Sean O’Malley surprised everyone with a knockout victory over Aljamain Sterling, becoming the new UFC bantamweight champion at UFC 292. This win catapults him into the spotlight as one of the promotion’s biggest potential superstars since Conor McGregor. While it’s unlikely that O’Malley will surpass McGregor’s status as the sport’s biggest draw, he has proven himself to be a legitimate world champion with the charisma and business acumen to make a major impact in prizefighting. O’Malley has expressed interest in fighting at the rumored Las Vegas PPV card in December, showing that he’s willing to do the work if the financials make sense.
Now, let’s evaluate the most viable challengers for O’Malley’s newly acquired bantamweight title, examining their threat levels and the likelihood of the UFC booking the fights.
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Merab Dvalishvili (16-4)
- Age: 32
- Last fight: Defeated Petr Yan via unanimous decision (March 11, 2023 — UFC Fight Night)
- Threat level: High
Dvalishvili is the logical choice to challenge O’Malley. With an unbeaten streak of nine fights and wins over former world champions, he sits prominently in the UFC bantamweight rankings. Dvalishvili’s relentless grappling style makes it difficult for his opponents to even think. He holds the record for most takedowns in the bantamweight division and has the potential to surpass Georges St-Pierre as the all-time leader across weight classes. While O’Malley showcased a strong defense against Sterling’s grappling, Dvalishvili poses a unique challenge with his forward pressure and smothering tactics. However, there may be complications in booking this fight due to Dvalishvili’s loyalty to his friend Sterling and his desire to see him receive a rematch, which has upset UFC President Dana White.
Aljamain Sterling (23-4)
- Age: 34
- Last fight: Lost to O’Malley via TKO, Round 2 (Aug. 19, 2023 — UFC 292)
- Threat level: Medium
Sterling has a history of bouncing back from setbacks. After being carried out on a stretcher following a devastating knee strike from Marlon Moraes, he went on to have a record-breaking title reign and an impressive winning streak. Although Sterling was convincingly defeated by O’Malley at UFC 292, he still poses a significant threat to the new champion. However, Sterling faces challenges in terms of perception, as the UFC never fully supported him as champion and fans had mixed opinions about him. It’s likely that Sterling will need to win a fight to regain momentum before earning a second opportunity to face O’Malley.
Marlon Vera (21-8-1)
- Age: 30
- Last fight: Defeated Pedro Munhoz via split decision (Aug. 19, 2023 — UFC 292)
- Threat level: Medium
Vera may not be the most deserving contender at the moment, but his timing could work in his favor. While his performance against Pedro Munhoz at UFC 292 was underwhelming and controversial, Vera has shown a knack for thrilling finishes. A rematch between O’Malley and Vera would make for compelling promotion, especially since Vera is the only fighter to have defeated O’Malley in his professional career. Despite an injury to O’Malley in their previous encounter, there is a sense that O’Malley has matured and surpassed Vera as a fighter since then.
Cory Sandhagen (17-4)
- Age: 31
- Last fight: Defeated Rob Font via unanimous decision (Aug. 5, 2023 — UFC Fight Night)
- Threat level: Medium
Sandhagen has long been touted as a future world champion, but has consistently fallen short in crucial moments. However, he seems to be rejuvenated with three consecutive victories over ranked opponents, which makes a fight against O’Malley an intriguing prospect. Both fighters possess dynamic striking skills that have captured the attention of fans. Additionally, Sandhagen seems to have gained favor with UFC President Dana White, unlike Dvalishvili and Sterling. The main obstacle to booking an O’Malley vs. Sandhagen fight is Sandhagen’s fully torn tricep, which will keep him out of action for the remainder of the year.
Henry Cejudo (16-3)
- Age: 36
- Last fight: Lost to Aljamain Sterling via split decision (May 6, 2023 — UFC 288)
- Threat level: Low
Cejudo should not be the next in line for a title shot, as he is a former two-division champion and Olympic gold medalist with a dedicated fanbase. Despite his loss to Sterling after a three-year retirement, Cejudo’s pedigree and the close nature of the fight still carry some weight. While it may be difficult to justify the matchup given Cejudo’s recent defeat, the UFC has a history of prioritizing high-profile fights over meritocracy.
Honorable mention: Umar Nurmagomedov is slowly climbing the ranks in the bantamweight division, but he needs to secure one or two notable victories to warrant a title shot.