UFC Bantamweight Division: Champion, Rising Contenders, Next Big Fights

Photo credit USA Today Sports

By Pete Hoffman 

The UFC declared Dominick Cruz its first bantamweight champion on Dec. 16, 2010, after he successfully defended his WEC belt against Scott Jorgensen. Since its inception, the belt has changed hands five times: Renan Barao was given the belt in early 2014 when Cruz was stripped due to injuries; T.J. Dillashaw beat Barao; then lost the belt to Cruz on a very close decision; Cruz passed the belt to up-and-coming Cody Garbandt in just the second loss of his MMA career. 

The first person Garbrandt called out was Dillashaw, his former teammate. They had issues with each other stemming from Dillashaw leaving Team Alpha Male to follow coach Duane Ludwig. Dillashaw promptly accepted the title shot. 

Garbrandt and Dillashaw went on to coach a very entertaining season of “The Ultimate Fighter: Redemption,” featuring veterans Joe “Daddy” Stevenson, Hayder Hassan, Dhiego Lima, James Krause, and TUF winner Jesse Taylor. They clearly did not like each other, and that showed on camera. In every episode, Garbrandt was seen being held back by his teammates while screaming and yelling at Dillashaw. 

This led into their first fight on Nov. 4, 2017, at Madison Square Garden. Garbrandt was coming off some severe back issues, postponing the fight until it landed as the co-main event of UFC 217. The extra time did not seem to help the champion. Garbrandt knocked down and nearly finished Dillashaw in the first round. But Dillashaw landed a devastating head kick early in the second round, setting up the TKO finish.

The rematch took place this August and ended in similar fashion. Garbrandt swung for the fences and left himself open for the same killshot, which ended the fight this time in Round 1. 

The immediate conversation after the fight was: Who’s next for Dillashaw? The answer: a superfight in the dismantled 125-pound flyweight division against current champ Henry Cejudo. If Dillashaw wins, the flyweight division may be tossed to the curb permanently. “They paid me a f— ton of money to kill the division,” Dillashaw recently said on Ariel Helwani’s “MMA Show.” 

With the division being held up by Dillashaw-Cejudo, how do the rest of the bantamweights shape up?

No. 5-ranked bantamweight Jimmie Rivera recently joined “Outside the Cage” and discussed how he was eyeing Garbrandt; due to injuries, Garbrandt is said to still be unavailable to fight. But Rivera has an opportunity to step up to fight Raphael Assuncao, who will not be fighting Marlon Maraes. The Rivera-Assuncao fight seems close to official. Rivera told us that the two camps talked the day before UFC 230. “I’ve just been waiting for a contract, my manager and his manager were at the Glory fights the night before with Sean Shelby, they said yes to the fight,” Rivera said. The hope is Rivera can fight Assuncao on the UFC 233 card in January — Cruz, the former champ, is slated to face John Lineker that night — and showcase the bantamweight division. 

Rivera suffered his only UFC loss to Moraes, the No. 3-ranked bantamweight, in June by a lethal headkick 30 seconds into Round 1. In his past two fights, Moraes has knocked out Rivera and Aljamain Sterling in a combined 1:41. Few seem to be willing to step into the cage with the fast-rising 30-year-old. Moraes has fought only once in 2018. As the year ends, there is no word on his next opponent.

  • Sterling, the No. 7-ranked bantamweight known as “Funk Master,” is coming off an amazing submission over Cody Stamann. If you saw the free-flowing Yair Rodriguez fight at UFC Fight Night 139, Sterling has a similar funky style that provides fans with never-before-seen finishes.
  • No. 12-ranked bantamweight Alejandro Perez is undefeated in his past seven fights. He most notably won “The Ultimate Fighter: Latin America” back in 2014. He tends to go the distance in most of his fights, but can take advantage of mistakes when needed. 
  • No. 15-ranked bantamweight Rani Yahya is 7-1-1 in his return to the division. The 34-year-old vet has finished his past three opponents via submission. The Brazilian has a black belt in Muay Thai, but relies on his Jiu-Jitsu skills more than anything. His opponents’ only shot is the beginning of each round.  
  • Unranked bantamweight Mark De La Rosa has seven of his 11 professional wins via stoppage. The 24-year-old’s lone loss was to unique veteran Tim Elliot, seven years his elder. He has a lot of buzz behind him after securing another win at UFC Fight Night 139. De La Rosa could eventually find himself back in the flyweight division if UFC chooses to keep the division. If not, don’t be surprised to see him facing a ranked opponent in the near future.

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