While the lightweight and welterweight divisions might be considered the most competitive in the UFC right now, the bantamweight division is hardly lacking in intrigue or talent.
Champion Henry Cejudo has become one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in MMA, and his next title defense is tentatively scheduled for May 9 against former champ Dominick Cruz, who is thought by many to be the greatest bantamweight ever.
Not everyone believes Cruz was the right call, considering he hasn’t fought in nearly 3 1/2 years, and there’s depth among the top contenders. Emerging stars such as Petr Yan, Cory Sandhagen and Aljamain Sterling all have made cases for a title shot.
ESPN MMA experts Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Marc Raimondi attempt to clear up the title picture and answer a few key questions about a suddenly stacked 135-pound division.
Who should get the winner of Cejudo vs. Cruz?
Helwani: Either the winner of Cory Sandhagen vs. Aljamain Sterling (assuming that happens) or Petr Yan. Problem is, we don’t know if Yan will be able to enter the country anytime soon due to the travel restrictions caused by the coronavirus pandemic. And even though I didn’t think Jose Aldo deserved a title shot, I do feel bad that it has just been taken away from him.
Okamoto: It’s hard to book the future of any division right now with so much uncertainty around which fights are still happening, when they’re happening, where they’re happening, etc. But the winner of a fight between Marlon Moraes and Petr Yan, scheduled for June 13, would be my call. Moraes is coming off a decision win against Jose Aldo (who was actually going to fight for the title before everything was affected by COVID-19), and Yan has gone from an interesting prospect to a feared contender over the past two years. If Cejudo were to beat Cruz and Moraes were to beat Yan, then we might have to rethink this one — as Cejudo just beat Moraes last year — but any other combination, sign me up.
Raimondi: Aljamain Sterling is next in line right now. It’s just a question of whether the UFC will make him get another win against someone like Petr Yan or Cory Sandhagen before receiving a title shot. Sterling has won four straight and has lost only once — to former title challenger Marlon Moraes — in his past seven fights. One of the things standing in his way now is his name. It just isn’t as big as Cruz or Jose Aldo. And Cejudo covets adding major names to his résumé.
Wagenheim: I’m inclined to go with Aljamain Sterling, but if the next title shot were to fall to one of the other contenders on win streaks, Petr Yan or Cory Sandhagen, I wouldn’t complain a bit. But if Cejudo retains his belt on May 9 and shifts attention to his next defense, I sure hope he doesn’t test that carefree attitude by trying to extend his Challengers Coming Off a Loss Tour.
What happens to Aldo now that he lost out on his title shot?
Helwani: Either he waits, or how about a fight against Yan on Fight Island? It’s hard to predict right now because so much is up in the air, but ordinarily he should at least get a win before talking title shots.
Okamoto: Honestly, I still think he’ll get a title shot in his next fight. While I do believe the shot should go to the winner of Moraes vs. Yan, the fact is, the UFC was already on board with giving Aldo a title shot, and I don’t think that has changed just because he couldn’t go on May 9. We’ll have to see how the bout between Cejudo and Cruz plays out, obviously, and what’s said after, but if I were to bet on Aldo’s next opponent, I’d say it’s one of those two. But in the event Aldo doesn’t get a title shot, or wants to take a fight before the winner of that May 9 bout, anyone ranked in the top five is possible, plus Cody Garbrandt, who has lost three in a row but remains one of the biggest names in the division.
Raimondi: A bout on Fight Island? It doesn’t seem like Aldo or any other Brazilian who doesn’t have a valid work visa — they last only three months — will be getting into the United States for the foreseeable future. Aldo is one of the greatest fighters in history, but the case for him deserving a bantamweight title shot against Cejudo coming off a loss to Moraes was tenuous at best. Perhaps this scenario works out better. Aldo can fight another contender on Fight Island with the hopes of getting that title opportunity back.
Wagenheim: If Sterling gets the next title shot, Yan and Sandhagen will be looking for opponents. They could fight each other, but why not allow one of them to try to build his legacy on the broad shoulders of a legend? That’s the good thing about not yet being at the top of the mountain: You’re free to navigate your career along whatever route makes sense to you, without facing the expectations placed upon a champion. As for Aldo’s end of the bargain, it’s not like he would be just a gatekeeper here. A win over any of those three top contenders would keep him in the championship conversation.
Will TJ Dillashaw get a title shot upon his return in January?
Helwani: No. The division is too stacked to justify that. He has handled this whole situation very well and part of that includes working his way back up like everyone else.
