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Editorial: With its erratic history, what will the UFC do with the bantamweight title now?

Dayne Fox takes a look at the UFC’s recent erratic past with the bantamweight title and how that might play into what they decide to go with it going forward.

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Aljamain Sterling ahead of his fight with Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250. Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Make no mistake, the biggest moment from this weekend’s UFC Fight Island 6 event was Joaquin Buckley’s viral KO. Moments like that are few and far between. However, the biggest development was the dominant win by Cory Sandhagen over Marlon Moraes, helping establish a clear hierarchy in the bantamweight division. Well, anyone might think a clear hierarchy has been established, but this is the bantamweight division we’re talking about.

With the loss, Moraes is at least a couple of wins away from being in the title picture – perhaps more – whereas Sandhagen may need just one more victory to get his opportunity at the gold around the waist of Petr Yan. In the meantime, Yan should be defending sometime soon against Aljamain Sterling, who also happens to own dominant win over Sandhagen this summer. Are we on the same page? Good. That’s the obvious development someone with 20/20 vision would see.

Of course, there is still some confusion around the bantamweight title picture. Even though there isn’t a strong and logical argument for anyone other than Sterling to challenge Yan next, Dana White is still reluctant to officially name Sterling the #1 contender. Uncle Dana has hinted Sterling will “probably” get the next crack, but his refusal to confirm the ‘Funk Master’ as the next title challenger leaves the door open for shenanigans to be pulled, a scenario the bantamweight division knows all too well.

Let’s go back a couple of years, right after TJ Dillashaw KO’d Cody Garbrandt to claim the bantamweight title, a conclusion that left almost no one wanting to see an immediate rematch. After all, it was a conclusive victory and Garbrandt had no successful defenses. Did I mention there were two very worthy challengers at the time? Jimmie Rivera was on a 20-fight win streak – only five of those in the UFC, but an impressive streak nonetheless – and Raphael Assuncao picked up his 10th win in 11 fights a week after Dillashaw beat Garbrandt. And yet, Uncle Dana went with Garbrandt to immediately rematch Dillashaw, due to Garbrandt’s perceived superior marketability.

UFC 227 Dillashaw v Garbrandt 2 Photo by Joe Scarnici/Getty Images

The result was a worse case scenario. Garbrandt was KO’d again, killing any chance of him working his way back to another title opportunity as long as Dillashaw remained champion. Even worse, the PPV did about 300,000 buys, a less than remarkable figure, especially when the PPV also featured another title fight between Demetrious Johnson and Henry Cejudo. It doesn’t sound like Garbrandt added anything significant to the buy total. Throw in the fact Rivera suffered a loss in the meantime and that was one title challenger down. The man who beat him? Marlon Moraes, who already had a loss to Assuncao. Did I mention Assuncao had picked up an additional win in that time? It’d make sense that he’s the logical next title challenger, then—right?

Given the history of shenanigans, the answer was too predictable. The UFC allowed Dillashaw to make an ill-advised trek to flyweight to challenge Cejudo and he ended up KO’d in 32 seconds for his efforts. The fight wasn’t contested at bantamweight, so Dillashaw kept his title. However, it made him look like a weak champion and Cejudo wanted his own crack at bantamweight gold. After all, he gave Dillashaw that opportunity. In the meantime, Assuncao dropped a rematch against Moraes and was out of title consideration.

Cejudo would get that opportunity. Just, not against Dillashaw. Dillashaw would be stripped of the belt due to testing positive for EPO. His suspension from that positive test will be up in January, but it forever taints his legacy. Though many weren’t exactly excited about the prospect of Cejudo getting a chance to be a dual champion – previous dual champions had held up at least one, if not both of their divisions – they at least understood the reasoning to inserting him into the title fight. He defeated Moraes and promptly was sidelined by a shoulder surgery. While no one in their right mind was angry at him for having shoulder surgery, it meant both flyweight and bantamweight were promptly put on hold.

UFC 238: Cejudo v Moraes Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Nonetheless, fans were excited about the plethora of opportunities ahead of him in his return. Sterling had won four in a row, including over Rivera. Yan had emerged as another fun candidate, also owning a win over Rivera. So, the UFC booked Cejudo in a contest with—Jose Aldo? Owner of zero wins at bantamweight and loser of three contests in a row.

That fight fell through due to the COVID-19 pandemic, but instead of re-booking it, the UFC went with Dominick Cruz, owner of zero wins since July 2016. While Cruz is a legend, he was dominated by Garbrandt to lose the title and hadn’t fought since that loss. Nonethless, he got the shot and was promptly dominated by Cejudo.

