Going the Distance: Stacked bantamweight division has no shortage of intrigue

By Ian Wind, Fight Night Picks contributor

After more than two years off due to suspension, former UFC Bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw made a triumphant return to the Octagon at UFC Vegas 32, defeating Cory “The Sandman” Sandhagen (No. 2) via split decision. In what was one of the most competitive fights of the year so far, Dillashaw showed no signs of “ring rust”, staying competitive with Sandhagen throughout the whole fight despite hurting his knee early on.

If you hadn’t seen the fight, but only the faces of the fighters after it was over, you’d think Sandhagen had destroyed Dillashaw, as the latter seemed to wear all the damage including a huge gash in his eyebrow. In order to limit Sandhagen’s striking ability, Dillashaw implemented a wrestle-heavy approach in this fight, attempting 19 takedowns (two of which were successful) and had 8 minutes, 22 seconds of control time throughout the fight. Many fight fans, myself included, believed Sandhagen won this fight based on the fact that he did more damage. Ultimately, two of the three judges favored Dillashaw and the 8:22 of control time he was able to sustain in the fight. Dillashaw did land more than 100 significant strikes of his own. While many disagreed with the result, this fight was close enough that whoever got their hand raised deserved the victory. Now, Dillashaw will likely take on the winner of Aljamain Sterling vs. Petr Yan, which is scheduled for UFC 267 in October.

I would be remiss to not discuss judging here, as this fight card as a whole was a good illustration of how inconsistent the judges can be. Of the four fights that went to decision, two of those results were extremely controversial. In her fight against Miranda Maverick, Maycee Barber was given a 29-28, 29-28, 28-29 split-decision win by the judges, while a panel of 22 media members unanimously scored the fight 29-28 for Maverick. Maverick outlanded Barber 82-38 in total strikes and 47-36 in significant strikes. Barber had more control time than Maverick, but only by one minute. In the second round, which was the disputed round, Maverick outlanded Barber 28-15 in total strikes, 1-0 in total takedowns, and had 1:21 of control time compared to Barber’s 54 seconds. Somehow, two of the judges saw round 2 for Barber, and the fight.

The other bout, contested at bantamweight between Raulian Paiva and Kyler Phillips, ended as a 29-28, 29-28, 28-28 majority decision win for Paiva, who recovered nicely in rounds 2 and 3 after being dominated and nearly knocked out in round 1. The problem here is that this fight should have been a clear draw, with Phillips earning a 10-8 first round and Paiva taking rounds 2 and 3 by a scores of 10-9. The media panel scoring this fight agreed, with 14 of 16 members scoring a draw. According to the Unified Rules of MMA, a “10-8 round in MMA is where one fighter wins the round by a large margin.” Kyler Phillips clearly won the first round by a large margin, outstriking Paiva 61-19, knocking him down once, and having him hurt multiple times, especially in the last 40 seconds. And yet, only one of the three judges gave a 10-8 for Phillips.

These types of scores are so inconsistent. For example, just two weeks prior, two of the three judges gave Dustin Poirier a 10-8 first round in his trilogy fight vs. Conor McGregor at UFC 264. If that was a 10-8, then this should have been as well. At the end of the day, judging in MMA will always be a bit controversial, but I still believe there are huge improvements that can and should be made. I don’t know what the best solution is, but here are a few worth considering: 

  1. Add two judges, so that there are five judges in total scoring a fight. This would theoretically reduce the risk of a single judge altering the result of the fight by poorly interpreting the outcome of a round. 
  2. More training for the judges on the rules of MMA. This should be happening regardless of the quality of judging, but is especially needed right now as there is so much inconsistency across the board.

Getting back to the fights, the biggest winner of UFC Vegas 32 was very clearly the men’s bantamweight division as a whole, with notable performances and wins by Julio Arce, Adrian Yanez, Paiva, and of course Dillashaw in the main event. More importantly, this division is absolutely stacked. Here are some prominent names who are currently not ranked in the top 15: Sean O’Malley, Ricky Simon, Adrian Yanez, Timur Valiev, Raoni Barcelos, Jack Shore, Montel Jackson, Umar Nurmagomedov, Kyler Phillips, Raulian Paiva, Song Yadong, and Casey Kenney. For the most part, I have no idea which of these fighters are more likely to break into the top 15 than others, but we should expect to see numbers attached to some of them soon. For now, let’s look at what’s next for the top Bantamweights.

Bantamweight Landscape

Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling (C) vs. Petr “No Mercy” Yan (No. 1): It was a foregone conclusion this rematch would happen after the controversial ending to their last fight, which saw Sterling win via a Yan disqualification due to an illegal knee. We learned recently that this fight is going down at UFC 267 on Oct. 30 in Abu Dhabi. I’m interested to see what adjustments both fighters make and whether Sterling comes out with as high a pace as he did in their first fight. Hopefully the result will be more definitive this time around. 

