Who should fight for the UFC’s vacant bantamweight title?

MMA


TJ Dillashaw relinquished the UFC bantamweight belt last week after the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency and the New York State Athletic Commission informed him of an “adverse analytical finding” in a drug test dating back to his most recent fight, in January in Brooklyn. He was given a one-year suspension and fined for his actions. The news sent MMA fighters, fans and media into a frenzy as the top of the division was now up for grabs.

UFC flyweight champion Henry Cejudo has long stated he wanted to move up a weight class to become a double champion. But what would that mean for the 125-pound division? Bantamweights Marlon Moraes, Aljamain Sterling, Pedro Munhoz and others all have legitimate claims to a title fight.

Who should fight for that vacant championship? ESPN’s MMA contributors — Brett Okamoto, Ariel Helwani, Eric Jackman, Jeff Wagenheim, Andrew Davis and Chamatkar Sandhu — give their answers.


Okamoto: Cejudo vs. Moraes is the fight to make … if the UFC is shutting down the flyweight division. If the 125-pound flyweight division has a future, then no; there is no reason for Cejudo to move up. But if that division is going away, then of course; Cejudo should get an opportunity to replace the belt that’s being dissolved.

To me, this is just further proof the UFC wants to close the flyweight division as soon as possible, and will do so the minute it feels it can. For the record, I personally want the division to continue. I think it will say something sad of the sport, if the leading promotion in the world closes a competitive, talented division because it’s given up on that division’s ability to ever draw viewers. But at this point, there is very little reason to believe the UFC wants to stay in the flyweight business — and if that is indeed the case, Cejudo vs. Moraes is the obvious fight to make for the bantamweight title.


Helwani: I wasn’t interested in seeing an immediate rematch between Dillashaw and Cejudo this summer because I felt like it held up the flyweight and bantamweight divisions again. However, given Dillashaw’s recent suspension, I do think Cejudo vs. Moraes is the fight to make for the vacant title. First, Moraes went from being (unjustly) the odd man out to the no-brainer choice to fight for the belt. His next fight should have always been a title fight, so his inclusion is an easy one. He’s earned that opportunity. And Cejudo just knocked out Dillashaw in 32 seconds, so it’s hard to deny him a shot at the bantamweight belt, if he wants it.

I still don’t think they should get rid of the flyweights, though. Have the winner of Joseph Benavidez vs. Jussier Formiga II fight while Cejudo moves up and have Pedro Munhoz vs. Aljamain Sterling as the No. 1 bantamweight contender fight, too. The UFC needs as many belts as possible, so there’s no need to get rid of one, especially when a budding star like Cejudo is still champion.


Wagenheim: Moraes is a given. He’s won four fights in a row and just last month had a dominant finish in a No. 1 contender showdown with Rafael Assuncao, who had handed him his only loss in 21 fights going all the way back to 2011. But who should it be staring across the cage at Moraes?

The key word here is “should.” If we were being asked to predict who will tussle for the belt, I’d have to go with Cejudo because that’s who Dana White is predicting. As UFC President, he has insider information. But I don’t think the king of the flyweights should be stepping up to bantamweight just yet.

Flyweights have been an endangered species ever since Demetrious Johnson started making it look so damn easy to mow them down, one after the other. But “Mighty Mouse” is gone, and Cejudo, as a new champion with zero title defenses, has work to do against some legitimate 125-pound contenders. Benavidez has won eight of his last nine — including a victory over Cejudo. And if “The Messenger” can persevere through that challenge, next in line would be Formiga, who took Cejudo to a split decision in 2015 and has won four in a row, most recently dealing fellow top-10 fighter Deiveson Figueiredo his first career loss on Saturday.

So I say let’s buck this champ-champ trend and book Moraes in a tug-of-war for the 135-pound belt with Munhoz. The 32-year-old has won three fights in a row, seven of eight, and is coming off a spectacular KO of ex-champ Cody Garbrandt earlier this month. Another option would be Sterling, but his current run of three straight wins came only after he was KO’d by Moraes just 15 months ago. So let’s go with the fresh matchup, and let’s allow bantamweights to be bantamweights.


