Indeed, Saturday will go down as a night MMA fans will remember for a while, mostly due to the stunning performances by Sean O’Malley, Aljamain Sterling and Cody Garbrandt at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas.
O’Malley, the ballyhooed prospect, started the excitement with a one-punch knockout in the first round to defeat veteran Eddie Wineland and move to 12-0.
Not much later, Sterling finished Cory Sandhagen with a rear-naked choke less than two minutes into the opening round, making his case as the top title contender at 135. Garbrandt, a former UFC bantamweight champ, followed in the co-main event with a stunning KO of Raphael Assuncao as the horn sounded at the end of Round 2.
What does the future hold for each of those fighters? Does the women’s featherweight division have a future after Nunes’ drubbing of top contender Felicia Spencer in the main event? Is McGregor bluffing? ESPN’s expert panel of Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto and Marc Raimondi tackle those topics and more.
Where does this performance put Sean O’Malley in the bantamweight picture?
Sean O’Malley says he envisioned himself knocking out Eddie Wineland in the first round of UFC 250, which is a reason why he was calm afterward.
Helwani: I love the way the UFC has booked Sean O’Malley. Sometimes it gets too excited and pushes someone too quickly, but it has pushed him just right, in my opinion. Of course, he was sidelined for two years due to his issues with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency, but even upon returning the matchups have been just right. I don’t want to see him in there with a top-five opponent just yet. Let’s go with top-six-to-10 next and if he wins that, top-five, and then if he wins that we can talk title shot. Slow and steady wins the race here, and they are so far doing a great job of showcasing him in the right matchups. He has it all and is worth going with the slow-build route.
Okamoto: One step closer to becoming a star, definitely. I don’t want to oversell it. O’Malley still has a long way to go in terms of becoming a household name and a pay-per-view draw. Being a hot prospect with a ton of hype is one thing. Inspiring people to drop money to see you fight is another. He also has a long way to go in terms of toppling the top of this division, which, it should be noted, is stacked. There are some very tough matchups lying ahead for O’Malley, and he knows that. Here’s what’s exciting, though: He has shown that ability to always top his previous performance. That’s hard to do. It’s very difficult to pull one viral moment after another, say the right things in the aftermath, and exceed the expectations of hype. O’Malley is doing that. And that’s probably the surest sign of a budding star there is.
Raimondi: Wow. O’Malley is the real deal, huh? That was a really impressive knockout of Eddie Wineland. It really does feel as though O’Malley is on a different level. And there’s just something about him — an aura, or maybe it’s the rainbow hair — that makes him stand out as a potential star. Maybe not even potential. O’Malley might already be there. So, the question is how quickly does the UFC push him to the top of the division? It might be really tempting for the promotion to elevate him, and I think that will happen. I’d imagine the “Suga Show” involves a top-10 opponent next time and I would not be shocked if O’Malley is just about two wins — or fewer — away from a title shot.
Which fighter stood out during the prelims?
Helwani: I was blown away by what Cody Stamann did out there. Not only was that arguably his best performance in the UFC so far, but when you consider he fought with a very heavy heart, it is even more impressive. In case you missed it, Stamman’s 18-year-old brother, Jacob, died unexpectedly May 27. He told ESPN’s Marc Raimondi this week that the family still doesn’t know what caused his untimely death. Amazingly, Stamann was still able to finish his training camp for this bout and fight like that. And, understandably, he was incredibly emotional afterward. Lots of respect for the way he handled that; worth mentioning, too, that his opponent, Brian Kelleher handled the situation with the utmost class, as well.
Okamoto: It ain’t easy fighting in the UFC at age 20. That’s the takeaway. Chase Hooper ran into an absolute wall against Alex Caceres — but that doesn’t mean he’s overrated. Was he rushed into that matchup? Yeah, it would seem he was. Vegas had Hooper as more than a 2-to-1 favorite, but sometimes experience trumps all, and that’s what we saw on Saturday. Caceres has had a very uneven history in the UFC. He’s earned his share of upsets, but he’s laid an egg or two. He’s also been in there 22 times. For Hooper, Saturday was only his second trip into the Octagon. He didn’t have the ability to adjust. His answer to his game plan not working was to just try harder to implement it. This is the drawback in making it to the UFC before the legal drinking age. Sometimes it’s gonna look like this. Hooper remains a very high prospect, though.
