Should Aljamain Sterling vacate the UFC title?

Your weekly look at MMA's big issues including some discussion regarding Aljamain Sterling, Mighty Mouse, bare-knuckle fighting.

By: Victor Rodriguez | 3 weeks ago
Should Aljamain Sterling vacate the UFC title?
Aljamain Sterling celebrates with belt at UFC 288. IMAGO/ZUMA Wire

Welcome back to the BE Roundtable, where we take weekly topics and search for a bit of clarity in all things MMA. This week, We’ve got kid wonder Jack Wannan, dastardly rogue Dallas Winston, the brilliant Evan Zivin, and myself – doofus emeritus Victor Rodriguez.

With all the fallout from UFC 288 and ONE Championship, and Gamebred’s lates bare-knuckle event this past week, we’re going to check in try to make sense of what just happened.

Is Aljamain Sterling already the bantamweight GOAT?

Aljamain Sterling defended his bantamweight title at UFC 288 once again and solidified his position as king of the heap. In a division that has historically struggled to have a truly dominant longtime champion, where does this position him if we were to compile a list of all-time UFC bantamweight champions?

Victor Rodriguez: That’s tough to quantify or qualify right now, but the one thing I can definitively say is that he’s probably not #1… yet. The first Yan fight ended the way it did through no fault of his own, but he came back and went diesel power in the rematch to silence all doubters.

Well… most of them, anyway. Beating Dillashaw is impressive in terms of name value, but it doesn’t amount to much when you factor in that his shoulder was being held together by chewing gum and those Silica gel packets you find in a new shoebox. Beating Henry Cejudo? Also impressive!  He won even though Cejudo gave him a hell of a fight. Conversely, the haters will say that Cejudo was rusty and past his prime… and he still gave Aljamain Sterling a hell of a fight. 

I doubt that a win over O’Malley will give him the boost that would finally have fans and media looking at Sterling as the best champ at 135, and it’s gonna be tough to face other surging contenders with that boogeyman Merab at the door. But compare that body of work to the only other champs we’ve seen at 135: Barao, Dillashaw, Cruz, Gabrandt and Yan. It’s the toughest division for anyone to stay on top, and Sterling beat two of those guys even if one of them only had one functional arm. You work with what you got, and he’s beating everyone right now. Is what it is. 

Jack Wannan: It’s tough to say. Like the question mentions, bantamweight has never really had one true king – which is funny to me, because most prominent divisions like lightweight, middleweight, welterweight or light heavyweight do. Bantamweight in the UFC has never had a long reign from one person with lots of title defenses, so there’s no clear guy to point to.

However, there have been folks like TJ Dillashaw or Dominick Cruz who stuck around the top for numerous years and had two different title reigns. I know that Aljamain Sterling’s wins have come from competitive bouts, but they have also been against tough names. Petr Yan is a stellar striker and looks like he’s in a class of his own at times. Henry Cejudo is a former two-division champion in his own right. I’m willing to argue that Cejudo’s tough performance last weekend is not a testament to Sterling falling off, but that Cejudo still had that high-level competitive ability in him. And I think it’s certainly a name that elevates Sterling’s status.

I try to be very careful about recency bias in MMA. I think we sometimes get too tunnel-visioned and lose focus of fairness. That’s why I have some hesitancy here. So for now, I’m going to place Sterling in my top three. But if you want to go higher and say two, or even one, I won’t stop you.

Evan Zivin: That’s a crazy thought, isn’t it? Both flyweight and featherweight spent years under dominant champions but the longest reign bantamweight has seen so far was Dominick Cruz and he spent most of that time injured. The Cejudo win ties Aljamain Sterling for most title defenses and for consecutive title defenses (assuming Renan Barao’s reign from interim champ to undisputed counts as a single reign) and he’s only one title fight win behind TJ Dillashaw, who would be the easy call for best champion in UFC history if he didn’t lose his title after failing multiple drug tests.

Is Aljamain the best bantamweight champion in UFC history? At this point, I think he is. He has the same number of defenses as Dillashaw but his strength of opponent, defeating Petr Yan, Dillashaw himself, and Cejudo, has been much greater. If he adds Sean O’Malley to his list of conquests (say what you want about whether or not O’Malley deserves to be the #2 ranked contender but UFC still has that number next to his name), Aljamain will leave a legacy that will be hard to match. Are you guys done hating yet?

Dallas Winston: There are always so many tricky factors and variables to juggle in a discussion like this. Is it length of reign? Title defenses? Or do we swag general performance against the quantity and efficacy of contenders they’ve faced? Dunno. Here’s my take: The stateside nucleus of the bantamweight division was the WEC – shout out to Miguel Torres and the only acceptable mullet in MMA; arguably sports history, other than Larry Legend – so we only have a little over a decade of sample material, 13 years, so it’s still a young and relatively uncultured division historically.

