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What’s the Deal at Bantamweight?

On Saturday night, UFC 250 will feature a bit of a bantamweight showcase. The main card features three bantamweight fights, all three of which carry massive implications for the division going forward. UFC 250 will also come on the heels of a massive announcement from Dana White that the now vacant bantamweight title will be up for grabs in an all-action showcase between Petr Yan and Jose Aldo sometime later this year, more than likely as one of the headlining bouts on the mysterious “Fight Island.” While this fight may be fan friendly in nature, given the landscape of the division, it is far from the logical fight to make. With perennial contender Raphael Assuncao facing off against former champion Cody Garbrandt, wonder prospect Sean O’Malley facing off with veteran Eddie Wineland, and the most important fight, objectively speaking, on the entire card between top contenders Aljamain Sterling and Cory Sandhagen, the bantamweight division will undoubtedly be left in a larger state of delirium come the nightcap on Saturday night.

O’Malley vs Wineland

A post shared by Sugar Sean O'Malley (@sugaseanmma) on May 8, 2020 at 9:31am PDT

First off, let’s address O’Malley vs. Wineland. In my mind, this is a move as clear as day by the UFC. Sean O’Malley has already been christened by many to be the next big UFC mainstream entity, as well as a future champion. Whether or not that way of thinking is premature after only three UFC fights is something I’ll let you decide on- in my opinion, it is- but it’s clear that the UFC sees dollar signs and massive potential in the contender series alumnus. Eddie Wineland is a former WEC champion who fought Renan Barao in 2013 for the interim bantamweight championship, and while he is coming off a knockout win in his last fight at UFC 238 last June, suffice to say Wineland’s best days are behind him. While I don’t completely rule out Wineland’s chances of winning this fight, it is undoubtedly a fight made to boost the stock of O’Malley by giving him a former title challenger to potentially add to his resume. While this fight doesn’t carry immediate title implications, it does carry meaning in the overall picture at bantamweight. We’ll get to that in a minute.

Assuncao vs Garbrandt

A post shared by Raphael Assunção (@raphaassuncao) on Dec 5, 2019 at 11:31am PST

Next, let’s tackle this co-main event; out of the three bouts it, interestingly enough, carries the second most weight. Raphael Assuncao is one of the most disrespected fighters in UFC history. Assuncao had been passed over for UFC title opportunities numerous times during an incredibly impressive run atop the division that spanned years. This will be Assuncao’s first bout since August 2019 at UFC 241, which saw him suffer defeat at the hands of Cory Sandhagen.

Cody Garbrandt is a former UFC champion whom after one of the most impressive performances by a challenger in a UFC title fight, where he essentially beat Dominick Cruz at his own game, now finds himself entering this bout precluded by three consecutive knockout losses, all three of which portrayed somewhat of an ineptitude of defensive skill on the part of Garbrandt. Garbrandt is virtually in the center of a must-win situation, for no other reason than to still be mentioned among the elite, which is extremely fringe at the moment.

This fight may have more immediate title implications than it would seem on the surface. In the case of Assuncao, a win likely, and unfortunately, will do very little for him. He holds wins over many of the bottom half of the top 15, but losses against guys directly ahead of him, effectively ruling him out even with a win. But in the case of Garbrandt, I’d say keep an eye on the situation if he wins. Garbrandt’s a name- in professional wrestling terms, a face- and if he gets past Assuncao, especially by finish, expect him to immediately be re-inserted back into title talks. Would he be undeserving? Oh my god, yes. But hey, we’re giving Jose Aldo a title shot and he doesn’t have a win in the weight class, so seeing a former champion potentially jump the cue, especially one the promotion has pushed to the limit like Garbrandt, would be the least bit surprising.

Sterling vs Sandhagen

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A post shared by Aljamain Sterling (@funkmastermma) on Apr 20, 2020 at 10:42am PDT

Which now brings us to the big one, for all intensive purposes the most important fight on the entire UFC 250 card, Aljamain Sterling vs. Cory Sandhagen. Realistically, this should be a 5-round championship main event to decide the next UFC bantamweight champion. But alas, that’s not how the world works. This fight is so compelling that an entire breakdown article could be done regarding it, but I’ll just give you the bullet points.

