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Digging In – UFC Bantamweight Division


The Bantamweight Division is, in my opinion, the most fun division to watch in the UFC. The fighters have some of the best speed, technical skill, knockout power and intense drive to win in all of MMA not just the UFC. The head of the division right now is TJ Dillashaw, who just defeated Cody Garbrandt for the second time to defend his belt. He now has a few more contenders who are hungry and waiting for their shot at the 135 pound strap. They may need to wait however, as TJ has shown interest in moving to 125 to take on Henry Cejudo at Flyweight.

Champion:

TJ Dillashaw: At UFC 173, champion Renan Barao was expected to face contender Raphael Assuncao for the Bantamweight Strap. Assuncao pulled out of the fight with a rib injury and TJ Dillashaw stepped in as a short notice replacement. The odds for TJ to win were astronomically poor as Barao at this point hasn’t lost in nine years and had a record of 32-1, and Dillashaw lost to Barao’s original opponent Assuncao less than a year before this opportunity arose. TJ Dillashaw walked into the octagon, won four straight rounds, broke Barao’s drive to win, finished him in round five and showcased off one of the best upset victories the UFC had ever seen. TJ defended his belt twice more against Joe Soto and Barao before losing his belt in a controversial split decision to Dominick Cruz. TJ then dominated in two straight victories over Assuncao and John Lineker, before getting a shot at reclaiming his belt, this time against Cody Garbrandt. At UFC 217, Dillashaw knocked out Garbrandt in round two to reclaim his belt and bested his first performance at UFC 227 by Knocking out Cody in round one. TJ Dillashaw is currently the most complete champion in the UFC. His wrestling is very stout, his striking is second to none, his grappling game is well-rounded and his muay thai skills are the best promotion wide. His relationship with his head coach Duane Ludwig may have driven a wedge between Dillashaw and his former Gym, Team Alpha Male, but following Ludwig was definitely the right move for his career.

Contenders:

Dominick Cruz: I feel like Cruz has been in the UFC forever, but surprisingly, Cruz has only had six fights under the UFC banner, he’s been injured for most of his stay. Cruz’ injury history is well documented, as he was previously stripped of his championship belt due to multiple torn muscles and an inability to defend. Cruz was able to defeat Takeya Mizugaki in his return from the injuries, and ultimately, was able to defeat TJ Dillashaw for the belt, albeit somewhat controversially, he then followed up that performance by defeating Urijah Faber at UFC 199. Cruz hasn’t fought since he lost his belt at UFC 207 to Cody Garbrandt. He was expected to return to action at UFC 219 against Jimmie Rivera, but he unfortunately broke his arm in training. I think a title eliminator fight against Raphael Assuncao should be next for him.

Cody Garbrandt: Cody Garbrandt came into the UFC like a steamroller, Knocking off and out opponents with ease. Cody used his Boxing Skills and Team Alpha Male rivalry to get a title shot against Dominick Cruz and he was able to capitalize off of that and defeat Dominick Cruz rather impressively. Going into that fight, everyone expected Cody to fight emotionally due to the rather violent buildup to the fight where Cruz was getting the better of the verbal quarrels. But contrarily, Cruz was the fighter fighting emotionally and Garbrandt was calm cool and collected. Garbrandt took that bout by unanimous decision but was sidelined shortly after due to a back issue. He returned at UFC 217 after coaching the Ultimate Fighter: Redemption against former teammate and rival TJ Dillashaw and after performing well in round one, he faltered in round two and lost the strap by TKO. I think what is next for Cody should be a fight against the winner of the Cody Stamann and Aljo Sterling fight at UFC 228.

Marlon Moraes: “Magic” Marlon Moraes is most likely going to be the next challenger to TJ Dillashaw. He is exciting, has precise striking, legit knockout power and is a proven champion from the WSOF. Since 2011, Moraes has only lost once and it was to the proven Raphael Assuncao by split decision in his UFC Debut. He rebounded by defeating John Dodson by decision and then knocking out Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera in back-to-back performances, earning him two performance bonuses for his efforts. If Dillashaw doesn’t move down in weight and take on Henry Cejudo at Flyweight than Marlon Moraes should get the next crack at Dillashaw. Possibly at MSG in November.

