Sean O’Malley not only changed the bantamweight division, but the entire landscape of the UFC after finishing Aljamain Sterling. Zhang Weili cruised in her title defense, while Ian Machado Garry remained undefeated. Marc Raimondi, Brett Okamoto, Jeff Wagenheim and Carlos Contreras Legaspi highlight the biggest takeaways from a big night in Boston.
Sean O’Malley is a rarity in mixed martial arts, a fighter who resonates passionately with fans who soak in his sweet skills but recognize that they are just the tip of a Technicolor iceberg. He’s thrilling to watch. His explosiveness in a fight always threatens to make an arena shake to its foundation. And beyond the cage, O’Malley has a natural way with words along with a swagger and style that cannot be faked.
You either have it or you don’t. And “Suga Sean” has it.
Sound like anyone else who ruled the sport?
Sure, it’s hyperbolic and perhaps lazy to pass off anyone as a new Conor McGregor, but when O’Malley dropped UFC men’s bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling with a counter right hand early in Round 2 of their UFC 292 main event on Saturday at TD Garden in Boston, it was eerily reminiscent of the night back in 2015 when McGregor clipped featherweight king Jose Aldo to capture his first championship.
Everyone but the fighter himself doubted McGregor on that night eight years ago in his bid to unseat a legend who at the time was acclaimed as the greatest 145-pounder. And many doubted O’Malley in the leadup to this fight against perhaps history’s greatest bantamweight. It was not just the expectations that were similar for both star challengers. So were their paths to victory. Both McGregor and O’Malley used their storied opponents’ aggression against them, utilizing timing and precision to elevate themselves to the top of the sport.
O’Malley displayed a quieter confidence this past week than McGregor had way back when. Suga Sean mixed humility in with his boldness. But like the superstar who came before him, O’Malley instantly put an end to any talk about him being a product of hype.
That was a common narrative as O’Malley rose through the 135-pound ranks. He came into UFC 292 with just one defeat in his 18 bouts, but there long had been rumblings that the UFC was feeding him winnable fights in order to make the most of his audacious personality and colorful appearance. Even after Suga Sean defeated former 135-pound champion Petr Yan last October, many found a reason to discredit the big win, which came by split decision.
There is no way to doubt O’Malley any longer. (OK, no reasonable way to throw shade at the new champ, as we all know social media perpetually finds a way to rain on every parade.) The challenger, a 2-1 betting underdog, fought an even, uneventful Round 1 against the man with more bantamweight victories in the UFC than anyone. Then, at the start of the second round, when Sterling tried to put his elite wrestling to use, O’Malley fended off a takedown attempt. When the champ then tried to close the distance by throwing a left hand, O’Malley evaded the punch and landed one of his own. A hard one. It dropped Sterling, and O’Malley pounced with punches to finish the job.
And so ended what one might call the pilot episode of The Suga Show, with much more entertainment — and greatness? — to come. — Wagenheim
Okamoto: Who’s next for O’Malley and Sterling?
My word. What a freaking performance. On the biggest stage, in a matchup most of us saw as very unfavorable to him. … Suga delivered.
For the new champ, Cory Sandhagen should be next.
You might say all of that put together means he should get what he wants: A rematch against Marlon “Chito” Vera. And I’ll tell you what: I love that fight. Looooove that fight. It’s honestly one of the top fights the UFC can make in terms of storyline and stylistic matchup.
But we cannot give Vera that fight when Sandhagen is just sitting there, ready and willing to go. Sandhagen just beat Vera in March. Granted, it was a split decision. I do think there’s a time and place to have someone skip ahead in line — it’s all case by case — but this isn’t one that warrants it for me. Between O’Malley, Sandhagen and Vera, you have three of the most entertaining, skilled fighters in the sport. They all deserve the biggest fights possible. But right now, Vera is the least deserving of the three, even though he has history with the champ. It should be O’Malley vs. Sandhagen in December.
As a wild card, I’d lean toward Vera. Stranger things have happened. Much, much stranger things. O’Malley is quickly turning into superstar status, and that counts for something. If he starts calling out a particular name, that matchup generates heat and it makes the UFC obviously want it even more.
(And by the way, if you’re wondering where Merab Dvalishvili‘s name is in all of this, it’s unclear at this point whether he’d be ready to go by December. If he is, his name obviously gets added into this mix.)
As for Sterling, I think Dominick Cruz should be next. This one seems pretty darn obvious, does it not? The “bantamweight GOAT” conversation comes down to two names: Sterling and Cruz. Cruz has been hunting Sterling for a while, because Sterling was the champ. Cruz hasn’t fought in a year, since losing via knockout to Vera. He’s still one of the biggest names in the division and he’s still highly ranked.
It’s a good fight for Sterling to take. He’s not going to move up to 145 off this and there’s good street cred in beating a guy like Cruz.
I’d have Rob Font as a wild card and I don’t love this matchup because there’s not really much of a story here. It’s kind of a big drop for Sterling, who was essentially one win away from cleaning out the division. Now, you’re telling me he has to face the No. 7-ranked guy, off one loss? It’s not ideal, certainly.
