Aljamain Sterling can’t be certain who is next to challenge for his UFC bantamweight title, but he at least has an idea who has actually earned it.
He defeated T.J. Dillashaw the night before to keep the belt. Sterling also saw Sean O’Malley rise to the top division ranking after he beat Petr Yan in a split decision.
UFC President Dana White did not declare the new No. 1 contender at 135 pounds, though he did mention former champion Henry Cejudo, who came out of retirement and rejoined the active roster in April, as one possibility.
In Sterling’s mind, O’Malley did exactly what he was supposed to do to earn a title fight, beating a former champion and the top-ranked contender in the division. Cejudo, he said, will return to a much different bantamweight division than the one he left more than two years ago.
“O’Malley was the one who earned it – that’s what Sterling said to MMA Fighting. “Even Dana [White] said you beat the No. 1 contender so it made sense and then somehow, some way he backtracked.
“I’m not sure if he thought my fight wasn’t going to go that way, and I’m not sure if he thought the Yan-O’Malley fight was going to go that way as far as being so competitive. He probably thought somebody was going to get stopped and then, ‘Holy s*** this guy definitely needs to fight for the title!’ That’s usually how it works. It’s usually the performance, but it was a great performance from both guys. Both guys fought their asses off. Both men fought their way to victory.
Ever since UFC 280 ended, Cejudo has called for the fight against Sterling. O’Malley has also been mentioned by Cejudo, suggesting that an interim title is up for grabs.
This might sound odd considering Sterling has already defended his title two times in 2022, and it’s unlikely that he will miss much time as he moves into 2023..
Sterling admitted that he isn’t all that excited about the possibility of facing Cejudo over O’Malley, but that it doesn’t have to do with either fight being harder or more demanding.
“I’m just not excited about that matchup [with Henry Cejudo],” Sterling said. Sterling said that he didn’t have the opportunity to compete. For me, if the fans cared — like really cared — the overall consensus was this is the matchup to make, Cejudo you are the guy, I’m calling you out, that’s the money fight because people want to see that fight. I just don’t feel like that’s it.
” O’Malley, who just won the fight, is currently the most prominent name in the ring. 1 guy, I don’t see why he shouldn’t get the fight. Many will say “you want the easiest fight.” I just don’t understand how it’s possible to make that happen. He’s long, he’s rangy, he’s got great footwork. He can crack. I don’t see how it’s an easy fight by any means.”
Also, Sterling is aware that O’Malley’s fight will attract attention from the fans in a different way than Cejudo does. This means that both fighters can benefit from any pay-per view card that features them.
Sterling has been open about the fact that money plays a role in fighter decisions. O’Malley, at this point, isn’t just the No. 1 contender — he’s also likely the biggest draw in the bantamweight division.
” If I lose my belt or when I loose the belt — it will happen. But if you play long enough, somebody will beat you. It’s guaranteed. Father time cannot be defeated. Each dog has his or her day. Because I have lost in the past, I understand what it feels like to lose. I’m not a god, I’m not invincible. Sometimes people just have a better night and in this moment, I get pay-per-view points.
” I would love to be paid as much money as possible while I am still here. If Sean wins the fight, and I do lose, then I don’t get the pay-per view points. It is money that can change your life. This is stuff that can set me up for the rest of my life financially. So I’m going to do what’s best for my family, and if that’s the O’Malley fight, I’m going to take the O’Malley fight. If that’s the one the fans want to see, that means they’re going to tune in and buy and that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t think Cejudo is that guy. It’s just not my opinion. If he is, sign me up. Don’t worry if he’s not. I’ll sign you up.
When it comes to Cejudo his claim to a title shot is down to his former reign as champion after announcing that he was retiring in 2020.
Cejudo did not lose the title, but Sterling will contest Cejudo’s achievements versus fighters who continued being active and busy over the two-year period since Cejudo passed away.
“He won at 125, then he beat T.J., knocked T.J. out, he defended the belt one time,” Sterling said. “He goes to 135. Fights for a vacant title. T.J. has been removed from the fray. He beats Marlon Moraes. OK. Marlon Moraes was a killer at the time, I give him his flowers for that. Then he fights Dominick Cruz on short notice and he thinks that’s a great feat. If you fought Dom on a full training camp, I could respect it a lot more. This win is a much bigger victory.
“[Dominick Cruz] came off the couch, because it was a short notice opportunity to make a lot more money because you get championship challenger pay and a chance to win the belt, who would not roll the dice and take that chance against a guy who’s 5-foot-4, maybe 5-foot-5. So I get that. Then he retires. He is out almost for three years. Your run will not be as crazy as you think. You think that you are able to cut the line because you fought nearly three years ago. I don’t know. It’s not that I don’t know. It’s not being disrespectful to Cejudo but the facts are the facts.”
With plans to return in mid-2023, Sterling would love to see Cejudo potentially take on another top-ranked bantamweight, which could help secure his spot as a title contender. But until that happens, he still views O’Malley as the rightful No. 1 contender in the division.
“If we’re finally going to use the merit system, it should actually be O’Malley. Sterling stated that this is what he believed.
” I don’t think that I will be returning until the middle of next year. This is how I feel right now. The belt was defended by me. I fought in April. I fought October. It was a good decision to let things play out. While I will be doing training, I would like to have some fun and enjoy my life before the time is gone by .”