One could make a strong argument the men’s bantamweight division is currently the deepest and most exciting division in the UFC. Yet at the same time, the 135-pound weight class has more often than not operated without a stable champion for much of the past decade.
Petr Yan defeated Jose Aldo in impressive fashion to win the vacant title at UFC 251 on Fight Island, a result that can hopefully bring some stability to the division moving forward.
A little history lesson: Dominick Cruz was named the inaugural and undisputed champion back in 2010 when the UFC enveloped the WEC and began promoting bantamweight fights for the first time. Cruz defended his belt in his first two UFC appearances against Urijah Faber and Demetrious Johnson and the division was humming along normally. However, this is when Cruz sustained multiple injuries that kept him out of action for nearly three years.
During Cruz’s absence the UFC introduced an interim title which Renan Barao won. Barao was promoted to undisputed champion when it was unclear if and when Cruz might return. So Barao was the champ but since he didn’t beat Cruz to get the title there was always a bit of an asterisk beside Barao’s title reign that saw him beat Faber, Michael McDonald and Eddie Wineland.
T.J. Dillashaw won the belt from Barao and held it for more than two years before Cruz, who had since returned, was given a shot to reclaim what he never truly lost. Cruz beat Dillashaw in early 2016 and there was no denying Cruz was back to being the undisputed champ.
Cruz eventually lost to Cody Garbrandt and 11 months after that, Dillashaw beat Garbrandt to become the lineal champion for the first time.
Dillashaw and Garbrandt met in an immediate rematch in August 2018 and Dillashaw defeated Garbrandt for a second time. Dillashaw then attempted to become a double champ so he moved down to flyweight to challenge the 125-pound titleholder Henry Cejudo.
Here’s where the division starts to get muddled again.
Dillashaw was TKO’d by Cejudo in January 2019, so he didn’t win the flyweight title but remained the bantamweight champ. However, Dillashaw failed pre- and post-fight drug tests and was subsequently stripped of his belt and suspended from competition for two years.
Since Cejudo already had a win over the 135-pound champ and didn’t have much else to prove at 125 pounds, he moved up in weight and the UFC paired him with Marlon Moraes. The two fought for the vacant title, which Cejudo won thanks to a third-round TKO.
Cejudo then defended the belt against Cruz in May at UFC 249 but after the fight announced his surprise retirement, thus putting the division in limbo yet again.
Following Cejudo’s decision Dana White wasted no time announcing Yan would fight for the newly-vacated title. Despite being officially ranked No. 3 in the division, many fans and pundits considered Yan to be the future of the division.
Aldo was initially slated to fight Cejudo at UFC 249 before COVID-related travel issues forced him off the card, so that’s why the UFC ended up giving the former featherweight champion a shot.
Yan pelted Aldo with a whopping 258 strikes, landing with more than 68 per cent accuracy, and joined Max Holloway and Conor McGregor as the only fighters to finish Aldo with strikes when he put him away in the fifth round.
RUSSIA HAS A NEW CHAMPION!
— UFC (@ufc) July 12, 2020
Yan is now 7-0 since debuting in the UFC just two years ago. The 27-year-old Russian said he plans on taking a bit of time off but hopes to make his first title defence around October.
“I think Aljamain Sterling deserves to fight for the title,” Yan said at his post-fight media availability. “He’s on a good streak. He beat a lot of good guys.”
Sterling is ranked No. 2 in the division, has won five in a row and absolutely should be next in line. He recently submitted Cory Sandhagen at UFC 250, an event that featured a handful of top bantamweight contenders.
Former champion Cody Garbrandt got back on the winning track with a Knockout of the Year-calibre win over Rafael Assuncao.
Sean O’Malley is the division’s biggest rising star and earned a big win over Eddie Wineland. He is set to face Marlon Vera at UFC 252 in August.
Sandhagen and Cruz are still relevant despite coming off stoppage losses. Brazilians sluggers Marlon Moraes and Pedro Munhoz are also factors in the division. Moraes doesn’t have an opponent lined up, but Munhoz is set to welcome Frankie Edgar to the bantamweight division in August.
The former champ Cejudo is a wild card considering he has been more vocal since retiring than he was while active and there’s always the possibility he ends his retirement early to try to prove he’s still the top 135-pounder in the sport.
All that is to say the division is the strongest it has been in years and has an imposing new champion ready to defend the title with regularity.