While Sean O’Malley was the more popular fighter heading into UFC 292, the critical consensus was that Aljamain Sterling had the edge in their bantamweight title fight. Well, O’Malley certainly proved the critics wrong, knocking out “The Funkmaster” in the second round to claim 135 pound gold.
O’Malley is arguably the biggest star in the bantamweight division, perhaps ever — consider that the lineage of the title started with Dominick Cruz, moved to Renan Barao, then T.J. Dillashaw, went back Cruz, then Cody Garbrandt, Dillashaw, Henry Cejudo, Petr Yan, and finally Sterling. None of those names were truly embraced by the casual fanbase the way O’Malley has been — but what will his title reign look like? Let’s play a little matchmaker.
‘The Suga Show,’ as O’Malley calls himself in a somewhat tongue-in-cheek manner, rolled right through Boston and bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling on Saturday at UFC 292. O’Malley fought an expert fight, looking like a seasoned veteran in his first five-round fight as he used range to avoid Sterling’s takedowns and used good defensive wrestling to stuff the takedowns when Aljo was able to grab ahold of him. In the second round he did what he said he would all along and stopped ‘Funkmaster’ with ground strikes after a dropping him with a perfect straight right while sliding back.
Despite calling for a rematch with his rival Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera, the only man to ever beat him, the next contender is pretty clear if the UFC goes with the most deserving challenger. Merab Dvalishvili dominated former champion Petr Yan in one of the most impressive performances in recent memory, while Aljo and Sean could only scrape by split decision wins. Merab is the number one contender currently and only Cory Sandhagen, who is injured right now, has a competing argument.
Further, there are two interesting storylines which provide a dramatic backdrop to this fight. Obviously Dvalishvili is the friend and primary training partner of Aljamain Sterling, meaning he will be wanting to get revenge for his pal. There is also the jacket incident, where Sean handed Merab his jacket by accident when facing off with Sterling in May. Merab took it, wore it, and paraded around with it, spawning social media interest and memes. Bad blood always makes a title fight more interesting.
O’Malley’s Next Fight: Merab Dvalishvili
Despite only having one title defense in her current run, and one more in her first stint as champ, Zhang Weili is looking dominant at 115-lbs. This is helped by the only woman to beat her in the UFC, ‘Thug’ Rose Namajunas, moving up to 125-lbs at the moment. Weili has ran through her three opponents since her last loss, dispatching champions Joanna Jędrzejczyk and Carla Esparza by finish and setting a strike differential record for women in the UFC against Amanda Lemos, who somehow survived to a decision.
Fourth-ranked Tatiana Suarez is an option of course, but she has only had two fights since her return from a multi-year injury layoff and her one ranked win recently is against Jessica Andrade, who was already beaten by Yan Xiaonan one fight previously. Suarez should fight one more time before a title shot. Xiaonan is the #3 contender at strawweight and hails from China, just like Weili. There have been rumblings about the possibility of an all-Chinese title fight in their home country for a while and now is the perfect time.
The two are both expert strikers, which could make for a fun stand-up war. However the champion has displayed dominant wresting capabilities recently and could test Xiaonan in that area, the same realm she lost to Carla Esparza in back in 2021.
Weili’s Next Fight: Yan Xiaonan
Ian Garry’s confidence proved well-founded as he dominated Neil Magny, won multiple 10-8 rounds, and cruised to a decision at UFC 292. The Irish striker called for Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson in his post-fight interview and to be honest, that fight makes complete sense. ‘Wonderboy’ was supposed to fight Michel Pereira at UFC 291 before the Brazilian missed weight, so he needs a new dance partner on the come-up.
Thompson is ranked seventh at welterweight while Garry is thirteenth, though Ian will rise come Tuesday’s rankings update. As one of the hottest prospects and the owner of a shiny, undefeated record it makes sense for the UFC to keep pushing Garry upwards, and ‘Wonderboy’ is a big fight that would propel the Irishman into the top tier of the division with a win. It would be interesting to see if Garry could compete with the division’s best striker, but its possible he resorts to his underrated grappling skillset which he used in his Cage Warriors title run.
Garry’s Next Fight: Stephen ‘Wonderboy’ Thompson
A teammate of Sean O’Malley and Kyler Phillips at the MMA Lab in Arizona, Mario Bautista had trouble against Da’Mon Blackshear but ultimately his resolve, pressure, and cardio carried him to a decision win. Now on a five-fight win streak, Bautista is one of the brightest talents in the unranked pool at 135-lbs. He absolutely deserves a shot at the rankings in his next fight.
The last three fighters in the rankings at bantamweight are all currently booked, but above that there is Dominick Cruz, Pedro Munhoz, and Ricky Simon who are all coming off losses and needing to fight down. Munhoz in particular is 1-3 (1 NC) since 2021 and has some bad blood with Bautista’s teammate Sean O’Malley. Pedro lost to Chito Vera one fight before Bautista’s bout, likely putting them on a similar timeline for their next bouts. Still, even at thirty-six years old the Brazilian finisher is a challenge for any fighter at the weight. If Bautista can get past him he will be cemented as a true contender.
Bautista’s Next Fight: Pedro Munhoz
Marlon ‘Chito’ Vera
Chito fought the same type of fight he always does: he had trouble getting going in the first two rounds but then poured the volume on in the third, and the judges thought he did enough to win the fight. It was good to see Marlon bounce back from his dominant loss to Cory Sandhagen, but he did not look quite in title form against a post-prime Pedro Munhoz, meaning calls for a title fight between him and Sean O’Malley are premature despite the bad blood between them.
Vera is ranked sixth at bantamweight and needs one more win to truly earn a title shot. Options at bantamweight are always bountiful, he could fight Aljamain Sterling, Petr Yan, or Henry Cejudo next. It remains to be seen whether or not Aljamain will stay at bantamweight, as he had talked a lot about moving up to featherweight. The Yan and Cejudo fights both make good sense, but perhaps the Cejudo one makes more sense. After all, that was the fight the UFC booked for UFC 292 originally, before ‘Triple C’ pulled out and Munhoz replaced him. It would give Chito a chance to prove that he can stop a wrestling attack, something that has plagued him at times in his career.
Vera’s Next Fight: Henry Cejudo