Bantamweight is arguably the deepest division in the UFC. The list of potential fighters who could one day be champions is long — perhaps longer than in any other weight class in MMA.
Two of the athletes nearing title shots will compete Saturday in the main event of UFC Fight Night in San Antonio (4 p.m. ET on ESPN+). Marlon Vera will put his four-fight winning streak on the line against dazzling striker Cory Sandhagen, in what is expected to be an extremely entertaining bout.
The winner will put his name on a very short list of fighters that could challenge for the UFC bantamweight belt in 2023, including the likes of Sean O’Malley, Merab Dvalishvili and more.
Aljamain Sterling defends the title against the former champion Henry Cejudo in the main event of UFC 288 on May 6 in Newark, New Jersey. O’Malley seems like the next guy up later this year. But beyond that, bantamweight is wide open and rife with some of the most talented fighters in the sport.
Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi take a look at the top fighters in the 135-pound weight class and either their path to the title or their road to retaining it.
Can Sterling stay the king of the bantamweights?
Sterling’s path to holding the UFC championship is the easiest of anyone involved — because it’s already around his waist. However, “easy” probably isn’t the right word because he has his work cut out for him the rest of the year. A title defense against Cejudo looms on May 6, and that’s a difficult matchup. It should be considered Sterling’s fight to lose, as he’s been more active and has come into his own in his last two performances against Petr Yan and TJ Dillashaw.
That said, Cejudo is one of the most accomplished combat sports athletes of all time, and his Olympic gold medal background will negate many of Sterling’s strengths in the grappling department. Beyond Cejudo, a big-money title defense against O’Malley is teed up for Sterling. So, it’s simple for ‘Aljo’ for the rest of 2023: Just win two fights. Suppose Sterling defends the belt against a two-weight champ in Cejudo and a popular contender in O’Malley. In that case, his stock will rise exponentially, and he’ll likely consider a move to 145 pounds in 2024. — Okamoto
Cejudo’s chance for unprecedented glory
Cejudo’s actual path to the title is pretty straightforward with the upcoming title shot at UFC 288. By the way, it’s a title Cejudo once held and never lost in the Octagon. The former Olympic wrestling gold medalist and former UFC flyweight champ retained the gold against Dominick Cruz in May 2020 and then abruptly announced his retirement in the post-fight interview. This will be Cejudo’s first fight back, almost three years to the day. And it’s a credit to him and how good he is that he’s only a slight underdog against Sterling.
If Cejudo beats Sterling, the big-money fight against O’Malley awaits. There is a bit of a story there. O’Malley and Cejudo train just a few miles away from each other in the Phoenix area. Coaches and training partners on both sides know the other side very well. And the trash talk should be abundant between the two men. O’Malley was hoping for his title challenge to be in July, but that doesn’t seem as realistic now, with Sterling vs. Cejudo happening in May. But it could go down in late summer or the fall.
After that, things could get quite interesting. If Cejudo gets by both Sterling and O’Malley, he’ll likely petition to move up to featherweight and try to win a third UFC divisional title — something no one has ever accomplished. Cejudo was hoping to get a fight against featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski before he retired. Winning the 135-pound title and defending it could give him a compelling case. — Raimondi
Suga Sean’s got next
Love him or hate him, you have to appreciate what O’Malley has done. He has built himself up as a contender in every way possible.
Viral finishes? Check.
Social presence? Check.
Memorable moments on the microphone? Check.
Potential rivalries in the works? Check.
Most importantly, he’s developed as a mixed martial artist. That was displayed in his last win when he took a massive step up in competition to face former champion Yan and won by split decision. Yes, there was a scoring controversy in that match, but what ultimately matters is the ‘W’ next to that fight on his resume. O’Malley has said he’ll be ready to step in on May 6 if either Sterling or Cejudo is forced to pull out of their scheduled title fight. O’Malley fighting for a title is good for business — the UFC is good with ‘Suga’s’ position as a No. 1 contender in the wings — so there’s a narrative to build as we wait and see what happens on May 6. O’Malley has done nearly everything right on his way up and is in as good of a spot as you can be in this sport. The last piece is to deliver his best performance in a five-round title fight against either Sterling or Cejudo. — Okamoto
The Machine’s conundrum
Dvalishvili’s place at 135 is one of the unique situations in any division in a long time. Only Daniel Cormier‘s move down to light heavyweight to avoid his longtime training partner and friend Cain Velasquez feels similar. Dvalishvili just dominated the former champion Yan; before that, he earned a win over a legend and former UFC featherweight champion Jose Aldo. He’s put together a résumé that would be compelling for a title shot in any other circumstance. But Dvalishvili doesn’t want one — at least not yet — because his close friend and training partner Sterling is the champ.