Raimondi: Alex Perez is very much a legitimate flyweight title contender. It appears Deiveson Figueiredo and Joseph Benavidez will rematch for the vacant title this summer after Figueiredo missed weight prior to their first fight in February. Figueiredo beat Benavidez at UFC Norfolk, but there was also a clash of heads that led to the TKO finish. Figueiredo vs. Benavidez 2 is definitely the next fight to make, but Perez put himself on that shortlist of future contenders Saturday by beating Jussier Formiga. It wasn’t just that he beat Formiga; it was how he did it. Perez destroyed Formiga’s calf with low leg kicks until he just could no longer stand up. It was a first-round leg-kick TKO in the first round against a perennial 125-pound contender. Extremely impressive.
Do you expect Aljamain Sterling to be wearing a belt by the end of the year?
Aljamain Sterling contends that if people continue to doubt him, the more money they will lose after his submission win over Cory Sandhagen.
Helwani: Well, in my mind he is the champion. Or at least the uncrowned champion. I sincerely think this should have been the vacant title fight, and while I don’t want to advocate for the UFC taking the title shot away from Jose Aldo, because that just wouldn’t be fair, the next fight should really be Sterling vs. Petr Yan for the undisputed title. But alas, he’ll have to wait. And I wonder for how long. If that title fight happens in the summer, it might be a while before he actually gets to fight for the belt. Unfortunate, but for now, congrats to him. Phenomenal win.
Okamoto: You know what? I do. I really do. I’m gonna plant my flag on the Sterling bandwagon right now. I’ve been singing this guy’s praises really ever since he lost to Marlon Moraes in devastating fashion. Since then, he’s rattled off five consecutive wins and, more than that, it just feels as though Sterling has figured it out. And that’s really what so many of us were waiting for. If you remember back to the beginning of his UFC career, this was the guy. His ceiling was so high. Smart, physical gifts, solid grappling base. It took him a while to get comfortable on the feet, but he’s there now. And that comfort level is making a difference in his grappling. Sterling is fighting with a lot of confidence, and he’s going in with a plan. He knows what he wants to do and he’s confident in his skill set to get it accomplished. I think he’s a bad matchup for a lot of the division.
Raimondi: He has to at least fight for the bantamweight title this year, right? Sterling has won five straight and he absolutely rolled through Sandhagen on Saturday. Very few saw that coming. Sterling got Sandhagen’s back and put the squeeze on. It’s very hard to survive in that position against Sterling. The rear-naked-choke finish came in less than 90 seconds. Sandhagen was the favorite coming in and had a ton of hype, because of his high-level striking and footwork. Sterling never let him get going.
It seems Petr Yan vs. Jose Aldo will be next for the vacant bantamweight title, though it’s not official. Maybe Sterling gets slotted into Aldo’s spot? Maybe not. Either way, if Henry Cejudo is truly retired right now, I don’t think there’s a better fighter in the division than Aljamain Sterling. If he gets the title shot, I believe he’ll become the UFC bantamweight champion. Cejudo vs. Sterling would be so darn good though, wouldn’t it?
What was your biggest takeaway from Cody Garbrandt’s performance?
Helwani: Mark Henry is a phenomenal coach. Loved Garbrandt’s decision to work with the New Jersey-based Henry, whom I consider one of the best striking coaches in the game. He needed to switch things up after suffering three losses in a row, and Henry was just what the doctor ordered. I never subscribed to the theory that he was shot, but he needed an emphatic win like that to remind everyone just how good he is, and he got it, thanks in large part to his work with Henry recently.
Okamoto: He’s back. And I know that’s cliché. I know it’s the most overused line in combat sports, and maybe sports in general. But Garbrandt is back … and, you know what — he never left! How about that? Cliché city. But just take a look at what happened to the guy. He suffered through injuries prior to his first knockout loss to TJ Dillashaw. And then he lost his head coach in Justin Buchholz. Garbrandt once compared it to an NFL quarterback departing from his offensive coordinator. It takes a minute to reestablish that connection. He seems to have that now with Mark Henry. I loved what I saw from Garbrandt, and I do think criticisms of his chin might have been a little overblown. He’s not even 30 yet. I think he’s still very much a title contender in this division.
Raimondi: Everything he said leading into Saturday was legitimate. Garbrandt said he had made the necessary changes to his training, going to New Jersey for part of his camp to train with Mark Henry. Garbrandt said he swore off the tendency to be roped into brawls. Garbrandt said he hadn’t been as excited about a fight week since he beat Dominick Cruz to win the bantamweight title in 2016. All of those things ended up being accurate in Garbrandt’s violent, highlight-reel knockout of Raphael Assuncao right at the second-round buzzer. How many times do fighters on a losing streak say they’ve made all the right changes and they’re ready to get back on the winning track, but it never ends up happening in practice? More times than not. But not this time.
