Does Aljamain Sterling have a Dvalishvili problem?

Aljamain Sterling is staring down his biggest challenge... and his teammate Merab Dvalishvili is unintentionally at the heart of it.

By: Dayne Fox | 5 months ago
Does Aljamain Sterling have a Dvalishvili problem?
Aljamain Sterling and Sean O'Malley face off at UFC 288. IMAGO / ZUMA Wire

UFC 288 should have been Aljamain Sterling’s night. The co-main event between Belal Muhammad and Gilbert Burns proved to be a disappointment in terms of entertainment value. Xiaonan Yan did produce one of the better KO’s of the year, but still doesn’t have the name value to dominate the conversation. All Sterling needed to do was produce a dominant win over Henry Cejudo, though an entertaining victory would work too.

He produced the latter, at least well enough, giving him his third successful title defense—the second longest of all current champions. And yet, it was his teammate, Merab Dvalishvili, everyone was talking about afterwards.

The UFC 288 post-fight incident

While Dana White has declared it a mistake to bring Sean O’Malley into the cage for a face off with Aljamain Sterling, I don’t know that anyone actually believes that to be the case. The divisive O’Malley knows how to get attention and did just that, getting right up into the face of Sterling. While doing so, he peeled off his Michael Jackson jacket, not bothering to look what happened to it. That’s where things went off the rails for Sterling. 

Dvalishvili—not just Sterling’s teammate, but the officially top ranked challenger to the title belt—got a hold of the unique piece of outerwear. Positioned neatly between Sterling and O’Malley, he could be seen putting the jacket on as the other two jaw-jacked with one another,maintaining a huge smile all the while. Neither Sterling nor O’Malley had the presence of mind to notice. He ended up wandering to the side of the cage, climbing atop it and celebrating, much to the delight of the crowd.

O’Malley did eventually realize the fun being had at his expense, creating a mini-scuffle between himself and the Georgian. There wasn’t anything beyond some shoves, yet it still somehow felt like it overshadowed Sterling’s win—and Aljo’s own face off with ‘Sugar Sean’.

Sterling’s checkered championship history

Despite becoming the first fight to win UFC gold via DQ, circumstance feels as though it hasn’t been kind to Aljamain Sterling. More than anything, his unfortunate victory seems to have prevented Sterling from being embraced by the public. Winning the title via an illegal knee in the face by Petr Yan established him as an illegitimate champion in the eyes of many. He may have won the rematch, but the scoring was controversial enough to do little to dispel the aura of illegitimacy. 

Sterling then got the opportunity to establish himself as rightful champion by defending his belt against TJ Dillashaw. After all, to that point, Dillashaw was arguably the most decorated bantamweight champion in UFC history. Unfortunately, Dillashaw entered the contest with a badly injured shoulder, essentially handing the fight to his opponent on a platter. Sure, Sterling held onto the title, but how could beating a one-armed man make him look any more like the best 135-pound fighter in the world. Perhaps a win over Cejudo would finally change a few minds? 

Dvalishvili, though, put a crimp in Sterling’s style well before Sterling got to set foot in the Octagon again. Between Sterling’s defense against Dillashaw and UFC 288, the ‘Machine’ got his own top tier matchup with former champion Petr Yan. Whereas Sterling barely squeaked by his former rival, Dvalishvili completely dominated. The one-sided nature of the fight led many to call for Dvalishvili to get his chance at gold immediately. Dvalishvili refused, stating he’d be happy to challenge for the belt when Sterling either lost it or vacated it. 

Could it be that the best bantamweight in the world is currently treading water, waiting for the champion to simply step aside and let him reign?

Why the concern?

For a lot of people, I’m sure what I’m getting at is a giant nothingburger. Sterling and Dvalishvili have maintained their friendship in the face of the public, no signs of cracks showing. What’s the big deal?

Human nature is the big deal. The competitive drive these athletes have is a big deal. The UFC’s interest in being able to market a friend-turned-foes title fight is a big deal. That’s a lot working against them. 

