The reigning bantamweight champion goes for his fourth title defense when he meets O’Malley in the main event of UFC 292, which takes place in Boston on Saturday. One way or another, this could be the last time we see “Funk Master” atop the 135-pound division; he has made overtures toward going up to featherweight after his next fight. So does Sterling win and vacate, or will O’Malley snatch his crown before sending him on his way?
In the co-main event, Zhang Weili faces a tough test in Amanda Lemos. Should Zhang beat Lemos, she has no shortage of challengers waiting for her, but should Yan Xiaonan or Tatiana Suarez be next in line?
Join MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Steven Marrocco, and Jed Meshew as they take their seats at the roundtable to discuss the biggest storylines heading into UFC 292.
1. Win or lose, is this Aljaman Sterling’s last bantamweight fight?
Lee: It’s been a memorable run for Sterling at the top, to say the least, so it’s only fitting that he sign off after what will probably be his most-watched title defense yet. What better way to a championship reign that started with claiming the belt by disqualification, followed by defending it via a narrow split decision, beating a one-armed T.J. Dillashaw and then winning another close split decision. It might not have been the most dominant reign, but it made so many people angry and that has to count for something.
Sterling doesn’t owe anything to anyone. If he has anyone in mind as far as making the call to change divisions, it’s his buddy Merab Dvalishvili, who has been patiently waiting for his own chance to become bantamweight champion, while also essentially functioning as his bodyguard by knocking off other contenders. There has long been an understanding that when the time is right, he will step aside so his friend can take over, and all signs indicate that Saturday is that time.
There’s a better chance that Sterling sticks around if he loses to gain a measure of revenge against O’Malley and ensure that he departs on his own terms. I think he’d be granted that opportunity, too, because as much as the UFC loves O’Malley, they also love promoting instant rematches.
But either way, O’Malley should be the last opponent that Sterling faces at 135 pounds for the foreseeable future, and since I have the champ winning anyway, UFC 292 indeed signals the end of this chapter of Sterling’s career.
Marrocco: Aljo is 34 years old, and yeah, making that weight cut is only going to get tougher. For the sake of his health and longevity, the move to featherweight that needs to come sooner than later. It’s also good timing with Dvalishvili on the cusp of a title shot. But because so many things in MMA have nothing to do with the smart or sensible option, I posit Sterling’s move is as much about his place in the UFC’s business as it is about his optimal weight.
If Sterling does what he’s supposed to do and beats O’Malley, using his awkward striking to set up grappling exchanges en route to a submission win, it’s a perfect out for a move to featherweight. But let’s say the MMA gods throw a wrench in things and he loses. I don’t think he stays at bantamweight because his ego won’t let him leave. I think it’s because the promotion is more likely to require him to take another fight – including, possibly, the teammate vs. teammate he’s emphatically rejected – to get his title back.
Sterling isn’t the company man that O’Malley is, and what’s more, he’s not popular enough with the fan base to demand an immediate rematch. Save for a bizarre outcome that absolutely requires one – and, let’s face it, there’s a decent chance of that given Sterling’s off-kilter title reign – he moves up to featherweight because it’s a fresh start, both from a competitive and business perspective.
Meshew: Yep. I’m pretty confident this is Aljo’s final fight at 135 pounds, at least for now.
If Aljamain Sterling wins, I’d say it’s basically a guarantee he moves up. 135 is hard for him to make, he will have functionally cleaned out the division, and he should have a featherweight title shot locked in if he moves up. There’s no reason to stay once he beats the cash cow in the weight class.
If he loses, it gets a little more interesting but I still lean towards moving up. If O’Malley wins, I highly doubt he’s doing a Sterling rematch, which means if Aljo wants another shot at the title, it’s back into the mix. Does he want to do that? Why would he? Beat Cory Sandhagen again and then try to reclaim the title only to immediately vacate and move up? Seems unlikely. It’s a much better plan to follow the Rafael dos Anjos playbook of moving up a weight class — to arguably a less competitive one, no less — and seeing how his body performs when he isn’t actively killing it to make weight. There’s every chance he is better at 145! Plus, the UFC always needs somebody to fight Max Holloway. Might as well be Aljo.
2. If Zhang Weili beats Amanda Lemos, who’s next?
Meshew: Easy: Yan Xiaonan.
I know we’re all high on Tatiana Suarez right now, and I am, too. She’s probably the actual best strawweight on Earth at the moment. But unfortunately, she’s not up for a title fight just yet, because she was out of action for four years. You don’t just come back with all the same heat on you.
