Merab Dvalishvili isn’t going to fight Aljamain Stering, no matter what anyone says.
This past Saturday, Dvalishvili delivered the best performance of his career, dominating former bantamweight champion Petr Yan over five rounds at UFC Las Vegas. The win would normally set him up for a title shot. But as he’s friends and training partners with the current champion, both he and Sterling have repeatedly shot down any idea of a fight. That’s a point of contention for UFC President Dana White, who called Dvalishvili’s loyalty “a really bad idea.”
Speaking with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour, Dvalishvili said it’s not the first time White has admonished him about that.
“I did see this, and actually, that wasn’t the first time,” he said. “The first time he said it was after I beat Jose Aldo, and Joe Rogan asked me again, and I said very clear, ‘Please don’t ask me these questions again.’ I was mad, because right before the fight, people were asking me, ‘If you win, would you fight Aljo?’ I said, ‘Let me fight, let me win. Why are you asking me now?’ I was so over it, people asking the same question, and Aljo already had a booked fight. I said, true from my heart, and we met Dana White after, and he was talking to my coach [saying], ‘He should not mention that.’
“After that, matchmaker Sean Shelby was saying he cannot give me [Sean] O’Malley fight, he cannot give me [Marlon] ‘Chito’ Vera, he cannot give me Cory Sandhagen, or even Petr Yan, because if I beat them, then I’m not fighting my friend for the title. I understand business, and I was so sad there was no fight for me. But luckily, Petr pushed the fight and they gave me this Petr fight. I’m happy and I appreciate it.”
The problem for Dvalishvili now is that there are very few places for him to go other than a title shot. Currently ranked No. 4 in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings, Dvalishvili will almost certainly move up to the No. 2 spot in the next rankings cycle, which means if Dvalishvili wants to continue to stay active, he will have to fight back in the rankings.
However, Sterling has repeatedly hinted at moving up to featherweight in the near future, and Dvalishvili believes that could happen before the end of the year, which would then free him up to fight for the belt.
“I understand business and everything, but Aljamain Sterling is my friend and my brother,” Dvalishvili said. “It’s all good. Aljo has a fight now. He’s fighting Henry Cejudo. I’m going to be back to the gym in about a week and I’m going to help him to prepare for Henry Cejudo. I think after that he will beat up O’Malley, and he said he’s planning to move up. If he wants to do it, I will fight [for the] title.”
Sterling is currently set to defend his title against Cejudo on May 6 at UFC 288. Should he win, the Sean O’Malley fight could be the next logical step, which would mean Dvalishvili would likely be stuck waiting until 2024 for a title shot. With new contenders emerging rapidly in the stacked bantamweight division, the UFC could want Dvalishvili to retain his position atop the rankings by taking another fight, perhaps against the winner of the upcoming Cory Sandhagen vs. Marlon Vera fight. But if Dvalishvili has his druthers, he’ll simply wait the whole situation out.
“I’d rather wait.” Dvalishvili said. “I beat Yan, Yan beat Sandhagen already. I beat Aldo, Aldo beat ‘Chito’ Vera already. I don’t have to prove that I’m better than those guys. I’d rather wait.”
There’s also the possibility that Cejudo beats Sterling, opening the door for Dvalishvili to get a title shot sooner than anticipated. But Dvalishvili isn’t entertaining that idea as he firmly believes Sterling will retain the title. Instead, he seems content to simply wait for his time, saying that there’s only one way he would ever to step into a cage opposite Sterling.
“If they want me to fight Aljo, maybe they have to pay $10 billion,” Dvalishvili said. “Then yes, I’ll be ready.”