Written by Jack Zampillo (@Jack_Zampillo15) — March 26th, 2020
The day following UFC 245, a night in which the bantamweight division made a lot of noise, current champion Henry Cejudo made an unusual, somewhat surprising call out. He poked at featherweight legend Jose Aldo, who is coming off of his first fight at 135 pounds, a decision loss to Marlon Moraes. At first, this was deemed Cejudo’s call for attention, considering the last time he felt praise was back in June. An attempt to ensure relevancy, if you will. However, in the weeks following, UFC president Dana White stated that there was mutual interest between the company and Cejudo’s desire. Before we knew it, UFC 250 had its headliner.
Following the controversial decision to make Aldo the man to challenge Henry Cejudo in his first title defense, the question surrounding the 135 pound division is: Why? With so many elite, deserving contenders hungry to get their crack at the belt, why would the UFC determine that a fighter on a 2 fight losing streak is the man for the job? Where’s the legitimacy here? Here’s what Cejudo had to say in regards to the fight:
I will reiterate from my previous articles: This game is just as much about business as it is about fighting. The UFC’s decision, while flawed, was merely for money. UFC 250 will take place in Brazil, where Jose Aldo is idolized as one of the greatest athletes to ever represent the country. Putting him in a fight of this magnitude increases ticket sales and gives the bout more global recognition. The UFC continuously strives to become an international powerhouse, and putting together a fight like this accomplishes that goal.
Whether this uncharacteristic decision can be justified or not, the facts are the facts. This fight is going to take place, barring any roadblocks. From here, the question arises: How should the rest of the division proceed with finding its next #1 contender? Who’s going to separate themselves out from the rest of the pack? Let’s take a look at the potential threats to the throne.
Petr “No Mercy” Yan
A champion needs to possess the ability to succeed no matter where the fight goes. Petr Yan fits that bill. The Russian striker boasts a 14–1 record with 6 wins by (T)KO and possesses a very underrated grappling game. As a guy who packs a right hand with a lot of power behind it, his opponents tend to plan for a barrage of power punching. However, Yan’s versatility brings about another threat of attack within his game: Grappling.
Let’s take a look at Yan’s most recent win at UFC 245, where he prevailed over UFC Hall of Famer Urijah Faber. Faber is a crafty veteran with 17 submission wins to his name. Going into that fight, I truly believed Faber’s grappling abilities would be the factor that put a halt to the Petr Yan hype train. Much to my surprise, Yan inflicted a significant amount of damage when the two men engaged in the clinch, capitalized by a heavy elbow in the clinch that dropped Faber, opening up a large gash under the California native’s eye. The finishing sequence of the bout occurred in the clinch as well. Petr Yan landed one of the most picture perfect head kicks I have ever seen in the midst of separation, putting Faber’s lights out and securing the victory early in the third round.
Yan’s ability to compete at the highest of levels in all aspects of the game is very apparent, but the key piece to his game may go unseen by some. What separates Yan out from the other elite combatants at 135 pounds? The patience and technicality that he brings to the table. Yan is a master at reading movement and his octagon instincts shine brighter each time he fights. The way he uses feints to make reads combined with the ability to put any opponent out with one strike makes for a force to (or not to be) reckoned with. I can hardly wait to see what the future holds for Petr Yan.
Next Fight: Saturday, June 13th vs Marlon Moraes
“Magic” Marlon Moraes
Marlon Moraes is in a tough spot. With a decisive stoppage loss to Cejudo at UFC 238, a rematch between the two would be a hard fight to sell. The UFC tends to shy away from rematches in which the challenger was on the losing end the first time around. However, with a #1 still next to his name in the rankings, another victory over a top contender would have to put Moraes’ name back into the conversation.
Fighting out of American Top Team, the Brazilian native holds a 23–6–1 record with 16 stoppage wins to his name. As one of the division’s most elite strikers with 6 submission wins under his belt, Moraes presents many problems for anybody looking to claim his #1 contender spot. Coming off of a very underrated performance against Jose Aldo, Moraes has a dangerous fight ahead of him. The 31-year-old is hungry to make a statement that will get him right back into the title picture.
Next Fight: Saturday, June 13th vs Petr Yan
Cory “The Sandman” Sandhagen
The most overlooked contender at the 135 pound division is Cory Sandhagen. The #4 ranked Bantamweight is riding a 7-fight win streak and is trending up. Fighting out of Colorado, the Elevation Fight Team product has turned in a 12–1 record with 7 stoppage victories. Elevation Fight Team is a gym that is rapidly on the rise and their fighters have turned in some very impressive performances of late. Most notably, top heavyweight contender Curtis Blaydes, who is riding a first round knockout over Junior Dos Santos.
A tool in Sandhagen’s arsenal that stands out is the height and reach advantage he has over most of his opponents at bantamweight. Uncharacteristically big for the weight class, Sandhagen uses this to his advantage, which could work wonders for him, especially against stockier fighters like Cejudo and Yan. Sandhagen stands at 5’11 and holds a 70’ inch reach. Henry Cejudo stands at 5’4 with a 64’ inch reach. As a world-class striker who also has a brown belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, Sandhagen presents many problems to anyone looking to take him out. Keep an eye out for the ascending bantamweight and the rest of the Elevation Fight Team.
Next Fight: June 6th, 2020 vs Aljamain Stirling
Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling
With rumors of a potential Sandhagen vs. Dominick Cruz fight coming to a halt, Sterling vs. Sandhagen is imperative considering the state of the division. I really enjoyed what the UFC did to determine the top contender in the Women’s Featherweight division. They put 2 important fights on the main card with the idea that whoever made the biggest statement would be next for champion Amanda Nunes. Why not do that again? Let’s make Sterling vs Sandhagen the co-main event to Yan and Moraes on June 13th. The guy who turns in the best performance is next for whoever emerges victorious on May 9th.
Next Fight: June 6th, 2020 vs Cory Sandhagen
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