Raphael Assuncao: Raphael Assuncao is possibly the most underrated fighter in the UFC. Since 2011, Assuncao has only lost one fight and it was against current champion TJ Dillashaw. Since that loss, Assuncao has defeated Aljamain Sterling, Marlon Moraes, Matthew Lopez and Rob Font. Assuncao is simply a jack of all trades when it comes to his skills inside the octagon. One piece of his game that goes unnoticed though is his illusiveness. Assuncao doesn’t take a lot of damage during his fights but his illusiveness gets overlooked because Dominick Cruz and TJ Dillashaw are in the same division and they are quite elusive themselves. I think Assuncao and John Lineker should face off to determine the next challenger for the 135-pound belt, assuming Moraes gets the title shot.

Jimmie Rivera: For a while, Jimmie Rivera was looking like the scariest test to bantamweights throughout the UFC. Rivera was easily dispatching opponents such as Iuri Alcantara, Thomas Almeida, and UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber. Rivera was unfortunately just knocked off of his high horse by Marlon Moraes in a fight that lasted only a few seconds at UFC Fight Night Utica. Moraes struck him with a head kick, followed it up with punches and got the fight finished quickly. Rivera luckily got a quick turnaround and was able to get a matchup with John Dodson at UFC 228.

John Lineker: John Lineker has something to say about Cody Garbrandt being the most powerful 135-pound fighter in the UFC as Lineker has earned the nickname “Hands of Stone”. After an unsuccessful run at flyweight, where Lineker had missed weight numerous times, he reshaped his training and came back to competition at 135 pounds, which is his ideal weight class. At Bantamweight, Lineker scored some impressive stoppage victories over Francisco Rivera, Michael McDonald, and Brian Kelleher. Lineker has also been able to go for five rounds as he won a Main Event tilt over John Dodson back in late 2016. I believe that he should fight either Raphael Assuncao or take on Cody Garbrandt in a Main Event in the future.

Other Contenders

Aljamain Sterling: Aljamain Sterling looked much better in his most recent bout than he ever did when he had first made his UFC Debut. He made Brett Johns look like an easy opponent when he faced him at UFC Fight Night Atlantic City. He really needed a win like that, since his knockout loss at the hands of Marlon Moraes. One other thing to note about Aljamain Sterling is that he has only lost convincingly once. Of his three defeats, two of them were via split decision. Aljo faces Cody Stamann at UFC 208

John Dodson: John Dodson was unfortunately pushed out of his home division at Flyweight by former champion Demetrious Johnson, but he has had quite a good run at Bantamweight. Dodson has gone 3-2 at 135 with his losses both coming via split decision. In my opinion, Dodson should move back down to 125 pounds after his upcoming fight with Jimmie Rivera. With Henry Cejudo as the new champion, Dodson will likely be a top challenger for the strap.

Bantamweight Prospects

Cody Stamann: Cody Stamann rattled off three straight wins upon his Debut in the UFC. He ended the hype train of Tom Duquesnoy and was able to dispatch former top-five bantamweight Bryan Caraway. He has a stiff test ahead of him however as he takes on Aljamain Sterling at UFC 228.

Alejandro Perez: Perez has quietly been rising up the ladder of the 135-pound division. After winning The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America, Perez has gone 6-1-1 with Impressive wins over Matthew Lopez and Eddie Wineland. I believe a fight against Rani Yahya should go down next for Perez.

Sean O’Malley: Sean O’Malley has the luxury of being pushed further by the UFC promotion machine, and for good reason too. He seems to be one of two really great prospects found on the contender series last year (The other being Alex Perez). His win over Andre Soukhamthath was very impressive as he finished the fight with a broken Foot. He takes on Jose Alberto Quinonez at UFC 229 next.

Cory Sandhagen: Sandhagen is 2-0 in the UFC and he really impressed me during his last fight against Iuri Alcantara. Alcantara almost broke Cory’s arm in the first minute and he did pop it out of the socket. Sandhagen proceeded to get out of his poor position and beat the ever-living hell out of Alcantara for about four minutes longer than he was supposed to (Stupid Ref, Alcantara deserved better).

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