It’s like when you get back together with an ex-girlfriend after being apart for five years. The previous years together don’t just tack on to the relationship. It’s a whole new thing that happens to have some history. That’s Suarez right now. She had this meaningful time at strawweight, but then she left. Things changed. Now, she’s back, and things are once again going great, but there’s still stuff to work out. A win over Jessica Andrade is undeniably great. But it’s not a proposal, because Yan Xiaonan already got down on one knee when she starched Andrade in May.
Suarez is in the position where she needs one more fight to get to the title shot, and it seems pretty obvious that Mackenzie Dern makes the most sense. Those two women fighting in a no-doubt-about-it No. 1 contender’s match, while Zhang and Yan fight for the title of greatest Chinese fighter in MMA.
Marrocco: But Jed, if you’re getting back together with this old girlfriend (Suarez) in the first place, isn’t there a reason for that? She might be the one! But the only way to do it is to face your fears, get down on one knee and make the proposal. I don’t know whether we’re talking about real life, The Bachelor, or the UFC strawweight division any more, but what I do know is that Suarez is very clearly the No. 1 contender. She’s already answered the questions of whether she’s still capable of competing at the highest level of the division, and you can make the argument that she’s re-claimed her title eligibility after it was taken away by her injuries. Let’s not let the thin veil of meritocracy stand in the way of a star in the making.
At the very worst, you can book a title eliminator between Suarez and Xiaonan with the winner facing Zhang early next year. That leaves Zhang on the shelf for a little while, but that answers the meritocracy problem of giving Suarez the first title shot. What I’m saying, though, is you can skip it. There have been title shots far more egregious in UFC history.
Lee: I know it should be Yan... but if Suarez is the queen in waiting, why make her wait any longer?
Suarez getting the title shot before Yan seems wrong at a glance, given that she’d be earning it off of a dominant win over Andrade, a feat that Yan just accomplished three months ago. You could even make the case that Yan’s win was more impressive, given that it came by knockout, which always rings a little louder in the ears of the fans and matchmakers.
But I’m compelled to make up for lost time when it comes to Suarez. Injuries have robbed her of precious prime years, during which she definitely would have already challenged for the title. This game is so fickle, and if Suarez’s health is at all stable now, then now is the time to put her in a championship fight. It could be against Zhang, it could be against Lemos, it doesn’t matter. She’s done enough, and she’ll be favored against anyone.
Suarez could be UFC champion by the end of 2023. What a comeback story that would be.
3. Which storyline outside of the main two has you most intrigued?
Marrocco: I sure would have liked to see Ian Machado Garry take on Geoff Neal, what with the Irish star’s t-shirt antics leading up to Saturday’s fight. Neal’s powerful standup work promised to be a stiff test for Garry and a bridge toward the top-10 – or a big headache courtesy of the Texan’s heavy hands.
Now, we get Magny, Garry’s original callout and still a step up as far as the up-and-comer’s potential jump in promotion’s rankings. A couple of years ago, I would have given Magny a much greater chance of beating Garry. He’s one of the most durable and perennial tough guys at 170 pounds. However, he’s been doing this for a long, long time, and he’s far more uneven against top-tier competition. That’s age and the fight game. Couple that with a short-notice fight against a well-trained, younger guy, Magny is going to have to show up in a big way. He might surprise us, and he might not. That’s why I’m still interested in the outcome.
Meshew: Is there any other answer beside Chris Weidman? We’re talking about a former champion and future Hall of Famer making his from a catastrophic injury after two years of rehab. Listening to Weidman talk about how terrible the rehab was makes me extremely interested in how he looks coming back. I mean, he had that grappling match in March, but this is a whole other kettle of fish. Will he be tentative throwing kicks? What about checking them? Does he still have some of that championship magic in him or has time and the injury robbed him of what was left?
Given how Brad Tavares has looked lately, this is perfect matchmaking to get Weidman back into live fire without throwing him immediately in the deep end, and unlike some other champions on this card (*cough* Cody Garbrandt *cough*) I don’t think Weidman is completely washed. If he can return from that injury and look good, we may still be able to get some fun matchups out of him yet.
Lee: Call me kooky, but I’m on a bit of a prospect watch with this one.
Starting near the top, we have the undefeated Ian Machado Garry, who missed out on a fight with Geoff Neal but now gets perennial gatekeeper Neil Magny instead. Either Neal/Neil was the logical next step for Machado Garry anyway, so expect the “future champ” talk to be flowing freely after Saturday should the uberconfident Irishman maintain his unblemished record.
Further down the card, there’s Silva-mania with Natalia Silva and Karine Silva looking to score big wins over veterans Andrea Lee and Maryna Moroz respectively, Andre Petroski seeks his fifth straight win when he takes on hype-killer Gerald Meerschaert, and then there’s my beloved The Ultimate Fighter 31 finals.
Now that I think about it, we’ve truly buried the lede here, because we know everyone is tuning in Saturday night for the TUF 31 finale fights, right?