Garbrandt was self-aware, spot on and he seems truly ready to get back into the bantamweight mix now after three consecutive losses. He’s still just 28 and has all the physical tools anyone could want. It’ll be exciting to see if he can get all the way back. No fighter in UFC history has lost the world title, lost three straight at any point and come back to win the belt again.
Is Conor McGregor really gone this time?
Hey guys I’ve decided to retire from fighting.
Thank you all for the amazing memories! What a ride it’s been!
Here is a picture of myself and my mother in Las Vegas post one of my World title wins!
Pick the home of your dreams Mags I love you!
Whatever you desire it’s yours ❤️ pic.twitter.com/Dh4ijsZacZ
— Conor McGregor (@TheNotoriousMMA) June 7, 2020
Helwani: I think he’s being serious right now. Today. Tomorrow? That remains to be seen. We’ve been here before, right? He’s an emotional guy. I think he is frustrated because there’s no obvious opponent out there right now, which is strange considering the draw he is. I think he wanted the Justin Gaethje fight, and he was disappointed when it didn’t materialize. I think he wanted the Anderson Silva fight, and is disappointed that is not materializing. But as he has said to me many times, he’ll never stop fighting. He reiterated this back in January. Ultimately, I think he is very upset his 2020 plans have taken a detour. He was hoping to fight July 11 in his second fight of the year and now that appears to be a long shot. A developing situation.
Okamoto: LOL. No. McGregor did not just retire from MMA with a tweet, immediately after a pay-per-view event on a Saturday night. Let’s be real here. However, the timing of his tweet, as it relates to other stars — Jon Jones, Jorge Masvidal, Henry Cejudo — does make it more interesting.
Raimondi: Of course not. I’d be absolutely shocked if McGregor never fought again. That doesn’t mean retirement won’t happen. It’s just highly unlikely. This is McGregor’s third time announcing his “retirement” on Twitter. The previous two times were during disputes with the UFC. This past week, UFC president Dana White said it might be best for McGregor to not fight at the moment and wait for the winner of a lightweight title fight between champion Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje. McGregor, meanwhile, has wanted to stay active, though the coronavirus pandemic has thrown a wrench in those plans. There’s likely a correlation between what White is saying and what McGregor tweeted Saturday night. The details of the disagreement will surely come out in time.
Should the UFC keep the 145-pound division?
Amanda Nunes puts on a dominating performance against Felicia Spencer, landing heavy blows to the head throughout.
Helwani: I think the promotion should keep it. Part of what has made Nunes’ run so great is that she is a double champion, so it has value. I’d like to see them continue to invest in the division and find new talent. The good thing about Nunes being the double champion is that she can go back down to 135 and do work there while a queue forms at 145. This buys the UFC time. It would be more problematic if there were separate champs at 135 and 145. Nunes doesn’t (and shouldn’t) have to fight at 145 next, so there’s no rush there. I say bring on Irene Aldana at 135 next.
Okamoto: If it were up to me, no. I don’t expect them to close it right now, and so I actually think Amanda Nunes’ next fight could be against Megan Anderson. I mean, she’s already at the 145-pound weight. Anderson is a new opponent, and she’s a dangerous striker. The truth is, I don’t give Anderson much of a shot, at all, in that fight — but that’s the case with a lot of potential Nunes opponents. Maybe have that fight and then close it? It’s never made sense, quite frankly. The UFC never wanted it, but made it because it had to do something with Cris “Cyborg” Justino after Ronda Rousey lost and that potential dream matchup was sunk. So, they made it, and it’s been fine. We’ve seen some good fights in that division. But with Justino gone and Nunes the bantamweight champ, and still no depth in the division to speak of, I wouldn’t mind seeing it closed down. If we’re being honest, it already barely exists.
Raimondi: Sure, but only if the UFC truly invests in the division. There isn’t a ton of talent at women’s featherweight out there, if we’re being honest. However, there are some fighters competing in the UFC’s women’s bantamweight division who cut a ton of weight and would actually benefit from a move up. If the UFC can incentivize such a move, the division might be worth keeping around. Here’s the other thing, though: It isn’t as though women’s bantamweight is stacked with potential contenders for Amanda Nunes, either. So you don’t really want to sap the depth of that weight class. The women’s featherweight division was really put in place only for Cris Cyborg to have a home, but now that she has left for Bellator its relevance has waned.