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The Red Corner: Men’s bantamweight prospect preview

The UFC men’s bantamweight division has long been one of the promotion’s most dynamic. The division has bred its fair share of UFC legends, been the stage for some of the most prolific beefs between contenders and features an exciting array of stylistically diverse fighters. 

A testament to the unpredictable nature of the division, the current 135-pound champion, Aljamain Sterling (20-3), became champion after he was on the receiving end of an illegal knee from Petr Yan (16-2) at UFC 259 in March. Sterling’s perceived acting performance after the strike further eroded his status as champ and has drawn intense criticism from Yan. Their eventual rematch and title unification bout is one of the most highly anticipated bouts on the UFC docket. 

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Adding to a division marred by controversy is top contender TJ Dillashaw (18-4), who was suspended for two years by the UFC’s anti-doping body, the United States Anti-Doping Agency, following a failed drug test in 2019. The suspension not only stripped then-champion Dillashaw of his belt, but also put him on an uphill battle to win back his reputation from fellow fighters and fans alike. His July return against then-No. 3 contender, Cory Sandhagen (14-4), re-established himself as a force in the division with a 25-minute war that saw Dillashaw claim victory on a close split decision. 

Outside the top-five ranked bantamweights is a field of prospects chomping at the bit to get their shot at UFC gold. Below are three of the most intriguing members of this cohort, who may very well find themselves getting the belt wrapped around their waists in no time at all. 

(6) Merab Dvalishvili (14-4)

Aptly nicknamed “The Machine,” Dvalishvili, who owns a physique seemingly cut from steel, is nothing short of a determined subhuman cyborg every time he enters the Octagon. 

One of the hallmark members of the recent renaissance of Georgian UFC fighters, Dvalishvili is a dogged wrestler and grappler. Paired with an indestructible chin and will, Dvalishvili has torn through one 135 contender after another in dominating fashion. 

Despite dropping his first two bouts when he broke onto the UFC scene back in 2017, Dvalishvili has put together an impressive seven-fight win streak, culminating in a rollercoaster affair with Marlon Moraes (23-9-1) in September. In that fight, Dvalishvili put all of his tools on display: A suffocating ground game, vicious striking and an iron will, coming back from the brink of being finished via KO multiple times to score a TKO victory of his own. 

Dvalishvili’s wrestling and power-neutralizing disposition pose major threats to any of the top contenders, and with an All-Star team at Serra-Longo behind him, Dvalishvili is in a great position to make noise at 135. “The Machine” is poised to draw a top-five opponent in his next outing, a golden opportunity to formally put his name in the title conversation. 

(UR) Sean O’Malley (14-1)

O’Malley’s combination of Octagon success, flashy behavior and eccentric personality has earned him the status of being the most popular unranked fighter in the promotion. 

Ever since his stint on Dana White’s Contender Series in 2017, O’Malley’s smooth yet deadly striking has created a highlight reel’s worth of knockouts. Adopting a free-flowing, unorthodox boxing style, O’Malley unleashes pinpoint accurate punches and over-the-top kicks that make him a treat to watch every time he makes the walk. 

Rebounding from his sole loss to Marlon Vera (18-7-1) in 2020, O’Malley has strung together two straight impressive KO victories. However, it is clear that the UFC plans to milk his stardom by feeding him lesser opponents, such as an aging Thomas Almeida (22-5) and UFC debutant Kris Moutinho (9-5). 

Regardless of his opponents’ skill sets, O’Malley is enormously talented. Towering above every 135 contender at 5-foot-11, O’Malley’s frame creates size mismatches across the division. Drawing Raulian Paiva (21-3) at UFC 269 next month, O’Malley may finally be able to get a number next to his name with a win. 

(UR) Danaa Batgerel (10-2)

Terrifying world-ending power is something seldom found in the lighter weight classes. Mongolia’s Batgerel is one of those exceptions, as evident by his last three fights, which each ended via first-round KO. 

Batgerel is unrelenting in his forward pressure and consistently controls the pace from the center of the Octagon. Such a tactic not only allows him to set up his nuclear left hand, but also a whole host of striking tools, such as kicks, knees and elbows. 

Batgerel has his sights set on bigger fish, calling out O’Malley and former champion José Aldo (30-7) at his last post-fight press conference. Such ambitions are entirely deserved, but it is yet to be seen if Batgerel’s touch of death will translate into the top 15. Otherwise, the bantamweight division should be on notice for the impending “Storm” barreling toward them. 

As always, be sure to check out @TheRedCornerDFP for live fight results, breaking news and full card predictions. 

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