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Aljamain Sterling’s title reign had a rocky start to it, having won the title by disqualification due to an illegal knee thrown by former champion Petr Yan. This was the first time in UFC history that a title had changed hands due to a DQ.
However, Sterling silenced doubters in his eventual rematch with Yan - defeating him via five-round split-decision. He defended his title once more in 2022 against another former champion: T.J. Dillashaw.
Sterling stopped the man who was stripped of the bantamweight title years prior with a second-round TKO at UFC 280.
Now taking some time to recover from a bicep injury, Sterling still has the strongest claim to remain the bantamweight champion heading into 2024. If all goes according to “plan”, Sterling will take on Henry Cejudo (coming out of retirement) at UFC 285 in May.
An Olympic gold medal. A UFC flyweight championship. A UFC bantamweight championship. Henry Cejudo earned all of those things before retiring from mixed martial arts in 2020 following his bantamweight title defense over Dominick Cruz.
He retired with a professional record of 16-2.
Despite being out of action for the past several years, Cejudo has remained active in the MMA world - attending events and coaching a plethora of athletes while maintaining his controversial online persona.
His lack of action in the octagon shouldn’t affect his athletic performance should he return to action in 2023, but it will likely affect him just enough to fall short in a championship contest - especially if he fights for a title in his very first fight back.
Love him or hate him, Sean O’Malley made a statement in 2022 when he made a risky choice to jump up in competition and challenge former bantamweight champion and number-one contender Petr Yan.
Closely fought, and not without its controversy, O’Malley managed to squeak out a split-decision victory over Yan last October in what was deemed the fight of the night for UFC 280.
Now ranked as the number-one bantamweight contender, the only person that could stop O’Malley from fighting for the title next is a returning Henry Cejudo. Ergo, at the time of this writing, no opponent is officially set for O’Malley’s next fight.
The first fighter on this list who has a confirmed upcoming fight, Marlon Vera will fight Cory Sandhagen in his first fight of 2023.
The rising star has won his last four fights in a row - a run that includes wins over former champions Frankie Edgar and Dominick Cruz. Vera also holds a win over Sean O’Malley.
Vera, currently ranked at number four in the bantamweight division, is set to face Sandhagen (ranked number five) in a featured main event at UFC on ESPN: Vera vs. Sandhagen on March 25 in San Antonio, Texas.
The second fighter to already have his first bout of 2023 confirmed is former champion Petr Yan.
Despite losing his last two fights, both of those contests were decided via split-decision. Many fans and pundits also argue that he should have been declared the winner in his last fight against Sean O’Malley.
The former champion is just 1-3 in his last four fights. He is set to take on Merab Dvalishvili: the friend and training partner of champion Aljamain Sterling. The two will duke it out in a featured five-round main event at the UFC Fight Night event on March 11.
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