Cue the Dropkick Murphys, because the UFC heads to Boston this weekend for UFC 292: Sterling vs. O’Malley. The marquee shows the name of two of the boldest bantamweights in the game today, as incumbent champion Aljamain Sterling meets the brash and outspoken Sean O’Malley.
Sterling has been a divisive champion, often failing to gain the love of the fans, despite an impressive run to the title and tenure as the division’s king. A lot of that hatred stems from the way that he won the title, scoring a disqualification win over Petr Yan after the Russian landed a blatantly illegal knee to a downed Sterling in a fight where Sterling was fading, and it looked like the LAW MMA product was on his way to losing a decision.
O’Malley is just as polarizing, though most fans appreciate his loud persona and find him charismatic. Others see the schtick as corny, especially his claim that he is still undefeated even though Marlon “Chito” Vera clearly put his lights out after damaging the leg of “Suga.” Should Sterling come away with a win, he will break the tie with Dominick Cruz and hold the record for most successful title defenses in the history of the UFC’s bantamweight division.
Gold will also be on the line in the co-main event as Weili Zhang begins her second run as champion and takes on Amanda Lemos. Weili bounced back from two consecutive losses against Rose Namajunas with a knockout victory over former long-reigning champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk and then got the belt back by submitting Carla Esparza in the second round of their fight back in Nov. 2022. Lemos was on track to fight for the title in 2022, but a submission loss to another former champion, Jessica Andrade, slowed down her momentum. Lemos recovered nicely after that setback and claimed back-to-back wins over Michelle Waterson and Marina Rodriguez.
Elsewhere on the card, the featured preliminary bout will showcase the return of former middleweight champion Chris Weidman. The last time fans saw Weidman, he was on the wrong end of a catastrophic leg injury just seconds into his rematch against Uriah Hall. Weidman is in the unique position of being on both ends of that gnarly leg break situation, as he famously defeated Anderson Silva in their second fight when “The Spider” saw his own leg snap after throwing a similar kick to the one Weidman regrettably threw against Hall. At 39 years old, this clash with Brad Tavares will likely be one of the last times fans are able to see “The All American” make a walk to the Octagon.
The UFC 292 early prelims air live on ESPN+ and UFC Fight Pass starting at 6:30 p.m. ET, followed by the preliminary card on ABC, ESPN and ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET. The main card airs on ESPN+ pay-per-view at 10 p.m. ET. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Aljamain Sterling looks for his fourth title defense and tenth consecutive win this weekend; can he stop the momentum of rising star Sean O’Malley?
Kuhl: I have been wrong in the past about Aljamain Sterling hanging onto this title, and I apparently have not learned my lesson yet. I know this will be considered a very controversial take, but we still have not seen the very outspoken champion really put on a dominant championship performance yet.
The New Yorker captured the title from Petr Yan on a disqualification and barely squeaked by him in the rematch. In his second title defense, Sterling scored a TKO on paper, but everyone now knows he was fighting a T.J. Dillashaw that was operating at about 60-percent with a bad recurring shoulder injury. In his last outing, he barely eeked out a split decision over former champ Henry Cejudo, who had been retired and hadn’t fought in three years. Outside of Yan, barring any secret injuries we don’t currently know about, Sean O’Malley will be the first really active, healthy challenger he has faced in his title reign.
All that aside, Sterling is a talented fighter, he has an amazing ground game with both his wrestling and jiu-jitsu, and he can hang in the striking department long enough to tie up his opponents. O’Malley will be the biggest opponent he has fought since Cory Sandhagen, as both men stand one inch shy of six feet tall, which is big for 135 pounds. However, O’Malley has an even bigger reach advantage than Sandhagen did. This is a bit of a striker-versus-grappler affair, as nobody expects Sterling to win by knockout, and O’Malley only has one submission win on his record, which was a long time ago in a local Montana show. Both men have only been stopped once, and both were by knockout. So, how does this go?
