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Paths to Victory: How Aljamain Sterling and Sean O’Malley can win gold at UFC 292

Aljamain Sterling and Sean O’Malley face off
Aljamain Sterling and Sean O’Malley face off
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

For the first time in nearly four years, the UFC returns to Boston, and the promotion is bringing with it another stacked pay-per-view event. In the main event of UFC 292, bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling puts his belt on the line against one of the biggest stars in MMA, Sean O’Malley. It’s a fight nearly a year in the making, and one that could be the final of Sterling’s illustrious 135-pound career.

Can Sterling stake his claim for bantamweight GOAT status, or will O’Malley ring in the start of the “Sugar” era? Let’s look at how this fight could go down.


UFC 288: Sterling v Cejudo Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Paths to Victory for Aljamain Sterling at UFC 292

Sterling is one of the most criminally underrated fighters currently competing in MMA, in large part because he has had one of the strangest title runs in MMA history. Becoming the first UFC champion to win the belt via disqualification was in inauspicious start, and since then, he’s won two highly competitive split decisions, trouncing the one-armed T.J. Dillashaw sandwiched in between. But all that weirdness belies the simple fact that Sterling is arguably the greatest bantamweight in history when you just look at wins and losses on the resume.

A compounding factor for Sterling’s underratedness is his funky style. Sterling is probably the second best top-position grappler in MMA currently (behind Islam Makhachev), and he is absolutely the sport’s premiere back control artist. Those two skillsets are the straws the stir the drink for “The Funk Master,” and when they are firing on all cylinders, you get thrashing like Cory Sandhagen received. Against more schooled opposition, though, Sterling can end up playing the backpack for long stretches of fight, which is completely dominant but paradoxically underwhelming for many MMA fans. Add in that he’s an extremely awkward striker, and it all mixes together to make a game that casual fans aren’t going to appreciate.

Fortunately for Sterling, in this fight, it also all mixes in to create a style that appears to be nightmarish for O’Malley. On the feet, Sterling is a good kicker, so he can work at long range, and when things get closer, he’s a vastly superior wrestler and grappler. Petr Yan essentially took O’Malley down at will, and if the same thing happens for Sterling, he’s much better at finding his way into dominant positions. That’s the formula for Sterling, and it’s pretty easy to follow: stay defensively responsible on the feet, get in on the body or legs without eating anything major, and go to work.


MMA-UFC-UAE-MALLEY-YAN Photo by GIUSEPPE CACACE/AFP via Getty Images

Paths to victory for Sean O’Malley at UFC 292

While Sterling might be the most underrated fighter in MMA, it’s hard to know how to properly rate O’Malley, primarily because his only relevant win in the division was his most recent one, and a great many people didn’t think he actually deserved to win the decision over Petr Yan. Was that a one-time thing for O’Malley, or is he actually one of the best bantamweights in the world? We’re about to find out.

O’Malley is a long, rangy striker in the mold of Conor McGregor. He’s got power in his hands and brilliant timing, which he uses to great effect by picking off fighters who come in on him. He’s also huge for bantamweight, which compounds this advantage. On the ground, he is a BJJ brown belt who sometimes uses his length to attack from the bottom, but mostly he’s going to try to get to a hip, push off and stand.

At the most basic level, if O’Malley hopes to win this, he has to keep it standing. Nothing we’ve seen from either fighter suggests he has a prayer of winning a bout that involves prolonged grappling exchanges. When he does inevitably get taken down, he cannot be content to play guard for even half as long as he did against Yan and instead needs to immediately work underhook standups. The underhook is critical, because Sterling is an exceptional back-taker, and if O’Malley uses some of the standups he did against Yan, Sterling is going to feast on that.

Part and parcel of keeping this fight on the feet is going to be footwork. Because he’s so dangerous, O’Malley has a tendency to allow himself to be moved around the cage. That’s not going to fly against Sterling. O’Malley needs to be on his bike and in space, forcing Sterling to try and track him down. If they two are exchanging strikes one for one at range, O’Malley is probably winning that.

Another major factor for O’Malley to take into consideration is that Sterling is extremely durable. The only time Sterling has ever been stopped is when he dove head first into a monstrous knee from Marlon Moraes (and I guess the illegal knee by Petr Yan). Sterling isn’t likely to go down on the first shot, and so O’Malley shouldn’t put all his eggs in that basket. Consistently defending takedowns and putting volume on Sterling on the feet is the way forward, particularly with body work and knees. O’Malley found great success with knees on the inside and stepping knees in the later rounds of his fight with Yan and those same weapons should be employed here to slow Sterling down and dissuade him from shooting.


X-Factors

Injuries.

Injuries are always part of any fight, but there’s good reason to be concerned about Sterling heading into this bout. After fighting Henry Cejudo in May, he openly debated whether he would be able to make such a quick turnaround, citing various lingering issues with his body. Now, could that have all been gamesmanship by Sterling to get more money out of the UFC? Maybe, but I’m not so sure.

Given O’Malley’s starpower, this is the biggest fight of Sterling’s life, financially, and it also happens to be a fight that, at least on paper, he should win easily. Would Sterling enter this fight less than 100 percent because the paycheck is simply too big and besides, he’s going to win anyway? That’s absolutely in play here, and if Sterling isn’t 100 percent, this fight gets much, much closer.


Prediction

For whatever reason, the vibes for about a month now are telling me that O’Malley is going to pull off the upset, but my brain simply can’t get there. Sterling is a vastly superior grappler, a better athlete, and a smarter fighter. If O’Malley can somehow keep this standing, he’s extremely live, but given the ease with which Yan took him down, that seems doubtful. Instead, we’re probably in for something similar to Sterling’s fight with Cory Sandhagen.

Aljamain Sterling def. Sean O’Malley by submission (rear-naked choke) — 4:20, Round 2.

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