T.J. Dillashaw vs. the winner of Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling (C) vs. Petr “No Mercy” Yan (No. 1): There isn’t much to say here. It was essentially a foregone conclusion that the winner of Sandhagen/Dillashaw would be fighting for the title next, and Dillashaw won the fight. Now, he’ll get a chance to regain gold at 135 against another killer in the division, whether that is Sterling or Yan. If the rematch goes anything like the first fight, Yan is likely to be champ, and a Dillashaw vs. Yan event would be incredible to watch, as they are arguably the two most well-rounded fighters atop the division. A fight with Sterling would be interesting as well — while Dillashaw has an excellent wrestling and ground-game and has never been submitted, Sterling would likely have an advantage in those areas.

Cory “The Sandman” Sandhagen (No. 2) vs. Rob Font (No. 3): Even though Sandhagen lost, I don’t think his stock dropped at all. According to Sandhagen, matchmaker Sean Shelby pinky-promised him after the event that he is still only one win away from a title shot, despite the result. Maybe that was a joke, but if true, it would make sense for Sandhagen to fight Rob Font in a title eliminator bout (to face the winner of Dillashaw vs. Sterling/Yan) next. Font is surging of late, winning four in a row over excellent martial artists in Cody Garbrandt, Marlon Moraes, Ricky Simon and current Bellator bantamweight champion Sergio Pettis. If he makes it five wins in a row against Sandhagen, there’s no doubt he’ll have earned himself a title shot with the level of competition he has beaten. Stylistically, it will be hard for this fight to disappoint. Both of these men are such high-level strikers. Font may be a more technical boxer, but I believe Sandhagen has the edge in creativity. I could see this matchup headlining a Fight Night later in 2021.

Jose Aldo “Junior” (No. 4) vs. Pedro “The Young Punisher” Munhoz (No. 8): This fight is going down on Aug. 7 at UFC 265, and I’m really looking forward to it.  Both fighters are well-rounded veterans who have an opportunity to get their names back into contention here. Aldo is coming off of a win against Marlon “Chito” Vera (No. 13) after losing to Yan for the vacant belt last year. Munhoz’s last two fights follow a similar pattern: dropping a split decision to Edgar before rebounding with a great effort over Jimmie Rivera earlier this year. Regardless of who wins this bout, it’s likely they will need to string together at least one or two more Octagon victories before being considered for title contention. 

Cody “No Love” Garbrandt (No. 5) vs. “Sugar” Sean O’Malley: Originally I wanted to see Garbrandt take on Jimmie Rivera in the wake of his loss to Rob Font. Since then I’ve changed my mind. Let’s make Garbrandt vs. O’Malley. From a purist’s perspective, “Sugar” may not deserve an opportunity to break into the top five of a stacked division, given that he has yet to defeat a top 15 fighter. However, this fight is simply too much fun (and good for business) not to make. O’Malley has been cruising through easy fights so far (with exception to the Chito Vera fight), and I’d like to see him in the ring with someone who actually has a chance to beat him. Garbrandt was once an elite bantamweight, but I’m not sure he is any longer. Let’s give him an opportunity to prove he still is against a guy who is less proven than Font but whose striking may be just as devastating. This fight would be absolute fireworks. 

“Magic” Marlon Moraes (No. 6) vs. Merab “The Machine” Dvalishvili (No. 10): After Font defeated Garbrandt in May, I made this matchup as a hypothetical, and recently it was announced that these two would be fighting, likely at UFC 266. With Dvalishvili on a six-fight win streak, he should be rewarded for those wins by getting a step up in competition. Moraes, despite coming off of two bad losses, is that step up. If he wants to stick around near the top of this division, a win over Dvalishvili, one of the hottest bantamweight prospects, would surely send that message to the matchmakers. On the other hand, a Dvalishvili win, especially in the dominant fashion in which he tends to fight, will earn him the contender status that many have already (perhaps prematurely) ascribed to him. 

Frankie “The Answer” Edgar (No. 7) vs. Dominick “The Dominator” Cruz (No. 9) (Excerpt back from my column after UFC Fight Night: Font vs Garbrandt). Originally I wanted to see Cruz fight Aldo, but that’s off the books (for now). So let’s do the next most exciting thing and have two absolute legends of the sport that aren’t in title contention (and probably won’t ever be again) fight each other. Edgar’s speed and striking vs. Cruz’ footwork and elusiveness? I’m here for it, and Dana White would be too. The UFC will have no trouble selling this fight to the fans, and it fits perfectly anywhere on a PPV main card.

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