In order to find success at the highest level, a fighter needs to have an insane competitive streak. Both these have been grinding their way to the top for years. They’ve each won nine consecutive fights, and both beat multiple former champions. It’s hard to believe Dvalishvili doesn’t have that itch to prove to himself he’s better than Sterling.

After all, there’s a question of how long Dvalishvili’s prime can last. Fighters whose base is wrestling tend to flame out quicker if they don’t develop a new primary form of attack. Wrestling is terribly hard on the body that it gets harder the older a fighter gets. Dvalishvili’s striking has steadily improved, but enough for him to compete with the best in the division without his takedowns? I’d have my doubts. Smaller weight divisions tend to age faster than the heavier ones too. A Dan Henderson-like transformation may not be in the cards.

In the meantime, Sterling has talked about moving up to featherweight. His plan is, apparently, to do so after he faces O’Malley. Should he win, he says he’ll vacate the belt, so that Dvalishvili could step into his shoes. Should Sterling lose, Dvalishvili would be the obvious number one contender to challenge O’Malley. That should diffuse the situation, right? I wouldn’t be so sure. 

Sean O’Malley could use this situation to his advantage

Contrary to what O’Malley’s haters may think, he doesn’t seem to be a stupid person. He understands the mental warfare side of MMA. The opportunity to stir the pot is right there? He can claim Sterling isn’t even the best bantamweight in his camp. After all, didn’t Dvalishvili manhandle Marlon Moraes, the last person to hang an L on Sterling? Didn’t Dvalishvili ragdoll Yan while many are convinced Sterling doesn’t have a legit win over him? Is Sterling scared to face Dvalishvili because he knows he’d lose? 

Dvalishvili can’t help but wonder if he’s the better fighter. Should Sterling end up beating O’Malley and moving up, would Dvalishvili ever be the true champion? After all he never beat Sterling. And if Sterling gets the title taken from him, only for Dvalishvili to win it later, then he’ll been seen as the paper champ; a placeholder until the real king came along. It may be that there is no happy ending here. 

And it still leaves us asking, what’s Dvalishvili supposed to do in the interim? Fighting down doesn’t make a lot of sense. Cory Sandhagen has wisely attempted to seduce the man into a fight, but that’s an unnecessary risk—unless, of course, Dvalishvili needs the money that his fighting career provides. The longer he doesn’t fight for a belt, the less he earns. He’s getting the short end of the stick in every way. 

The UFC’s role

Lastly, the UFC has all the interest in the world in Sterling and Dvalishvili’s friendship imploding. They may not purposely try to sabotage anything, but Dana White has already publicly expressed his displeasure that the two men are putting their bond before their careers. If O’Malley tries to drive a wedge between Sterling and Dvalishvili, the UFC will likely play that up. It’d be in their best interest to do so. 

The triangle between Sterling, Dvalishvili, and O’Malley is exceedingly rare. So rare that I find it to be the most interesting storyline in MMA today. Dvalishvili taking O’Malley’s jacket was done innocently enough, but it may just have ensured he’ll be dragged into all beef leading up to Sterling and O’Malley’s fight. He likely would have been pulled in anyway, but it’s now it seems like a guarantee. O’Malley is a formidable foe all on his own. It may just be that Sterling’s friendship with Dvalishvili will make navigating the buildup to the fight an even bigger challenge. 

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About the author
Dayne Fox
Dayne Fox

Dayne Fox is a contributing writer and analyst for Bloody Elbow. He has been writing about combat sports since 2013 and a member of Bloody Elbow since 2016. Dayne primarily contributes opinion pieces and event coverage. Dayne’s specialties are putting together the preview articles for all the UFC events and post-fight analysis. Outside of writing on combat sports, Dayne works in the purchasing department of a construction company, formerly working as an analyst. He is also a proud husband and father. In what spare time he can find, he enjoys strategy games and is a movie enthusiast. He is based in Utah.

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