Aljamain Sterling is at the crossroads.
By Sterling’s own admission, Saturday should mark the end of his two-year championship reign as he defends his bantamweight title against Sean O’Malley in the UFC 292 main event. His expectation is that he defeats O’Malley and then moves up a division to immediately challenge featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, while vacating the title so that his close friend Merab Dvalishvili can finally challenge for it.
O’Malley might have something to say about this neat and tidy plan, especially since he’s this close to reaching his own milestone mark. Since announcing himself to the world six years ago with a spectacular spin kick knockout on Dana White’s Contender Series, “Sugar” has built a massive following and he is poised to ascend to another level of stardom if he dethrones Sterling.
These kinds of king-making moments don’t come along often. Will O’Malley capitalize on the biggest opportunity of his career or will he be just another number in Sterling’s undeniably memorable championship run? Or will Sterling go out on the highest of notes if this truly is his bantamweight swan song before he goes hunting for featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski?
Speaking of championship runs, Zhang Weili embarks on her second after making short work of Carla Esparza nine months ago. She looks all the world like a fighter ready to string together half a dozen defenses, but she has to get past potential spoiler Amanda Lemos and then worry about Yan Xiaonan and Tatiana Suarez waiting in the wings.
In other main card action, undefeated welterweight contender Ian Machado Garry takes on the division leader in wins Neil Magny, Da’Mon Blackshear fights for the second time in a week as he steps in for Cody Garbrandt to fight Mario Bautista, and Marlon Vera fights Pedro Munhoz in a clash of veteran bantamweight contenders.
What: UFC 292
Where: TD Garden in Boston
When: Saturday, Aug. 18. The card begins with a three-fight early prelims portion on ESPN+ at 6:30 p.m. ET, with continuing coverage of the four-fight prelim card on ABC, ESPN, and ESPN+ beginning at 8 p.m. ET. The five-fight main card begins at 10 p.m. ET and is available exclusively on ESPN+ pay-per-view.
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Table of Contents
Aljamain Sterling (1) vs. Sean O’Malley (3)
I’ve wanted to see Aljamain Sterling vs. Sean O’Malley ever since O’Malley squeaked out that win over Petr Yan and ever since this fight was actually announced I’ve struggled to convince myself that O’Malley can find a way to overcome Sterling’s grappling. It’s time to just accept that there is no solution.
As long as O’Malley can keep this fight on the feet, he’s a threat to win rounds or straight-up knock Sterling out. If he can’t keep it standing, he has near zero chance of winning and that’s probably being generous. As much work as I’m sure O’Malley and his team put in the gym when it comes to the ground game, there’s no overcoming Sterling’s outstanding technique borne from a lifetime of wrestling and jiu-jitsu experience.
So as enjoyable as it is to see a popular fighter live up to the hype and as much as it’s kind of a bummer for a champion to leave a division without dropping their belt, I’m expecting this exact scenario to play out. When Sterling isn’t driving O’Malley to the mat, he’ll be pinning him to the fence and constantly threatening to take his back. Eventually he’ll get it and sink in a fight-ending choke.
See you at 145, Aljo.
Zhang Weili (1) vs. Amanda Lemos (6)
Now this title fight I’m less sure about.
Amanda Lemos hits hard and if there’s one issue I’ve had with Zhang Weili, it’s that she’s not exactly Jon Jones or Khabib Nurmagomedov when it comes to avoiding damage. We’ve seen her get kicked in the head by Rose Namajunas and phone-booth fight with Joanna Jedrzejczyk. If she wants to just stand and trade with Lemos, it wouldn’t be surprising at all to see Zhang dropped and finished.
I’m picking the champion because I’m banking on her being in peak form, having gone through those battles with the best strawweight competition she could possibly face up to this point in her career. She’s maybe the physically strongest woman in the division (it’s her or Tatiana Suarez), she’s versatile offensively, and she has the big-game experience. Again, she could get caught, but she has a lot of ways to change the complexion of this fight. Not sure we can say the same about Lemos.
Look for Zhang and Lemos to be engaged in a competitive first round, with Zhang gathering data so that she can find an opening to take Lemos down in Round 2 and tap her out.
Ian Machado Garry vs. Neil Magny
Things worked out well for Ian Machado Garry here, as he called for a fight with an already-booked Magny after defeating Daniel Rodriguez and somehow got the matchup he wanted with Geoff Neal off of Saturday’s card. Let’s not forget that Magny beat Neal convincingly when they fought a couple of years back, so Magny is the better of two Nea/ils.
With that nonsense out of the way, Magny is another underdog I kind of like (this is a difficult card to predict!). He’s good about not getting dominated on the feet outside of a few exceptions and as Machado Garry himself has pointed out, Magny is a grinder with a lot of octagon time under his belt. He can make things uncomfortable for Machado Garry in a hurry.
I like that Machado Garry has been tested though. His UFC run hasn’t just been a collection of first-round knockouts, he’s had to grind a little himself to keep his undefeated record intact. His striking is legit and, at 25, still developing. Add in the fact that Magny is taking this fight on short notice and that’s another advantage for Machado Garry.
He asked for stiff competition and he’s going to get it, but Machado Garry has enough tools already to win a decision over Magny.
Pick: Machado Garry
Da’Mon Blackshear vs. Mario Bautista
It would be super fun if Da’Mon Blackshear pulled this off, right?
Last week he notched his name into the history books with just the third-ever twister submission in the UFC; this week, he can set a record with two wins in seven days if he beats Mario Bautista. The odds are against him. Blackshear isn’t just stepping in on short-notice against any bantamweight, he’s stepping in there with a fast-rising contender who has submitted his past three opponents inside of a round.
Regardless of who wins, I’m expecting to have fun anyway watching these two time each other on the feet before inevitably ending up on the ground where we should be treated to some entertaining scrambles. And you know what? I think Blackshear catches him in a submission. No Jack Slack breakdown for this one, just going on a feeling.
Call it recency bias, call it being overawed by Blackshear’s gusto, but I sense chaos and Blackshear becoming the answer to an MMA trivia question.
Marlon Vera (9) vs. Pedro Munhoz
Marlon Vera didn’t pick an easy fight after a disappointing loss to Cory Sandhagen. Then again, the most thought “Chito” has ever put into matchmaking is how soon can they send the contract out for his next fight.
If Vera beats Pedro Munhoz, he beats an older fighter who just recently snapped a three-fight winless streak; if he loses, then he ends up on a losing streak of his own and that is a distinct possibility. Munhoz has yet to be put away in 29 pro bouts (including 19 in the UFC, a promotional record at 135 pounds) and as prolific a finisher as Vera is, I don’t think we see it happen for the first time on Saturday.
So that leaves these two to battle for 15 minutes (keep in mind, Vera has also never been finished). If it comes down to who can do more damage, you’ve got to lean Vera. On the other hand, Munhoz has outworked and outwitted plenty of heavy hitters, so he’s not going to be a sitting duck when Vera starts headhunting. This is a tricky one.
Vera’s aggression and heavier strikes should get him a decision win here, a pick I make with little confidence.