotional history to regain championship gold and has been an elite fighter for the better part of a decade.  On his list of victories are former champion Cody Garbrandt, current ONE champion John Lineker, the aforementioned Sandhagen, and perennial contender Raphael Assuncao.  A win over Sterling would not only be arguably the greatest feather in his cap competitively, but would a modern era triumph to regain a UFC title for a third time.

For Sterling, a full use of his multi-faceted game will be necessary to overcome the weapons of Dillashaw if he is to retain the title.  While the champion’s grappling and striking are all at a level that should carry him past the seasoned challenger, he must be weary not to find himself chasing after Dillashaw.  The challenger’s movement remains amongst the best at bantamweight and Sterling must be effective with his counters and shot-selection as to not find himself in a deficit.  For Dillashaw, a pursuit of the takedown will be key to breaking up the attack of Sterling.  While he is an effective striker in his own right, threatening with takedowns will help to slow down the bigger Sterling as it will keep him from settling into his own offense as he anticipates the need to sprawl.

Any number of options await the winner of the bout.  Surging contender Sean O’Malley (should he defeat former champion Petr Yan on the undercard) stands out as the most enticing option for the UFC to be the next title challenger.  Marlon “Chito” Vera also waits in the wings, as does former two-division champion Henry Cejudo.  Finally, Merab Dvalishvili could fight for the title next assuming Dillashaw were to be victorious or Sterling decided to vacate.