Aljamain Sterling is undoubtedly in the best form of his career. After suffering a humiliating loss at the hands of Marlon Moraes in December of 2017, Sterling has rattled off four straight wins against a very impressive setlist of competitors. Most recently, Sterling brought Pedro Munhoz to the brink and cranked out a very impressive unanimous decision win in which many people finally took note of Sterling’s career revival and his official welcoming into title contender status. Perhaps most impressively, Sterling has added new wrinkles into an already diverse skill set, as he now finds a great deal of comfort in the striking game, where he once was a takedown attempt waiting to happen early in his career.

A post shared by Cory Sandhagen (@enterthesandman135) on May 25, 2020 at 11:22am PDT

Cory Sandhagen is the unsung man of danger at bantamweight. He doesn’t have the overly flashy style and knockouts like Petr Yan or Marlon Moraes, nor does his name yet carry the same weight as that of his opponent Sterling or a former champion like Garbrandt. Here’s what Sandhagen is: the future. Sandhagen represents the natural evolution of the mixed martial artist. Sandhagen doesn’t have a martial arts base, he has an MMA base. His game is as fluid as there is in the sport right now. No one in the bantamweight division is as comfortable in any situation of the fight as Sandhagen is, whether he be locked in a blood soaked guillotine like he was against John Lineker, or having trouble on the feet against a veteran like Assuncao, Sandhagen never deviates from his gameplan and always finds his way back into his most advantageous spots. His footwork alone is almost a representation of the combination of Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw’s movement, which in and of itself is jaw dropping. Even with a loss at UFC 250, Sandhagen is still a very dangerous bantamweight contender moving forward.

Since it isn’t for a title, this fight, theoretically, should at least decide the next challenger for the winner of that Yan-Aldo fight later this year. I mean, it has to, right? Right??? Ideally, yes. But remember, merit doesn’t always win the day in this business, just ask Leon Edwards. Name value can be a son of a bitch when deciding to market a title fight, and while both Sterling and Sandhagen are more than capable of carrying the torch as UFC champions, my hunch tells me neither guy will be so lucky if one of the previously mentioned scenarios plays out.

A post shared by Cody Garbrandt (@cody_nolove) on Feb 12, 2020 at 1:45pm PST

If Cody Garbrandt beats Raphael Assuncao, my prediction is that he will get the next title shot at bantamweight. Yes, you read that correctly. Exciting, charismatic, a fan favorite, and above all else, marketable, at least in the UFC’s eyes. Now, Garbrandt has alluded to a drop to flyweight may be imminent, so perhaps a title shot there could be looming with a win, but either way, a gut feeling points in the direction of Cody Garbrandt getting some “preferential” treatment with a win.

Which now brings us back to Sean O’Malley. Remember how I said his fight with Wineland does carry some weight in the title picture? Well, to answer what you were about to inevitably ask, no. I’m not saying O’Malley will get an immediate title shot. I’m saying he’ll be a fight away from one. Yes, one single fight. Sean O’Malley has three goals on Saturday night: 1) Of course, win, preferably by knockout, 2) Hope that Sterling vs. Sandhagen doesn’t end in a finish, and 3) Hope for a Cody Garbrandt win. If the scenario I just listed plays out, Suga will be in prime position for a UFC title opportunity.

Here’s how.

A post shared by Sugar Sean O'Malley (@sugaseanmma) on May 21, 2020 at 7:03pm PDT

O’Malley will be ranked if he beats Wineland, regardless of whether or not he deserves it. He’s enough of a name that he’ll claim a spot, likely at 15th. Assuming Garbrandt beats Assuncao, that’ll be three consecutive losses for Assuncao. O’Malley will then either fight Assuncao or Dominick Cruz while Garbrandt is settling his differences with the champion. Of course assuming O’Malley beats either in this hypothetical scenario, he will then fight the winner of Garbrandt and the champion. Crazy right? Name value means a lot in this sport.

At a time when the UFC is in desperate need of monetary life in the wake of these very strange times, many of the matchmaking acts going forward will dictate just how significant this pandemic actually is on the wallet of Endeavor and the promotion. Sterling and Sandhagen are the more talented of the group, but don’t carry the name value. Garbrandt and O’Malley are, at the very least, presumed commodities that can be built off of financially, certainly more so than both Sterling and Sandhagen. It’s an ugly and unfair game sometimes, let’s see if that business angle rears it’s ugly head once more in the near future.■

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