Okamoto: I don’t think that would be the right message for the UFC to send. Dillashaw deserves credit for the way he’s handled the past year. He hasn’t tried to pin his failed drug test on a tainted supplement or bad advice from a coach. He has owned up to his mistake, and I do think that will make it easier for him to move forward once his suspension is up. But awarding him a title shot seems a bit much, especially since this division is so loaded with potential title challengers right now. I recently asked Dillashaw’s old mentor and friend, Urijah Faber, if that’s a fight he’d take, and although he wasn’t against it, he didn’t seem real committed, either. Both guys would probably be fine leaving that drama in the past — but the marketing angle for that matchup is so strong, I still believe there’s a decent chance it becomes Dillashaw’s first fight back.
Raimondi: My first reflex is to say no considering all the excellent contenders bantamweight has right now, from legends such as Aldo and Cruz to up-and-coming talents like Sandhagen. Conventional wisdom says Dillashaw, who will be free of a two-year suspension for the banned substance EPO (erythropoietin) in January, will have to win at least one more bout before getting a chance at his old belt. But who knows how things are in nine months? Cejudo vs. Dillashaw 2, this time at bantamweight rather than flyweight, would be a fascinating fight. I would not completely rule it out if Cejudo still has the gold heading into 2021.
Wagenheim: No way. He did the deed and he did his time, so welcome back … but please show Mr. Dillashaw to the back of the line. He ought not be treated like a fighter who’s been away because of injury. A PED test failure is not irredeemable, but one needs to build some sweat equity washing dishes in the kitchen before being allowed back in the VIP room. Give the disgraced ex-champ a return fight with someone at the lower end of the top 10 and see if he can rise from there. I suspect that Dillashaw himself would consider that fair.
Who do you think will be bantamweight champion on Jan. 1?
Helwani: I don’t like to make fight predictions so I’ll say it will be Cejudo, Cruz, Sandhagen or Yan. Cool?
Okamoto: I’m going to give the double champ, Henry Cejudo, his due respect here and predict he’ll still be at the top come Jan. 1. Cruz is a tough matchup for anyone, but he’s coming off a very long layoff to challenge Cejudo on May 9. And if Cejudo wins and revisits that title defense against Aldo, as I believe he would, I have to lean slightly in his favor there as well. So, love him or hate him, “Triple C” keeps the crown all year.
Raimondi: Cejudo. He hasn’t fought since last June and everyone’s most recent memories of him have revolved around cringe-worthy trash talk on social media. But let’s not forget that in his past three fights, Cejudo has beaten the greatest flyweight of all time in Demetrious Johnson, perhaps the best bantamweight of all time in Dillashaw (at flyweight) and then Moraes. He stopped the latter two via TKO. With an evolving striking game that packs some power and his Olympic gold-medal-caliber wrestling, Cejudo is one of the best pound-for-pound fighters on the planet. It’ll be tough to get the belt off him.
Wagenheim: This is tough, put-names-in-a-hat tough. There are more plausible candidates at bantamweight than perhaps any other weight class. The safe answer would be Cejudo, because he owns the belt now and who knows how many championship fights there will be during the pandemic? But I’ll venture out on a limb and go with Marlon Moraes. I don’t know how he gets back to a title shot, but if he does, I think he’ll get the job done in his second try. He was having his way with Cejudo early on in their fight last summer, but then the bottom fell out. A big part of that was Cejudo digging deep, but Moraes’ demise also was self-induced. Can he figure out how to stay strong when he can’t get his damaged opponent out of there early? If he can, he’ll be tough to stop.
My one bold prediction for the bantamweight division is …
Helwani: Cory Sandhagen will be champion one day. He’s a big problem at 135 and I really believe this.
Okamoto: Marlon Moraes wins the belt at some point in 2021.
Raimondi: Urijah Faber still has another big fight (or fights) left in him. At 40 years old, he made his Octagon return in 2019 after nearly three years away and stopped Ricky Simon. Faber got beat up by Petr Yan in his second fight back at UFC 245 in December, but Yan is one of the top five bantamweights on the planet and a tough matchup for Faber. There’s one opponent Faber might want above any other: his former protégé Dillashaw. There would be a fascinating story to tell with regards to one of the messier fighter-gym breakups in recent memory. Either way, “The California Kid” isn’t riding off into the sunset yet. Fight Island would be made for him — a backward hat, flip-flops and no shirt is his regular attire.
Wagenheim: The division will produce a fight of the year candidate, and it will be a nontitle bout. Sure, Cejudo and Cruz could co-author a classic in their May 9 tussle for the belt, but consider the wealth of possibilities in the ranks below. It’s a numbers game. There are so many strong bantamweight contenders — Sterling, Yan, Sandhagen, Aldo, Moraes, Raphael Assuncao, Jimmie Rivera, Cody Garbrandt — that it’s just a matter of time before two of them get together to produce an unforgettable barnburner.