Of course, Cejudo threw everything into disarray again when he retired. So for the second time in less than a year, the title sat again vacant. Sounds like the perfect opportunity to book Sterling and Yan right? But, only half of that scenario played out, when Yan faced Aldo in July. In the process, Yan delivered a brutal beat down to the featherweight legend to become champion.

UFC 251: Yan v Aldo Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

At every turn, when the UFC has an opportunity to deliver the bantamweight title fight that makes the most sense – or at least one of the options that makes the most sense – they foolishly throw a curveball that doesn’t make any sense. Neither Garbrandt, Cruz, nor Aldo seemed like the logical next opponent and none of them emerged victorious. When they opted to allow their champion an excursion to foreign division, it de-legitimized the reigning champion.

We shouldn’t even have to ask what the UFC is going to do with the bantamweight championship next. Sterling is the obvious next contender. But given the UFC’s shaky decision making and refusal to commit to him, the question must be asked.

If the next challenger isn’t Sterling, who would the challenger be? Sandhagen probably has the next best case as he has won six of his seven UFC contests. No one is denying that his win over Moraes was impressive. But his 88 second loss to Sterling looms large. Perhaps Frankie Edgar, securing a win in his bantamweight debut over Pedro Munhoz? While it was a good win (as Munhoz is a firm top ten bantamweight) it was also razor thin decision. Plus, Edgar entered that contest having lost three of his last four. Edgar is a legend, but he doesn’t scream title challenger without at least one more viable win in the division. Those are the most obvious options, but given the UFC’s refusal to go the logical route, less likely options have to be considered.

With Garbrandt coming off a win, it wouldn’t be a surprise to see the UFC try shoehorning him into the picture again. Of course, they already tried doing that with him at flyweight and his long injury history reared its head and he’s out of that picture. Cruz never seems to be completely out of the picture as one of the UFC’s favorite sons, but his health is such a tenuous situation—such that he shouldn’t be relied upon outside of a short notice contest in which he wouldn’t have to face the rigors of a full training camp.

Perhaps Cejudo will come out of retirement to reclaim the gold, but would it be fair to plug him back into the title picture when he voluntarily relinquished the belt just a short time ago? While I wouldn’t count on it – especially given Cejudo appears more interested in a move to featherweight to be the first to collect championship gold in three divisions – the UFC’s illogical nature can’t discount the possibility.

Then there is the wild card situation presented by Dillashaw’s return in three months. The former champion appeared to be in his prime prior to his loss to Cejudo. And it could be argued that his loss to Cejudo had a lot to do with cutting too much weight—as few thought he looked healthy entering that contest. Regardless, he’ll be right in the picture, perhaps needing just one win to throw himself back in the picture. But, would the UFC put him right back in the title picture despite popping for EPO? After all, he never did lose his belt to another fighter. Then again, there is such a stigma attached to fighters who have failed drug tests, there’s a good chance the backlash would be severe enough the UFC wouldn’t go for it. Him losing to Cejudo hurts his cause too, even if it was at 125.

UFC Fight Night: Cejudo v Dillashaw Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

The UFC has already tried the unorthodox route several times at bantamweight and have nothing to show for it. It isn’t like there is a vocal contingent of fans out there that are clamoring for someone other than Sterling either. Aldo had his chance. Cruz had his chance. ‘King of Cringe’ Henry Cejudo lost a lot of his leverage when he relinquished the belt. Fans wanted to see him lose when he had the title. His heat almost feels more akin to X-Pac heat. Fans just want him to go away. And Dillashaw needs to regain some credibility at this point. And yet, I fear they are going to go one of these routes.

The only logical route to go with the title right now is to book Sterling against Yan. Sterling has done more than enough to earn that opportunity. In the meantime, a contest with Sandhagen and Edgar makes a lot of sense, the winner being set up to challenge the winner of Yan and Sterling. Dillashaw is the one the UFC can get creative with. If Aldo is game, that’s a contest that would be a lot of fun. Perhaps Dillashaw is interested in avenging his loss to Cruz. Or maybe he provides an opportunity for an up-and-comer like Rob Font or Marlon Vera, though those scenarios seem least likely. As for Moraes, the forgotten man in this equation – he is still an elite bantamweight after all – a contest with Munhoz makes too much sense. Then again, if something makes that much sense in the bantamweight division, the UFC is going to go a different direction.

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