Because he’s already fought so many of the names at the top, it’s one of the few fresh matchups that’s there, and it’s also a matchup between two guys coming off a loss. I doubt this one ends up being what happens, but you can picture it for the reasons stated.
Bring on the dream fight at strawweight
Okamoto: Alright, there’s no disputing it. Zhang Weili is the No. 1 female pound-for-pound fighter in the world. I still had Valentina Shevchenko as No. 1 (I know she lost her last fight, but her body of work still called for it in my opinion), but I can’t deny Zhang the No. 1 spot after what I just witnessed.
She is impressive, so with that in mind, how do you book her moving forward? I suppose you could do Yan Xiaonan. Xiaonan is deserving. By the UFC’s ranking, she’s next in line and her résumé warrants it … but we’re talking about the best female fighter on the planet right now, and I want it to be the most interesting matchup possible.
There’s no doubt that the most interesting possible matchup right now is Tatiana Suarez. Everybody has been waiting to see Suarez in a title fight since she came out of “The Ultimate Fighter” in 2016. Injuries have slowed her progress, but every time she competes, she comes across as more or less invincible.
We don’t need any more buildup around this one. It’s the biggest title fight out there for Zhang, and Suarez is deserving based on how impressive her wins have been. Book it now.
Yan has a rock-solid case to be next, but all of that pales in comparison, in my opinion, to the upside of Suarez.
Weidman all heart in return from broken leg
Okamoto: I’ve been covering mixed martial arts full-time since 2009, and one of the most memorable interviews I’ve had during that time was during a media lunch with Chris Weidman in 2013. It was at the Four Seasons in Las Vegas, before he fought Anderson Silva for the first time at UFC 162, and I’ll never forget how genuinely confident he was about winning that fight.
You have to remember the mystique of Silva at the time. Of course, you don’t expect any challenger to go in there expecting to lose, but “confidence” was a relative term against Silva back then. It was like having confidence you could catch a fly with chopsticks. Silva was toying with his title challengers during that time, but when Weidman spoke to the media back then in Vegas, he was certain he would win. I’ll never forget it.
And I thought about that interview during his fight against Brad Tavares on Saturday. There the guy was, over two years removed from his last fight, during which he snapped his right leg while throwing a kick. The UFC did him no favors with the matchup, a guy in Tavares who defends takedowns extremely well and is savvy to veteran tricks. Weidman’s lead left leg was so compromised by kicks in the first and second rounds that he was forced to go southpaw midway through the bout — and he was still finding ways to land and make the fight interesting. It wasn’t a win for Weidman, or even necessarily a confidence-inspiring performance, but it was certainly inspiring.
If you think about it, Weidman has been one of the unluckiest fighters in the UFC since his title reign ended in 2015. He was in a close fight against Yoel Romero in 2016 when Romero hit him with a perfect flying knee in the third round. He lost to Gegard Mousasi in the very next fight, under controversial circumstances when Mousasi landed what appeared to be an illegal knee. He was beating Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza in 2018, when Souza scored a comeback knockout win in the third.
And then, of course, the broken leg in 2021.
It’s been one heartbreak after another for Weidman for years — and had there been just a few zigs instead of zags, things might have been very different.
Physically, he’s not the same guy he was years ago. But mentally, he still looks like the guy who shocked the world against Silva. Personally, I’ll still watch him fight. And he’s one of those guys that makes you wish athletes could stay young forever.
The right plan for Ian Machado Garry
Raimondi: Ian Machado Garry is very good. That goes without saying. He schooled Neil Magny, a guy who usually makes things difficult for everyone but the absolute elite at welterweight. Garry didn’t get the finish, but he just made life miserable for Magny in a way we haven’t seen before. He chewed up Magny’s leg for three rounds, landed big combinations, front kicks to the face and pretty much anything else he so desired in front of a Boston crowd chanting his name.
Afterward, Garry called out Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson, and that would be an excellent fight and test on the feet for Garry, a clinical striker. I have no issue with that challenge, but more than anything, what Garry should look to do is get on Conor McGregor’s next fight card. McGregor’s big comeback fight will be massive. Maybe that will come in December. Maybe it’s UFC 300 early next year. Maybe Garry can even fight again this year and turn around and fight on that one if McGregor isn’t back soon.
In any case, that’s the one for Garry. The comparisons to McGregor are unavoidable for Garry. And he welcomes them. Garry is Irish, was a longtime fan of McGregor and has made no bones about the fact that he’d like to be the next McGregor. He even told his mother that years ago and it made her furious. But regardless of how McGregor is perceived these days, he’s a huge global star and he’s been very complimentary of Garry on social media. Putting Garry on the same card as McGregor will get exponentially more eyes on him.
Garry is extremely good and just 25 years old. The one thing he is missing is that star turn, something that will elevate him to new heights as someone people want to pay their hard-earned dollars to see fight.
Man, I wish the UFC hadn’t booked Maddalena vs. Holland. I’ve been saying for a while now, I’d like to see Garry vs. Della Maddalena, and my interest in that fight has, obviously, only grown with each one of their fights.
