It’s an epic clash of styles as gold-blooded grappler Aljamain Sterling defends his bantamweight championship against striking sensation Sean O’Malley at UFC 292 at TD Garden in Boston on Saturday night (Sunday morning SA time), writes Quintin van Jaarsveld.
A second strap is on the line as strawweight champion Zhang Weili collides with Amanda Lemos in what should be a cracking co-main event.
In addition to the headliner, there are two other bantamweight bouts on the main card with top-10 contenders Marlon Vera and Pedro Munhoz facing off and Da’Mon Blackshear and Mario Bautista battling it out, while undefeated rising star Ian Machado Garry takes on welterweight stalwart Neil Magny.
MAIN CARD (from 4 AM Sunday SA time):
Aljamain Sterling (1.38) v Sean O’Malley (3.10) (Bantamweight Championship)
The Sterling (23-3) era might have started in the most bittersweet fashion possible, becoming the first fighter in UFC history to win a title by disqualification after being struck by an illegal knee by Petr Yan back in 2021, but he’s turned it into a record-setting reign.
“The Funkmaster” boasts the most title defences in bantamweight history, having beaten Yan by split decision in the rematch, former two-time champion TJ Dillashaw by TKO and returning former two-division king and Olympic gold medallist Henry Cejudo by split decision in May.
The latter triumph, in particular, cemented his stature as the best bantamweight in the world, finally earning him the legitimacy he’d lacked in the eyes of a large part of the mixed martial arts fan base, and his now historic reign puts him in the conversation for 135-pound GOAT status.
On a nine-fight win streak dating back to 2017, much of Sterling’s success is down to wrestling. The former Division I wrestler uses unorthodox striking and movement to set up takedowns and either controls or finishes fights from there.
A world-class grappler, he has eight submissions to his name and arguably the best rear-naked choke in the sport. He’s not known as a human backpack for nothing.
In O’Malley (16-1-1NC), he faces the face of the new age of bantamweights.
Brash, bold and a knockout artist extraordinaire, he became an overnight sensation when he starched Alfred Khashakyan on Dana White’s Contender Series to earn a UFC contract back in 2017.
The stunning stoppage immediately launched him into the mainstream thanks to Snoop Dogg, who sang his praises as only the rap icon can as a guest commentator.
He passed his first real test with flying colours when he flatlined former WEC bantamweight champion Eddie Wineland with a walk-off knockout for the ages in 2020 and has never looked back.
His charisma, self-promotion and flashy striking have made him an attraction similar to a young, up-and-coming Conor McGregor years ago. Like a rising “Notorious”, he still has doubters aplenty and, to be honest, he’s fortunate to be fighting for the title as the consensus is he received a gift split decision over Yan in their No 1 contender bout in October.
With his colourful hair and personality, it’s easy to dismiss “Suga” as a hype machine but he has legitimate skills on the feet. He’s both a deadly sharpshooter and an ultra-confident buzzsaw who incorporates spinning attacks into his whirlwind striking surges.
Blessed with proven one-punch knockout power on top of that, he’s racked up 11 KOs and is a serious threat with the skill and blast to end Sterling’s reign on the feet.
The fascinating headliner, scheduled for five rounds, boils down to whether O’Malley – who’ll have the Boston crowd in his corner – is able to stuff Sterling’s takedown attempts. The longer the fight’s on the feet, the better the underdog’s chances of defying the odds.
What’s worrying for the O’Malley camp is that their man was taken down and controlled by Yan, who’s primarily a boxer, for extended periods. Sterling had his way with the Russian in the grappling department, so odds are the champion will be able to put the challenger on his back.
O’Malley also won’t have the considerable reach advantage he usually does, that edge being shrunk to a solitary inch. Sterling’s awkward movement and striking will aid him in his all-important mission to close the distance against the sniper and grab hold of him.
With every round starting standing and O’Malley’s striking prowess, he’s a value underdog. That said, Sterling should be able to drag him into his world, where it’s just a matter of time before he submits him, or ground-and-pounds his way to another successful title defence.
Zhang Weili (1.32) v Amanda Lemos (3.50) (Strawweight Championship)
The co-headliner promises to be an exciting showdown for strawweight gold. Zhang (23-3) is a tiny bulldozer, but in Lemos (13-2-1) she faces a similarly fierce and fearless finisher who’ll fight fire with fire.