Honestly, outside of the typical, and albeit old, trash talking, this could actually turn out to be a somewhat boring fight for a lighter weight championship bout. I see a lot of O’Malley trying to set up his striking at distance, and a lot of Sterling trying to mitigate that by closing the distance and tying him up. O’Malley may get a couple gnarly strikes in, Sterling may get some takedowns, and I see this one going the distance. Now, conventional wisdom, and the bookies, seem to think that means a win for Sterling. However, having seen the Sandhagen fight play out already, O’Malley should have a game plan for how Sterling will try to manage the size difference through his grappling. I think O’Malley will play his cards right, utilize his big frame to sprawl through takedown attempts, tag Sterling from the outside when he can, and ultimately come out the winner on the scorecards.
Of course, that probably means Sterling will win again, but dare to dream.
Petela: Sean O’Malley can defend all but one takedown from Aljamain Sterling, and he will still lose. Once Sterling gets this one to the mat, he is going to zip right onto O’Malley’s back and make “Suga” look like a fish out of water. There isn’t a better back-taker in the UFC than Sterling, and, while O’Malley can grapple a little bit, he just isn’t on anywhere near the same level. Sterling took down Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo four times in their fight back in May, so he will eventually be able to get O’Malley down.
The only thing that stops a Sterling rear-naked choke finish is if O’Malley can land a bomb early that closes the show. This is not likely, but certainly not impossible. As Dan said, O’Malley is long and rangy for a bantamweight, but it’s not like Sterling is undersized for the division. He’s been talking about moving up in weight after this fight. After seeing how big he looks in preparation for this fight, I can see why. Sterling will prove to be sturdy and be able to eat the few shots that O’Malley lands clean. Though, I expect him to roll with most of the punches coming his way. That’s where the takedown comes from. A frustrated O’Malley will overcommit on a combination after not landing anything clearly, and, as soon as his hips aren’t in proper position, Sterling will duck under to scoop him up and dump him to his backside.
The biggest question leaving this fight is going to be Sterling’s position in the all-time pantheon of great bantamweights. He holds a win over a compromised T.J. Dillashaw, and he never fought Dominick Cruz, who is now past his prime. So, it’s tough to say with absolute confidence, but I believe after this fight, his resume will be second-to-none at 135 pounds.
Weili Zhang reclaimed her belt in her last bout; does she begin her second title reign with a win?
Petela: Yea Zhang Weili is going to run through Amanda Lemos. Honestly, Lemos isn’t on a championship level. She looked good in her last two fights against Michelle Waterson and Marina Rodriguez, but those fighters are both a notch below the current champion in terms of skill level. Lemos last lost to Jessica Andrade by standing arm-triangle choke, which won’t be how she loses this time, but her tendency to be a bit reckless will be the reason she loses early.
Just like she did to earn the title the first time, Zhang will capitalize on an aggressive opponent and score an early stoppage with her ferocious punching power. As Lemos engages, Zhang will land a thudding counter shot that stuns the Brazilian, and, from there, the rest will be academic. A few follow-up shots on the ground will force the end of the fight, and Zhang retains her title. There probably isn’t a strawweight on Earth, not named Rose Namajunas, who has the requisite skills to topple the current champion, and she will hold onto the belt for quite some time.
Kuhl: I agree with my colleague on all counts. Zhang is just too good. She is in a great position to run through the current challenger, as well as most of the current strawweight division. The one exception to this is Tatiana Suarez. With both fighters competing so close to each other, the timeline is set up perfectly for Zhang to win this fight and have her next fight the toughest one of her career. As for Lemos, it will be back to the drawing board. She just isn’t at Zhang’s level.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 292?
Kuhl: Ian Garry is in a prime position to elevate his stock on Saturday night. The undefeated 25-year-old Irishman has already wowed fans from his promotional debut, his first-round TKO win over Daniel Rodriguez in May ultimately landed him in the No. 13 spot in the official UFC rankings. He was supposed to be facing No. 8 Geoff Neal, but instead will be fighting No. 11 Neil Magny on very short notice. If he gets past Magny, he will further climb the ladder, and this kid could be within range of a title shot with a couple more wins.