Aljo is one of the bantamweight greats in UFC history, unquestionably. However, factually, there are just too many asterisks attached to the pivotal points of his résumé to rank him higher than Dominick Cruz or TJ Dillashaw. And I’m not hating: the unusual disclaimers on his record are not his fault and were totally out of his control, yet should still be considered objectively.

Dillashaw’s shoulder was inevitably a significant factor, as was adorning the crown by way of rule violation as opposed to the standard of out-performing an opponent. Again, not his fault, but relevant nevertheless. I think Cejudo is his most impressive and validating performance yet but it’s difficult to measure – Cejudo is simply an anomaly, in the division and in the sport. Cruz, Dillashaw, Aljo, Cejudo, Barao, in that order, in my opinion.

One more ride at 135, or vacate now?

Having defended his title more than once and already considered leaving the division, is now the time for Aljamain Sterling to vacate the title and give his friend Merab Dvashvili a chance at greatness, or should he first tangle with Sean O’Malley?

Victor Rodriguez: He should fight Sean O’Malley. Sean did everything right and beat the odds against Yan. He’s the only compelling fresh matchup available for Aljamain Sterling, and could probably move a lot of PPV sales. I’d love to see the Merab era and for Sterling to move up for a fresh batch of challenges, but if this is the one big fight left for him at bantamweight, he should absolutely take it. 

Jack Wannan: They should probably do the match they’ve already started promoting with trash talk and face-offs. At least, they should if they don’t want people going “Hey, remember that time Aljamain Sterling and Sean O’Malley did a face-off?” the same way they do nowadays when talking about Brock Lesnar and Daniel Cormier (do you remember that time?).

But on a real note, Sterling gets a chance to further his title reign against a name that has some decent pull in the MMA world. And O’Malley is a legitimate contender finally, so why not? Depending on how that fight goes, then he could use that buzz to help catapult a move to featherweight if he wants.

Evan Zivin: Aljamain Sterling wants the O’Malley payday and Dana probably recognizes it’s the biggest fight he can make next for 135, so the fight is most likely going to happen. It always seemed like this was the plan. O’Malley has been willing to wait for the title shot and Cejudo had been practically begging for it, saying whatever he could to sell it to the fans. Definitely nice to be able to book a strong headliner knowing you have another one on deck.

There isn’t anything too exciting for Aljamain at 135 beyond the O’Malley fight so it makes sense for him to do that fight, troll the fans a bit more, and then move up so Merab can get his shot. We already know he’ll look good as champion the way he was styling in Suga’s Thriller jacket.

Also, did you see how Dana said it was a bad idea to do the Aljamain/O’Malley faceoff, even though everyone knew it was probably going to get violent? Classic Dana-speak. Can’t wait to revisit that at the beginning of every TV ad promoting the fight.

Dallas Winston: I think doing his homie a solid and getting a fresh start in a new division would be good for Aljo’s aura. While the O’Malley payday is there, it’s a tough match-up, and the risk of a loss would then make for a sour switch to 145 instead of a triumphant crossover fueled by momentum.

Plus, like we saw with Cejudo, vacating the title instead of losing it also leaves another sensible avenue back to ‘35 if his featherweight foray doesn’t pan out. It’s not that there’s a whole new identity for him there or that he even needs one, but maybe jumping up a weight class will help him shake some of the weird juju from his atypical ascendancy to the bantamweight crown.

Mighty Mouse looking for an off-ramp…

Former UFC champion Demetrious Johnson recently discussed weighing his options and potentially setting a timetable for retirement. How serious is Johnson about hanging up the gloves that he feels the need to ask retired fighters about how and why they left the sport?

Victor Rodriguez: See, the moment a fighter starts talking about retirement… it ain’t good. Mentally, that person’s got one foot out the door most of the time. That’s the worst part, because it shows in their fights, too. Every so often we bump into something like Johnson, who’s smarter than the average cat and perhaps may just be looking at this methodically. That’s good, you gotta have plans and he’s had a longer career than the vast majority of people that take MMA as a career path.

He’s diversified his bonds (shout-out to the RZA), and pursued other avenues for revenue outside of fighting, so maybe the transition won’t be that difficult for him. Seeking advice from others is great, even if it’s an indicator as to what not to do. I worry about most people, and DJ isn’t most people. Maybe retirement isn’t that close, but even if it is, I’ll just chalk it up to him playing it smart – as all fighters should. 

Jack Wannan: I want to believe that he’s serious. Demetrious Johnson seems like a very smart and logical person, and I hope that he realizes that while he is still absolutely killing it as a fighter in ONE Championship, it’s better to leave on top than have that fall-off and stick around much longer than you should have – which I’m not saying would happen to him, but does happen alarmingly often in MMA. What’s great about Johnson’s situation is he doesn’t have any reason to leave immediately. He can if he wants of course, but there’s no urgent rush to do so either. He can think on it for a little before finally deciding what to do. 

