Aljamain Sterling has constantly battled for respect ever since becoming the UFC’s bantamweight champion.
Sterling’s UFC 288 win over Henry Cejudo, a former two-division champ and legend of the sport, undeniably deserved praise. But a win over Sean O’Malley at UFC 292 could cement him as an all-time great at 135 pounds, UFC analyst Alan Jouban said on The Fighter vs. The Writer.
“I think that this fight, beating Cejudo in a five-round fight, I think this is going to start getting people more on board,” Jouban said about Sterling’s UFC 288 performance. “I think they’re going to say, ‘This guy has earned it.’ The two fights with Petr Yan, they were tough, the way it started with the second fight. Honestly being live at the second fight with Petr Yan, I had it very close, but I was leaning to Petr Yan in that fight, and then the T.J. [Dillashaw] fight, [him] being injured, they never quite gave him his flowers.
“But beating Cejudo, you have to give the man his respect. He was able to take Cejudo down. He was able to reverse some of these positions. He hit a switch on him, took his back at one point in the fight. The great thing is this next possible matchup, I think is the perfect matchup for [Aljamain] to get all the respect.”
Since joining the UFC roster, O’Malley has quickly become one of the most talked about fighters in the sport and a serious box office draw. He became the No. 1 bantamweight contender with a hard-fought win over ex-champ Yan.
While O’Malley may have earned this opportunity, Jouban believes “Suga” is going to face an uphill battle in a fight against Sterling, who will match him in size and likely pose a much more difficult challenge than Yan.
“As good as O’Malley is, the stylistic matchup allows for that — it allows for a finish,” Jouban explained. “A tall, lanky striker who if [Aljamain] gets him on the ground, he’s going to be able to get that body lock on very easily against a small, skinny waist in O’Malley. O’Malley’s not going to be able to escape that, especially if O’Malley gets taken down in the first one to two minutes of a round, he’s going to be stuck in that back position for three or four minutes, having to escape and evade and defend. It’s inevitable. You’re going to get choked out.
“If Aljo can get the takedown early on O’Malley, if he can get a finish, a dominant finish, a choke out over O’Malley in say the first or second round, I think that will forcefully bring the fanbase on board to say this guy is one of the greatest we’ve ever seen in this weight division. It allows that opportunity coming up so I think everything moving forward is going to start looking very, very well for Aljo.”
At 5-foot-11 with a 72-inch reach, O’Malley has knockout power in his hands and could definitely pose problems for Sterling. But Jouban doubts he’ll find nearly as much success in that fight as he did against Yan this past November.
“As fluid and smooth as a striker as O’Malley is, he likes a stationary target,” Jouban said. “If he finds you stationary, he will put you out. Aljo is not a stationary target. He’s constantly moving laterally from a long distance away, and he’s just throwing long kicks, faking the shots. It’s going to be very tough for O’Malley to land that clean shot against Sterling.
“The clean shots, the sniper bullet that O’Malley has perfected, it’s not going to be as high percentage of a shot, because Aljo’s going to be moving all over the cage and the distance is going to be much greater in the fight. O’Malley’s going to have to cover a much greater distance. The matchup very much favors Aljamain Sterling.”
On the financial front, the fight benefits both. O’Malley brings the kind of star power that attracts a bigger audience, which in turn likely pads their bank accounts.
All told, Jouban sees O’Malley as the perfect fight for Sterling to fully establish his legacy as perhaps the greatest UFC bantamweight champion in history while facing far less risk than he just did against Cejudo.
“[Sean O’Malley is] much less of a threat and probably bigger sales than a lot of these fights,” Jouban said. “O’Malley’s a draw, and now you have the big draw coming in here, O’Malley’s good at selling the fight. The UFC was on board with selling it. [UFC President] Dana White regrets having O’Malley go into the cage, but they got that. They’ve got that footage of them in each other’s face, that’s going to help promote the fight. They’re both going to be jawing back and forth.
“100 percent, this is one of the few times where we’re finally going to see Aljo as the champion, as a heavy favorite in a matchup, and it’s warranted in this matchup.”