Aljamain Sterling can’t be sure who the next contender for the UFC bantamweight title will be, but he at least has an idea of who really deserves it.
The same night he defeated T.J. Dillashaw to retain the belt, Sterling saw Sean O’Malley rise to the top of the division rankings after he defeated Petr Yan by split decision in a back and forth war.
After UFC 280 ended, UFC President Dana White did not announce a new No. 1 contender at 135 pounds, although he did mention former champion Henry Cejudo, who came out of retirement and returned to the active roster in April, as one of his options.
In Sterling’s opinion, O’Malley did exactly what he had to do to earn a title shot by beating the former champion and top contender in the division. According to him, Cejudo will return to bantamweight, which is different from the one he left more than two years ago.
“O’Malley deserved it – I can’t deny it,” Sterling told MMA Fighting. “Even Dana [White] said you beat contender #1 so that made sense, and then somehow he backed off.
“I’m not sure if he thought my fight would go down a different path and I’m not sure if he thought the Jan-O’Malley fight would go down that path if it was that competitive. He probably thought someone was going to be stopped, and then, “Damn, this guy definitely needs to fight for the title!” This is how it usually works. It’s usually a performance, but it was a great performance by both guys. Both guys fought off their asses. They got Fight of the Night. So I don’t understand why any of them should have been denied Dana’s subsequent claim that whoever wins would be next and he threw Cejudo in there.”
Ever since UFC 280 ended, Cejudo has been calling for a fight against Sterling. He also turned his attention to O’Malley, offering to play for the interim title.
This may seem like an odd request given that Sterling has already defended his title twice in 2022 and is not expected to miss a significant amount of time in 2023.
As for the possibility of skipping O’Malley and facing Cejudo instead, Sterling admits he’s just not thrilled about this potential fight, but it has nothing to do with one fight being somehow harder or more demanding than the other. .
“I’m just not happy with this match. [with Henry Cejudo]”, Sterling said. “Because he didn’t compete. For me, if the fans cared about it – really cared about it – the general consensus was that this is a match that needs to be arranged, Cejudo, you’re the guy, I call you, it’s fight for money because people want to see that fight, I just don’t feel like that’s it.
“If O’Malley is now the biggest name since winning and is now the #1 guy, I don’t see why he shouldn’t get a fight. People will say, “You want an easier fight.” I don’t understand how easy this fight is? He is long, sweeping, he has great footwork. It may crack. I don’t understand in any way how easy this fight is.”
Add to that, Sterling knows O’Malley will generate fan interest unlike Cejudo, meaning both fighters will win on the back of any pay-per-view card they face.
Sterling is honest enough to admit that money should influence the decisions fighters make, and right now O’Malley is not only a legitimate contender for number one but probably the biggest draw at bantamweight.
“If I lose the belt, and when I lose the belt, at some point I will lose the belt, you stay in this game long enough, someone beats you, it’s just guaranteed to happen, it will definitely happen,” Sterling explained. “Father time is invincible. Every dog has his day. I’ve lost before, I know what it’s like to lose. I’m not a god, I’m not invincible. Sometimes people just have a better night, at which point I get pay-per-view points.
“I would like to be paid as much as I can while I’m still in this position, because if supposedly Sean gets a fight and he actually wins, I’ll lose the belt, I won’t get these pay-per-views anymore. points. This is money that changes lives. This is what can provide me for the rest of my life financially. So I’m going to do what’s best for my family, and if it’s an O’Malley fight, I’m going to take the O’Malley fight. If that’s what the fans want to see, that means they’ll tune in and buy, and that’s what I’m going to do. I don’t think Cejudo is that guy. I just do not know. If there is, sign me up. If not, give me a guy that people will watch and watch and I think that this blockbuster will be with Sean O’Malley.”
When it comes to Cejudo, his claim to a title shot comes down to his previous reign as champion when he dropped the belt after announcing his retirement in 2020.
Cejudo has never lost a cage title, but Sterling disputes Cejudo’s accomplishments compared to other fighters who have continued to be busy and active over the past two years since his departure.
“He won at 125, then beat TJ, knocked out TJ, defended the belt once,” Sterling said. “He goes to 135 pounds. Competing for the vacant title. TJ is no longer in the know. He defeats Marlon Moraes. OK. Marlon Moraes was a killer at the time, I give him flowers for that. He then fights Dominick Cruz without delay and considers it a great feat. If you had fought Dom at a full training camp, I would have respected him a lot more. This victory carries much more weight.
“[Dominick Cruz] got off the couch because it was an opportunity to make a lot more money quickly because you get a championship contender’s salary and a chance to win a belt who wouldn’t roll the dice and take risks against a 5 foot tall guy. 4, maybe 5 feet 5. So I understand. Then he retires. He’s been in jail for almost three years, and your run isn’t as crazy as you might imagine. So you think you can cut the line because you fought almost three years ago? I dont know. I’m just not sold. It’s not disrespectful to Cejudo, but facts are facts.”
With plans to return in mid-2023, Sterling would like to see Cejudo potentially take on another top ranked bantamweight, which could help cement his place as a title contender. But until that happens, he still sees O’Malley as a legitimate contender for the top spot in the division.
“If we are finally going to use the merit system, then it really has to be O’Malley. That’s what I think,” Sterling said.
“I don’t plan to return until the middle of next year. That’s honestly how I feel right now. I defended the belt. I fought in April. I fought in October. I think I made money to take a break and let the division kind of play out and see how things are. I’m going to train, but I want to enjoy life a little before it passes me by.”