Johnson will always be known as one of the best flyweights in the sport’s history. He has crafted a strong legacy as a fighter that will be discussed for years to come. Honestly, I don’t think there’s really anything more for him to prove. Too many people leave when it’s too late already. It would be refreshing to see someone go out on top.

Evan Zivin: He might be serious but it does seem weird he would need to ask others about retirement, doesn’t it? Either he wants to keep fighting or he doesn’t. Fighters walk away for many reasons, whether it be due to wanting to get away from the grind or because they want to spend more time with family or because they just don’t enjoy it anymore and want to do other things with their lives, but they do it for a reason. Nobody will ever say they retired because Urijah Faber told them to.

DJ knows the reasons he continues to fight and, if he can still do it at a level of competition that he’s satisfied with on a platform that he enjoys, I’d imagine he’ll continue to do it. The fact he needs to consult others sounds interesting, although it wouldn’t surprise me if he just felt the need to say something because he doesn’t want to retire but he knows he’s going to keep being asked about it until the day he does retire. It’s just something top fighters deal with late in their careers. He’ll keep going until he has a good enough reason to stop, plain and simple.

I don’t take DJ as the kind of guy who will hang on longer than he should. I really hope he isn’t.

Dallas Winston: To kick off his career, DJ won his first three in smaller shows. Then, for the next 20 fights and eight years, he carved his way up the flyweight ladder and held his ground against the best flyweight competition on earth, and this is unique: the UFC flyweight division best represented the best global talent whereas higher weight classes saw talent fractured and dispersed around the globe, mostly attributed to the shoddy contracts offered to Pride FC’s major players … never mind. Don’t even light that fire. 

After such a sterling career of undeniable dominance, DJ has earned the right to hang ‘em up. I’m surprised it’s taken this long. He’s always touted himself as a student of the game and consulting with the greats before him to understand their experience with retirement and learn from it is just his proven, signature style.

Bare-knuckle boxing: Competitive life beyond MMA?

Coming off the heels of a surprisingly thrilling and competitive Eddie Alvarez vs Chad Mendes bare-knuckle bout, we saw Roy Nelson put on an impressive performance this past weekend in another bare-knuckle event. Do you see reason to be hopeful now that former MMA fighters have so many alternative ways to continue their careers?

Victor Rodriguez: I certainly want to at least have some hope, you know? Problem is that for every Eddie Alvarez, Chad Mendes and Roy Nelson, we’ve got tens – if not hundreds – of fighters that get drummed out of the bigger MMA leagues and then go bounty hunting for big paychecks in insanely demeaning ways. Shit, look at Bigfoot Silva. My man is still getting booked and taking some drubbings. It’s reached past the point of being grotesque. This sort of thing is why so many MMA fans and media looked down at bare-knuckle stuff, because it’s mostly fighters way past their prime or just washed up getting booked. 

When it’s guys that still got it and can hang putting up good performances? It’s refreshing and surprising. For a brief moment, it washes away the sourness of whatever the hell this was supposed to be. The bright spot here is that more guys that are still capable of performing are getting tossed absurd amounts of money instead of broke and broken dudes fighting for pennies. Unfortunately there’s too much of the latter, and it’s gonna be like that for some time before we come anywhere near balancing out.

Jack Wannan: I think combat sports needs to be more careful with how more tenured fighters are treated. In a lot of sports, there’s not a ton of harm in letting older athletes play. Sure they could tear their ACL or something, or they could also just… suck? But there’s no bigger issue at play.

Nobody has ever argued the ethics of letting Udonis Haslem play on the Miami Heat until he was 42, or keeping Kazuyoshi Miura on the pitch at age 56 (that’s a real obscure reference, if you know you know). There’s not a ton of worry that they could suffer life-shortening injuries playing basketball or soccer. But that’s the reality in combat sports. Erik Magraken recently shared a study that showed how pro heavyweight boxers live 10 years less than the average population. The more time people stay in combat sports, the more damage they put on their body. This is simply a fact.

I think people should look more toward alternative ways that former MMA fighters can continue their careers that don’t see them take damage. Maybe the sport and community should look more towards ways that can celebrate or support fighters who want to become coaches, or pundits, or seek higher education, or a trade, or anything, really. It’s not fair that many people give their bodies to this sport, and the only solution we look for in their cases is ways they can just continue to do that for the public.

This is not a case against combat sports existing outside of the UFC. But when we’re talking about guys who have been in the sport for a long time and have the damage to show for it (which tends to be a lot of the names associated with these “other” combat sports that are mentioned), I tense up.