The first and only Chinese UFC champion, Zhang won the belt with a first-round knockout of Jessica Andrade in 2019 and became a two-time champ by battering and submitting Carla Esparza in November.
“Magnum” is a marauder with deadly explosiveness and wicked power, which have earned her 11 knockouts, including a highlight-reel spinning backfist KO of former champion Joanna Jedrzejczyk that showed she’s not only highly technical but has a few aces up her sleeve as well.
More than capable on the ground, she has eight submissions to her name, but this should be a stand-up battle.
Lemos comes from a boxing background but has evolved into a complete mixed martial artist. Her striking is crisp and her power is on par with that of the champion.
Her TKO of Marina Rodriguez in November was her eighth stoppage by strikes, while she has three finishes by submission as well. In terms of the latter, she’s bold and sudden with a history of catching opponents off guard by jumping for submissions.
With the shortest average fight time in the division, “Amandinha” is a legitimate threat and won’t die wondering, so to speak. That said, she lost her only fight against a member of the 115-pound elite in ex-titleholder Andrade, who submitted her last April.
Zhang’s a cut above Andrade and two levels above Lemos across the board, leaving her primed to retain the title. With Lemos set to bring the fight, a finish will likely present itself and predatory Zhang will capitalise.
Neil Magny (4.80) v Ian Machado Garry (1.20) (Welterweight)
One of the brightest and most exciting prospects in the UFC, Machado Garry is a perfect 12-0 with eight finishes and is chasing his third knockout of the year, having stopped Song Kenan and Daniel Rodriguez in March and May respectively.
Originally meant to face Geoff Neil, a power puncher, he will instead share the Octagon with a more well-rounded mixed martial artist in Magny (28-10).
Aptly nicknamed “The Future”, the 25-year-old floats like a butterfly and stings like a bee, to borrow a quote from the legendary Muhammad Ali, and will have a major speed advantage over a man 11 years his senior.
Magny holds the record for the most wins in welterweight history. His list of victims includes the likes of former champions Robbie Lawler and Johny Hendricks, as well as Carlos Condit and Kelvin Gastelum, making him a good veteran test for a rising star like Machado Garry.
In addition to his wealth of experience, Magny will have a five-and-a-half-inch reach advantage, but coming in on short notice means he hasn’t had a full camp like his foe.
As a black belt in judo, Machado Garry has good hips and should be able to keep the fight standing. With less power coming his way as what would’ve been the case against Neil, the Irishman will ramp up the pressure, piece up and ultimately finish Magny.
Da’Mon Blackshear v Mario Bautista (Bantamweight)
In another hastily rebooked bout, Bautista (12-2) battles Blackshear (14-5-1) after his original opponent, former 135-pound champion Cody Garbrandt, was forced to withdraw due to injury.
Blackshear will make a record-tying turnaround with “Da Monster” set to enter the Octagon for the second time in seven days after securing only the third twister submission in UFC history last weekend.
That victory over Jose Johnson came in the first round and was his second straight win, which took his UFC record to 2-1-1.
Bautista is 6-2 in the UFC and on a roll of note. He’s won four in a row and wasted little time in doing so, winning each of the last three by first-round submission.
Their grappling should cancel each other out and see the better striker in Bautista pick up the win, most likely by decision.
Marlon Vera (1.50) v Pedro Munhoz (2.64) (Bantamweight)
The main card opener is a pivotal clash of top-10 bantamweights. Vera (22-8-1) is the only man with a win over headliner O’Malley (back in 2020) and “Suga” has this week stated that if they’re both victorious this weekend, he’ll grant Vera a first shot at the belt.
“Chito” is a seasoned pro who’s polished his game over the last two years to the point that he was on a four-fight win streak that included brutal knockouts of a pair of former champions in Frankie Edgar and Dominick Cruz.
A decision loss to former interim title challenger Cory Sandhagen in March halted his momentum, but sixth-ranked Vera has an opportunity to vault straight to a title shot if things work out in his favour
The Ecuadorian ace is well-rounded (eight knockouts and eight submissions), has an excellent jab and a granite chin, all of which make him a terminator.
Ranked tenth, Munhoz (20-7) is solid rather than spectacular and outpointed Chris Gutierrez in April to stop a two-fight skid.
“The Young Punisher” packs a punch and is a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt (five knockouts and eight submissions) but isn’t as dynamic and fluid as Vera and lost to both Edgar and Cruz.
He, too, is tough as nails, so this fight looks destined to go the distance with Vera set to get his hand raised.