UFC Predictions: 4 marquee bantamweight bouts on the horizon
The UFC's bantamweight division has emerged as arguably the most exciting weight class in all of combat sports in recent years. The 135-pound bracket features a unique blend of supremely talented prospects on the rise, as well as a number of legends still competing at the highest level.
UFC San Diego's main event was a fantastic showcase for the division as surging contender Marlon Vera knocked out arguably the greatest bantamweight of all time, Dominick Cruz.
A number of top contenders in the bantamweight division will be in action over the next few months, culminating at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi, where the 135-pound title will be contested. Aljamain Sterling, the champion, and T.J. Dillashaw, a former titleholder, will fight for the belt in the co-main event of the pay-per-view.
Before the Sterling vs. Dillashaw championship bout, former bantamweight king Petr Yan will lock horns with budding superstar Sean O'Malley, a matchup that could determine the next challenger for the belt.
The bantamweight division is set to undergo a few shuffles before the end of the year and the next four marquee bouts at 135 pounds will have massive implications in the title mix.
Here are our predictions for the upcoming high-profile bantamweight matchups in the UFC.
#4. Jose Aldo vs. Merab Dvalishvili
Jose Aldo still has a case for being the greatest featherweight to ever grace the octagon, with his sensational championship reign across the WEC and UFC spanning over seven years. Throughout his dominant run, the legendary Brazilian faced multiple high-calber wrestlers and made light work of them, which bodes well for him going into his upcoming bout.
In his quest to become a two-division champion and work his way towards bantamweight gold, Aldo has been matched up with Merab Dvalishvili, likely the best wrestler at 135 pounds.
Dvalishvili owns numerous takedown records in the UFC and his clear path to victory at UFC 278 will be to take Aldo down to the mat. However, 'The King of Rio' is among the greatest anti-wrestlers we've ever seen, evident in his fights against Urijah Faber, Chad Mendes and Frankie Edgar.
Given his fight against Dvalishvili is contracted for three rounds, this is the perfect stylistic matchup for the future Hall of Famer and should set him on his path towards fighting for the title again. Considering his Georgian counterpart's renowned durability, Aldo will likely edge out a decision win.
Our pick: Jose Aldo via unanimous decision
#3. Cory Sandhagen vs. Song Yadong
After his spectacular pair of knockouts against Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar, Cory Sandhagen came up short in back-to-back five-round barnburners against Petr Yan and T.J. Dillashaw.
Sandhagen's performances against Yan and Dillashaw were commendable to say the least, and against the latter in particular, arguably should've earned the judges' nod.
Nevertheless, 'The Sandman' is in need of a win if he is to return to the title picture and is slated to lock horns with Chinese up-and-comer Song Yadong in a five-round main event next.
Cory Sandhagen is a cerebral and highly technical striker with lethal submission skills, while Song Yadong is a hard-hitting knockout artist with a seek-and-destroy mentality. Sandhagen notably has a slight reach advantage of four inches, which could prove to be the deciding factor on the night.
WIth Yadong's lack of offensive wrestling, this matchup seems to play into Sandhagen's hands. If he can maintain his distance and keep his Chinese counterpart at bay, the American should be able to comfortably win rounds.
Another important factor to consider is that Sandhagen's last two bouts have been five-rounders, while Yadong has never featured in a 25-minute contest. Experience and cardio management could play a key role in this matchup, and as such, we're going with Sandhagen via a fifth-round technical knockout.
Our pick: Cory Sandhagen via fifth-round TKO
#2. Petr Yan vs. Sean O'Malley
Perhaps the most intriguing bantamweight matchup on the horizon is UFC 280's Petr Yan vs. Sean O'Malley bout, which could also be an unofficial title eliminator match. Yan, a former champion, occupies the top spot in the rankings behind the champion, while O'Malley sits at No.13.
Petr Yan's experience at the highest level should ensure that he comes out on top against Sean O'Malley, who has never faced the cream of the crop at 135 pounds. Both fighters are dangerous strikers, but with vastly different styles. Yan's boxing is arguably the best in the division, but O'Malley's flashy strikes and undeniable power could make this one very interesting.
While many seem to be counting O'Malley out against the Russian juggernaut, they seem to be forgetting that the American has nothing to lose. He will likely be the betting underdog and all the pressure is seemingly on Yan, who will be defending the No.1 spot in the bantamweight rankings.
This matchup is a lot closer than most people are making it out to be, and that can be expected considering the polarizing nature of O'Malley's persona outside the cage. However, Yan is a supreme tactician and should be able to stifle 'Sugar's' offense. Hence, 'No Mercy' via a close decision is what we're going with.
Our pick: Petr Yan via split-decision
#1. Aljamain Sterling vs. T.J. Dillashaw – UFC bantamweight championship bout
Soon after Petr Yan and Sean O'Malley duke it out, the UFC bantamweight title will be contested in the co-main event of UFC 280 as Aljamain Sterling looks to defend his belt against T.J. Dillashaw.
Aljamain Sterling and T.J. Dillashaw have certain similarities, which adds to the intrigue surrounding this title fight. Both bantamweights have a solid wrestling base, coupled with quite awkward striking. While Sterling's stand-up is more kick-heavy, Dillashaw largely relies on his boxing combinations and stance switches.
What separates them is their diversity of offense. Dillashaw has way more tools than the champion in the striking department, and if this fight stays on the feet, it's hard to see him losing. Sterling's route to victory is to impose his grappling, which will prove to be very difficult against a fellow collegiate wrestling standout.
Injuries have hampered Dillashaw since his return from his two-year USADA suspension and this could influence proceedings at UFC 280. Nonetheless, assuming he comes into the contest in peak physical condition, the former champion should be able to emerge victorious, likely with a finish in the middle to late rounds.
Our pick: T.J. Dillashaw via fourth-round TKO