Aljamain Sterling can’t be certain who is next to challenge for his UFC bantamweight title, but he at least has an idea who has actually earned it.
On the same night he defeated T.J. Dillashaw to retain the belt, Sterling saw Sean O’Malley vault to the top of the division rankings after he defeated Petr Yan by split decision in a back-and-forth war.
After UFC 280 was over, UFC President Dana White didn’t declare the new No. 1 contender at 135 pounds, though he did mention former champion Henry Cejudo, who came out of retirement and rejoined the active roster in April, as one possibility.
In Sterling’s mind, O’Malley did exactly what he was supposed to do to earn a title fight, beating a former champion and the top-ranked contender in the division. Cejudo, he said, will return to a much different bantamweight division than the one he left more than two years ago.
“O’Malley did earn it – I can’t deny that,” Sterling told MMA Fighting. “Even Dana [White] said you beat the No. 1 contender so it made sense and then somehow, some way he backtracked.
“I’m not sure if he thought my fight wasn’t going to go that way, and I’m not sure if he thought the Yan-O’Malley fight was going to go that way as far as being so competitive. He probably thought somebody was going to get stopped and then, ‘Holy s*** this guy definitely needs to fight for the title!’ That’s usually how it works. It’s usually the performance, but it was a great performance from both guys. Both guys fought their asses off. They got ‘Fight of the Night.’ So I don’t see why either one should have been denied that follow up claim that Dana made that whoever won would be next and he threw Cejudo in there.”
Ever since UFC 280 ended, Cejudo has called for the fight against Sterling. He’s also turned his attention towards O’Malley, suggesting an interim title go up for grabs.
That might seem like an odd request considering Sterling already defended his title twice in 2022 and he’s not expected to miss any significant amount of time moving into 2023.
As far as potentially skipping over O’Malley and facing Cejudo instead, Sterling admits he’s just not all that enthusiastic about that potential matchup, but it has nothing to do with one fight somehow being more difficult or demanding than the other.
“I’m just not excited about that matchup [with Henry Cejudo],” Sterling said. “Because he hasn’t competed. For me, if the fans cared — like really cared — the overall consensus was this is the matchup to make, Cejudo you are the guy, I’m calling you out, that’s the money fight because people want to see that fight. I just don’t feel like that’s it.
“If O’Malley is the biggest name right now coming off the win, now the No. 1 guy, I don’t see why he shouldn’t get the fight. People are going to say ‘you want the easier fight.’ I don’t get how that fight’s easy? He’s long, he’s rangy, he’s got great footwork. He can crack. I don’t see how it’s an easy fight by any means.”
Add to that, Sterling knows that O’Malley will draw interest from fans in a way that Cejudo doesn’t, which means both fighters stand to benefit on the back end of any pay-per-view card where they clash.
Sterling is honest enough to confess that money has to play into decisions made by fighters, and right now O’Malley is not only the legitimate No. 1 contender — he’s also likely the biggest draw in the bantamweight division.
“If I lose the belt and when I lose the belt — at some point I will lose the belt, you stay in this game long enough, someone will beat you, it’s just guaranteed to happen, bound to happen,” Sterling explained. “Father time is undefeated. Every dog has their day. I’ve lost before, I know what defeat feels like. I’m not a god, I’m not invincible. Sometimes people just have a better night and in this moment, I get pay-per-view points.
“I would like to get paid as much as I can while I’m still in this position, because if it’s supposedly Sean that gets the fight and he does win, I lose the belt, I no longer get those pay-per-view points. This is life-changing money. This is stuff that can set me up for the rest of my life financially. So I’m going to do what’s best for my family, and if that’s the O’Malley fight, I’m going to take the O’Malley fight. If that’s the one the fans want to see, that means they’re going to tune in and buy and that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t think Cejudo is that guy. I just don’t. If he is, sign me up. If he’s not, give me the guy that people will lock in and tune in to see and I think that blockbuster fight is with Sean O’Malley.”
When it comes to Cejudo, his claim to a title shot comes down to his previous reign as champion when he surrendered the belt after announcing his retirement in 2020.
Cejudo never lost the title in the cage, but Sterling contests Cejudo’s accomplishments versus other fighters who have continued to stay busy and active over the past two years since he’s been gone.
“He won at 125, then he beat T.J., knocked T.J. out, he defended the belt one time,” Sterling said. “He goes to 135. Fights for a vacant title. T.J. is no longer in the mix. He beats Marlon Moraes. OK. Marlon Moraes was a killer at the time, I give him his flowers for that. Then he fights Dominick Cruz on short notice and he thinks that’s a great feat. If you fought Dom on a full training camp, I could respect it a lot more. That win holds a lot more weight.
“[Dominick Cruz] came off the couch, because it was a short notice opportunity to make a lot more money because you get championship challenger pay and a chance to win the belt, who would not roll the dice and take that chance against a guy who’s 5-foot-4, maybe 5-foot-5. So I get that. He then retires. He sits out for almost three years and your run is not like this crazy thing that you may think in your head. So you think you can cut the line cause you fought almost three years ago? I don’t know. I’m just not sold. It’s not being disrespectful to Cejudo but the facts are the facts.”
With plans to return in mid-2023, Sterling would love to see Cejudo potentially take on another top-ranked bantamweight, which could help secure his spot as a title contender. But until that happens, he still views O’Malley as the rightful No. 1 contender in the division.
“If we’re finally going to use the merit system, it should actually be O’Malley. That’s what I think,” Sterling said.
“I don’t plan on coming back until midway next year. That’s honestly how I’m feeling right now. I defended the belt. I fought in April. I fought in October. I think I earned to take some time off and let the division kind of play out and see where things are at. I’m going to be training but I want to take some time to enjoy life a little bit before it’s passing me by.”