Jackman: Being fair infrequently comes into play with modern matchmaking. But if we’re operating under the illusion that justice matters, Cejudo gave the bantamweight champion an opportunity to take his title. It would stand to reason that the favor be returned since he thwarted that effort.

There are two things at play here muddying the waters. The first is that a superfight was created for Dillashaw and he did not win that fight, further complicating an already messy bantamweight picture and leaving more contenders than possible title fights in the near term. The second is the lack of direction for flyweight. If it’s going to be shuttered, it would be beneficial to have that clarity sooner rather than later. If it’s not, then Benavidez and Jussier Formiga sounds like a great No. 1 contender bout to me.

I don’t see a Cejudo win at bantamweight holding much up. Double champs never last, the machine keeps chugging along and he’ll settle into a home somewhere, restoring order to both divisions. A Cejudo loss has the same effect. So let’s definitively close the book on flyweight vs. bantamweight and move on. Give me Cejudo vs. Moraes, Sterling vs. Assuncao and Benavidez vs. Formiga.


Tamiso: Cejudo vs. Moraes is the fight to make. Cejudo knocked out the former champ in January and Moraes avenged the only loss he’s had in his past 18 bouts in February. Cejudo was already campaigning for a chance to become a champ-champ, and shouldn’t be penalized for Dillashaw getting suspended.

Benavidez and Formiga are the only two worthy contenders to challenge Cejudo at flyweight, but Dana White announced that they’ll be fighting each other. Unless Demetrious Johnson gets traded back to the UFC, the belt should be put on hiatus until those two square off. For bantamweight contenders Sterling and Munhoz, who are each on three-fight win streaks, neither have the resume or momentum of Cejudo or Moraes.


Davis: People are quick to bash the UFC when they don’t give us the matchup the fans want or the fighters want. But in this case, I’m praising the UFC brass because they are spot on with the next steps at bantamweight and flyweight.

Let’s start at bantamweight where Moraes has won four straight, the longest active streak along with former champion Dillashaw and rising prospect Petr Yan. With the last three wins coming by stoppage, Moraes is a lock. For the opponent, I favor Cejudo because of beating Dillashaw and the trash talk that has already begun with Moraes. As for Aljamain Sterling and Pedro Munhoz? Put them on the same card in the ESPN feature bout and call it a No. 1 contenders fight. Heck, give me Yan vs. Assuncao too.

Now to flyweight, where Formiga and Benavidez are the two best contenders and absolutely deserve a shot at the title. Both have history with Cejudo (Formiga lost, Benavidez won), but if Cejudo becomes “champ-champ,” he should stay at bantamweight and relinquish the flyweight title. If Cejudo loses, he defends against the Formiga-Benavidez winner and the 125-pound division continues on like the fans and fighters want (maybe even Uncle Dana, too).


Sandhu: Will the UFC flyweight division be around in 2020, let alone by the end of this year? Can UFC President Dana White come out, make a statement pledging unwavering support for the 125-pound fighters on the roster and tell them there is a future for this weight class? If the answer to both of those questions is yes, then of course, you want Cejudo to fight the rightful contender — which in my opinion should be Benavidez. However the promotion has let a bulk of their flyweight prospects walk and haven’t signed any new talent. It saddens me to say this, but the future of the flyweight division is on life support and it might be time to pull the plug so everyone can just move on.

That being said, flyweight champion Henry Cejudo has gone out of his way to insert some genuine stakes and narrative since winning the title (unlike former titleholder Johnson). Why not use him to give the vacant 135-pound championship situation some gravitas and a real sense of history being made? If Cejudo wins, he’d be only the seventh fighter in company history to be a two-weight champion. In terms of eyeballs, Cejudo vs. Moraes is the pairing that would get the most attention right now. Cejudo just beat the former champ Dillashaw at 125 pounds, who then went on to test positive for performance-enhancing drugs. Moraes has been on a tear and has, rightfully, inserted himself as the No. 1 contender.



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