These two are going to cross paths. So, I can be patient, knowing this is a fight we’ll see down the line. But I think it’s a fight we could see multiple times, and I’d love to see it now, set the stage for a matchup potentially we see play out over multiple years. It feels like we get a lot of rematches at the top, later in athletes’ careers. Let’s build a storyline. Let them fight now.
We’ll see what happens on Sept. 16. Depending on what happens, I think the UFC could have a great fight between Garry and the winner.
Wild card: Stephen Thompson
This was Garry’s callout, and it’s a good one. I like the matchup. At the beginning of the year, I would have said a Thompson matchup would be way too much of a step up for Garry, but from what he showed on Saturday, I’m not sure anything is too much of a step up.
He’s looked so good, the UFC is justified to throw him in there against anyone. I think it’s more likely Thompson will fight Kamaru Usman near the end of the year (November/December), but if for some reason the UFC doesn’t go that route, this would be a terrific matchup.
The timing might be right for Chito Vera
Contreras Legaspi: The Ecuadorian has been a title contender for more than a year now. He enjoys fighting and takes every opponent the promotion offers. But after three main events, Vera proved he can go for five rounds and be worthy of a title fight.
It’s time for him to make the right move. He took a step back in San Antonio with a slow fight against Cory Sandhagen, but regained momentum with another great striking display against an experienced opponent. Pedro Munhoz brought the best of his game, took the center of the Octagon and pressed Vera from the beginning with his high-volume boxing. Vera took his time to find his range and started causing a lot of damage in every exchange from that moment on. Power punches, short elbows and his signature high kicks were on display at UFC 292 as Munhoz took everything and stayed in the fight.
If this win is not enough to get the straight title shot at one of the most competitive divisions in the UFC, a fight against a former champion like Petr Yan should be Vera’s priority to secure the championship chance with one more win now that Sandhagen, Henry Cejudo and Merab Dvalishvili are recovering from injuries and it’s unknown when they are going to fight again.
Okamoto: Who should be next for Vera: Umar Nurmagomedov
This wouldn’t be Vera’s first choice, obviously. Right now, the new champ is calling his name. That’s what he wants. But I believe the next title fight should go to Sandhagen, so what should Vera do?
He could chill, honestly. He could wait it out. O’Malley wants to fight in December, and then he’d fight again in the first half of next year. If you’re Vera and you know you have a history with O’Malley and Sandhagen, you could easily just wait it out.
But the UFC will be looking for an opponent for Nurmagomedov, and I could see that responsibility(?), opportunity(?), and burden(?) falling to Vera. His loss to Sandhagen could hurt him in making his path to the title much longer. We’ll see. But this is a matchup I would love to see, and you’d have to make it five rounds.
Wild card: O’Malley
It’s not a wild-card answer. It could be the favorite. Again, O’Malley is calling Vera’s name. That is worth its weight in gold. O’Malley is the kind of star that could get a large say in who the next contender is. And frankly, this is the most lucrative matchup the UFC can make at the top of 135, and as we all know, that matters. I won’t be disappointed one bit if the UFC goes with O’Malley vs. Vera 2, but I would find it grossly unfair to Sandhagen.
TUF crowns two new winners who are ready for second chances
Wagenheim: It was reminiscent of The One That Started It All, the legendary slugfest between Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar in the Season 1 finale of The Ultimate Fighter. That’s the highest of praise for Brad Katona’s crowd-thrilling, rock-’em-sock-’em victory over Cody Gibson in Saturday’s TUF men’s bantamweight final, one of two bouts closing out the reality TV show’s 31st season.
Katona’s unanimous decision might not have the big picture impact of Griffin vs. Bonnar, a fight that has been credited with generating the fan enthusiasm necessary to keep the UFC from going out of business in 2005. But Katona and Gibson fought for the record books, combining for 324 significant strikes, the most in a three-round UFC bantamweight fight and the second most of any 135-pound bout inside the Octagon.
What was no less striking was how evenly matched these fighters were. Katona landed 160 significant strikes, and Gibson outdid him by four strikes. By contrast, Griffin and Bonnar combined for 145.
Katona became the first two-time TUF champion, as he previously won Season 27 as a featherweight in 2018. He then went 1-2 in the UFC.
In Saturday’s lightweight TUF finale, Kurt Holobaugh weathered some tough going early before taking over in Round 2, thanks to slick skills both in the standup and grappling. Holobaugh outstruck Austin Hubbard early in the round before taking him to the canvas and tapping him out with a triangle choke at 2:39.
It was Holobough’s 10th submission win but his first since 2016. He noted afterward that he hadn’t shown that side of his game while on the TV show.
“I am a jiu-jitsu black belt, and I didn’t go into that Ultimate Fighter house showing every bit of my skills,” he said. “My coaches said, ‘Don’t go there and show them everything. Just show them a little bit.’ And I think that’s what I did. But tonight you got to see the real version.”
Holobaugh lost all three of his UFC outings in 2018 and 2019.
All four fighters in the TUF finals have previously been in the UFC, and it showed. Both fights displayed high-level grit, toughness, inexhaustible cardio and martial arts skills. Even the losers were — as they say in Boston — wicked impressive.