Petela: Ray Longo. The longtime coach is going to pick up two huge wins for a couple of his longest tenured pupils, Aljamain Sterling and Chris Weidman. With the bantamweight title staying wrapped around Sterling’s waist, and Weidman making a successful long-awaited return from a devastating injury, it’s going to be a great night for Long Island and, specifically, Ray Longo.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 292?
Petela: Neil Magny. He steps in on short notice to take on rising star Ian Garry and it is going to backfire. Typically Magny has played the role of hype stopper but this time the combination of a short notice fight and a very talented fighter will be too much for the welterweight veteran. Magny is always flirting with the top ten of the division but has never made a real run at the title. He is nearing the end of his prime at 36 years old and a loss to a rising star like Garry will set him back too far to realistically have a chance at making one more run towards the top of the division.
Kuhl:What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Chris Weidman, far and away. Prior to suffering a gruesome leg injury over two years ago, he was 2-5 in his last seven fights. Then, after snapping his leg in half against Uriah Hall – an injury that is very difficult to ever recover from – he is coming back from a long layoff to face Brad Tavares, who is coming in off back-to-back losses. As an additional X-factor, Tavares’s home state of Hawaii just suffered one of the deadliest wildfires in history, so he will be carrying the weight of his homeland on his shoulders. Weidman is not in an ideal position in this one, and a loss could mark retirement for the former middleweight champion.
Petela: That is far and away the best answer. Out of all the fighters on this card, Weidman is the only one whose career probably can’t survive a loss. However, both Pedro Munhoz and Maryna Moroz are also in need of wins. Their tenures with the promotion might not depend on it but any aspirations at a championship do, without a doubt. If either or both of them lose, they will fall into position as just another fighter on the roster as opposed to contenders.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Gerald Meerschaert vs. Andre Petroski. This is the next step up the ladder for Petroski, who will soon be a contender at middleweight. A dominant performance over a veteran like GM3 will be just the stepping stone Petroski needs to start making a case for a fight against a ranked opponent.
Kuhl: Mario Bautista vs. Da’Mon Blackshear. Bautista, who is on a four-fight winning streak, was supposed to face Cody Garbrandt, and the seemingly revived former champ had to pull out on a week’s notice. Blackshear, who is on a two-fight winning streak, just beat Jose Johnson by first-round submission last Saturday. With Blackshear stepping in on short-notice and Bautista having been in a long camp himself, this one should be a crazy bantamweight battle.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: Weili Zhang should come home with some extra cash after her co-main event title defense. Both she and Amanda Lemos are finishers, but the Chinese two-time champ is a very dangerous fighter, and I see her putting on one hell of a performance to earn herself a bonus.
Petela: I’m going with Chris Weidman. His back is against the proverbial wall in this one, and, true to his walkout song, he won’t back down. He scores a huge win in his return from a catastrophic injury, and the feel-good story will be enough to earn him a post-fight bonus.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Despite taking place in Boston, it will be the New Yorkers who shine this Saturday night. So after the sun goes down and it’s not too terribly hot out, chow down on a bowl of Manhattan clam chowder, as opposed to the New England variety. Big wins out of Sterling and Weidman more than earn New York bragging rights this weekend.
Kuhl: O’Malley in Boston has Guiness written all over it. Sit back, crack open a cold stout, and enjoy watching Sterling finally lose his questionable title.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 10 p.m. ET)
BW Championship: Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley
Women’s StrawW Championship: Weili Zhang vs. Amanda Lemos
WW: Neil Magny vs. Ian Garry
BW: Mario Bautista vs. Da’Mon Blackshear
BW: Marlon Vera vs. Pedro Munhoz
Preliminary Card (ABC/ESPN/ESPN+, 8 p.m. ET)
MW: Chris Weidman vs. Brad Tavares
MW: Gregory Rodrigues vs. Denis Tiuliulin
TUF 31 LW Final: Kurt Holobaugh vs. Austin Hubbard
TUF 31 BW Final: Brad Katona vs. Cody Gibson
Early Prelims (UFC Fight Pass/ESPN+, 6:30 p.m. ET)
MW: Gerald Meerschaert vs. Andre Petroski
Women’s FlyW: Andrea Lee vs. Natalia Silva
Women’s FlyW: Maryna Moroz vs. Karine Silva
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