Evan Zivin: On some level, yes. It’s good to have options for fighters who are no longer considered “UFC caliber” (boy, it’s been a long time since that meant anything…) to continue competing and earning a living this way. It seems like boxing/bare-knuckle might be better suited for some of these fighters than MMA so it’s presenting a way to revitalize and prolong careers. I mean, BKFC made Mike Perry a star and might be doing a title fight between Alan Belcher and Ben Rothwell…and I’m hyped for it. That is crazy.

Of course, with the good comes the bad, as more alternatives mean more ways for washed-up fighters to continue tarnishing their legacies and their long-term health. Fights like Eddie vs. Chad look great so long as both men still appear to be mentally and physically well. Hopefully we don’t see what a decade or more of fighting in this style past their primes might do to some of these fighters.

I personally am hoping that articles won’t begin popping up that fighters like Wanderlei Silva or BJ Penn are planning on going bare-knuckle. Just let me live in my fantasy world where bad things don’t happen to the fighters I grew up watching.

Dallas Winston: This is somewhat ironic because many of the recent candidates were part of the UFC when it so desperately required distinct disassociation from anything that could even vaguely be attributed as a sideshow. Having what I truly consider the honor of interviewing countless MMA fighters over the years, casuals would be genuinely shocked when I described their overwhelmingly collective demeanor as humble, down-to-earth and genuine. I mean, some of the most chill and intellectual people imaginable. So yes, having significantly more options to earn a living and support themselves and loved ones is a positive change in all regards.

Mark Zuckerberg’s BJJ: A hobby or a calling?

Facebook founder and CEO Mark Zuckerberg got some grappling gold this past weekend. As a very serious (not really) hypothetical, who do you think would do best in a billionaire vs billionaire MMA fight?

Victor Rodriguez: Ideally, we’d round up all billionaires and toss them into a flaming pit for entertainment. It really is true: every billionaire is a policy failure. The last “good” one was Sam Bankman-Fried. Go ahead, go Google that rat motherfucker and see where he’s at now.

I’m not a fan of MMA being a “to the death” situation, but it absolutely should be for these dolts. The only two I can see fighting each other and not looking like wet paper bags flailing in the wind are Jeff Bezos (because he’s brolic as fuck for a rich guy his age) and Mark Zuckerberg. I’d only favor Zuck because he trains with Dave Camarillo, and I’m a massive mark for that guy after buying his book. That and actual grappling technique. Otherwise, they all deserve horrible fates, and none of them are good people. They know it, and they deserve misery. 

Jack Wannan: I started scrolling the Forbes billionaire list to research this question. I quickly realized I do not recognize a lot of people on here. I sorted the list by age and saw 38-year-old LeBron James is a billionaire. Okay, I’m bending the rules here, as his net-worth is one billion and that’s not entirely representative of if he’s a billionaire or not.

But this is a hypothetical, who says I can’t bend the rules? Let me point out something here, James is 38, which puts him pretty high up when sorting by age… But he’s ranked 2,549. That means a LOT of people on this list are way older than him. So he’s got the youth advantage over many and he’s an athlete by trade. The only other athlete I could find on here is Tiger Woods, and he’s much older and is a smaller guy, so I’m not picking him. I’m very positive that the Lakers star would do the best in this Billionaireweight Grand Prix.

Evan Zivin: I’ll tell you who could smoke Mark Zuckerberg and Bezos and Musk and all those fancy elitists drinking their fancy energy drinks and riding their fancy penis-shaped rockets to the moon: Mark Cuban. That’s a man who knows how to handle himself. I’ve seen enough episodes of Shark Tank to know that, not only is he not afraid to throw his money around, he’s smart about who he gives his money to (or whoever’s money it actually is).

Here’s who I propose for this Battle of the Billionaires: it should be Cuban vs. Ari Emanuel. I know that Ari technically isn’t a billionaire but he has shelled out billions to buy both the UFC and WWE. I also assume that means he must appreciate the art of getting hit and thrown around a canvas and wouldn’t mind someone doing it to him. Maybe then he’ll see the need to push Dana to start paying the fighters better and offer health insurance.

I’d start taking a few Boxercise classes now if I were him…

Dallas Winston: Sheikh Something by armbar.

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About the author
Victor Rodriguez
Victor Rodriguez

Victor Rodriguez has been a writer and podcaster for Bloody Elbow since 2015. He started his way as a lowly commenter and moderator to become the miscreant he is now. He often does weekly bits on fringe martial arts items across the globe, oddball street combat pieces, previews, analysis, and some behind-the-scenes support. He has trained in wrestling, Karate, Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, and the occasional Muay Thai and Judo lesson here and there. Victor has also been involved with acting and audio editing projects. He lives in Pennsylvania where he plays way too many video games and is an S-rank dad.

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