The UFC is not a big fan of these scenarios, and Dana White said as much earlier this month after Dvalishvili’s win over Yan. The promotion doesn’t care if you are teammates. They want to put together the fights they want to put together. This could relegate Dvalishvili to gatekeeper status as long as Sterling holds the belt. If Cejudo pries the gold from Sterling in May, that could change everything. Maybe then Sterling moves up to featherweight, clearing the path for Dvalishvili for a title shot. But Dvalishvili is still behind at least O’Malley in the pecking order. O’Malley is the biggest draw in the division. Dvalishvili will likely need another win or two before getting his deserved chance. — Raimondi
Can Chito pounce when the dust settles?
Vera might be the most intriguing name on this list for several reasons. His popularity is on the rise, and Vera has that ‘it’ factor among MMA fans right now. His confidence has grown in recent years, and that’s been evident both in and out of the cage. He has a ton of charisma in his media appearances, and inside the cage he’s calmly finding finishes against top opponents — often when he’s behind on the scorecards. Vera doesn’t care about the scorecards because he is so confident in his ability to end a fight within 25 minutes — and that’s precisely the style that resonates with fans.
If he beats Sandhagen this weekend, he’ll be able to wait and see. As we’ve discussed at length already, 135 pounds is a logjam. But if Vera wins and wants a little break, he’ll have a lot of juice for a title shot once the dust settles. Additionally, if O’Malley holds the belt when the dust settles, Vera is a shoo-in No. 1 contender. The two have a history from 2020, when Vera defeated O’Malley by TKO after O’Malley suffered a nerve issue during a Vera kick that rendered him defenseless. — Okamoto
Can Sandhagen stay in the mix?
The top of the bantamweight division is so excellent and deep that Sandhagen needs a win Saturday over Vera to stay in the mix. If he loses, he’ll have dropped three of four. And he’s already lost to Sterling in less than 90 seconds. With all that being said, a victory over Vera changes everything. It wouldn’t make him the No. 1 contender or anything — again, that’s O’Malley all the way — but it would put him on the shortlist.
Sandhagen’s loss to Yan and knockout wins over Frankie Edgar and Marlon Moraes have not aged all that well. But Sandhagen has a few things on his side. He’s only 30 years old, so time is on his side. Cejudo, meanwhile, is 36, and Sterling is 33. Sandhagen might not be in his prime yet, or if he is, he’s right at the start of it and can continue to get better. And he’s already really good. His style of fighting — a beautiful display of striking with knockout power — also works in his favor. Sandhagen is rarely in a boring fight and that’s something the UFC does care about at the top of its divisions. Even if he loses to Vera, Sandhagen can still be relevant. But a win would speed up his timetable. — Raimondi
Which rising stars could challenge for the belt in 2024?
The name “Nurmagomedov” will always turn heads in MMA, and 27-year-old Umar (cousin of Khabib) is no exception. Nurmagomedov is a primed breakout candidate in 2023. He already looked fantastic in a first-round knockout of Raoni Barcelos in January. He tried to get a fight in March, but the UFC struggled to find him an opponent. Don’t be surprised if Nurmagomedov books a fight against a highly ranked name next, as the UFC is bought in on fast-tracking Nurmagomedov. He has a built-in fan base and a lot of belief in his skills. One could even see him getting a match with Dvalishvili in the near future, since Dvalishvili has made it clear he won’t fight for a championship as long as Sterling is holding the belt.
In addition to Nurmagomedov, former flyweight champion Deiveson Figueiredo has a longshot path to claim the belt in 2024. He is an established name with a track record for finishes. There are a lot of fun fights for him in this new division, and when he’s on, he can be devastating. Still, there are enough contenders ahead of him that he’ll have a hard time working his way in quickly, but if any non-ranked bantamweight is capable of it, it’s Figueiredo. — Okamoto