UFC 238 bantamweight ‘tournament’ will shape division in 2019 and beyond

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Jun 5, 2019

    Brett OkamotoESPN Staff Writer

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    • MMA columnist for ESPN.com
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    • Analyst for “MMA Live”
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    • Covered MMA for Las Vegas Sun

The UFC was originally built on a one-night tournament format back in 1993. And while those days are obviously long gone, Saturday’s UFC 238 feels like a bit of a throwback — at least as far as the bantamweight division is concerned.

This weekend will see the UFC’s first 135-pound title fight since former champion TJ Dillashaw was stripped of his belt because of a failed drug test. Flyweight champion Henry Cejudo will move up in weight to face Marlon Moraes for the vacant strap.

The main event is just one of several high-profile bantamweight matchups at UFC 238. The card also features Jimmie Rivera vs. Petr Yan, and Aljamain Sterling vs. Pedro Munhoz.

How will the results of these three fights affect one another? And what’s really at stake in each? ESPN is here to help sort out this mini “tournament.”

Henry Cejudo (14-2) vs. Marlon Moraes (22-5-1)

Why this matchup?

Once news broke that Dillashaw was suspended through 2021, this was the obvious call. Cejudo was already in talks about moving up in weight, and Moraes was clearly the No. 1 contender. In fact, if there was a silver lining in Dillashaw’s disappointing suspension, it was that Moraes wouldn’t have to wait for his title opportunity, because he’s more than deserving. The Brazilian has finished his past three opponents inside the first round.

What’s at stake for Cejudo?

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This is a “legacy” type fight for Cejudo. In case you haven’t heard, this man enjoys reminding people he won an Olympic gold medal in wrestling. He also likes to bring up his win over the great Demetrious Johnson in 2018, as well as his first-round knockout over Dillashaw at 125 pounds in January. A second belt would further raise Cejudo’s profile, which, in turn, could raise something else: the figures on his paychecks.

What’s at stake for Moraes?

Moraes has been virtually perfect since 2012. The former WSOF champion’s only loss in 17 fights during that stretch came to Raphael Assuncao in a razor-thin split decision in Moraes’ UFC debut. From the moment Moraes signed with the UFC in 2017, he was pegged as a potential champ. A win would obviously make good on all those early expectations.

Style breakdown: Cejudo is coming off the two biggest wins of his career, and he didn’t rely on his wrestling too much in either one. It will be interesting to see if he reverts to his base. Cejudo is a good boxer and he’s very durable, but even he will have to respect Moraes’ power. Moraes’ kickboxing has to be considered the most feared stand-up attack in the division.

Jimmie Rivera (22-3) vs. Petr Yan (12-1)

Why this matchup?

Because Yan needed a high-profile fight, and Rivera was in no position to turn it down. Rivera is a top-10 bantamweight, but he has lost two of his past three and he looked a little uninspiring in his most recent bout — a unanimous 30-27 loss to Aljamain Sterling in February. This is your classic “established veteran” vs. “hot, new kid on the block” matchup.

What’s at stake for Rivera?

Relevance. That might sound harsh for a guy who is only three bouts removed from a 20-fight win streak, but it’s the truth. Bantamweight is a dynamic division right now. There are a lot of names fighting for that spotlight. Rivera isn’t in danger of disappearing completely, but if he cedes the spotlight here to Yan, he’s looking at a long road if he’s ever going to gain it back.

What’s at stake for Yan?

That fresh, new car smell. Yan is 26 years old. He’s confident and he’s exciting. He’s also fun to watch. He’s the kind of prospect the UFC will get behind more and more with each win. If Yan gets a win here, the UFC will almost certainly look to book him against a popular name — fighters like Dominick Cruz, Cody Garbrandt, John Lineker — in a high-exposure spot.

Style breakdown: As you might have guessed, Yan’s style is very fan friendly. It’s one reason the UFC is high on him. He’s an explosive striker who isn’t afraid to let his hands go. Rivera is a well-rounded opponent with loads of experience but less finishing ability. The more measured this fight plays out, the better it is for Rivera. If he loses control of it, he might not get it back.

Aljamain Sterling (17-3) vs. Pedro Munhoz (18-3)

Why this matchup?

Rankings. Munhoz and Sterling are the No. 4 and No. 5 bantamweights in the world, according to ESPN.com. They are both on three-fight win streaks and a collective 10-2 since 2017. The UFC has not publicly declared this a No. 1 contender’s bout, but based on rankings alone, that’s exactly what it is.

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What’s at stake for Sterling?

Maybe a title shot, but for sure an opportunity to prove he has graduated from “promising youngster” to “legitimate title threat.” Pundits have swooned over Sterling’s potential for years, but he has been a little slow to fully recognize it. At 29, however, Sterling appears to be on fire. For my money, he has been one of the most improved fighters in the entire sport in recent years. If he beats Munhoz, and does so soundly, Sterling could be a trendy pick to win a UFC championship before the end of the year.

What’s at stake for Munhoz?

Noise. That has been Munhoz’s problem, historically. He has been fighting in the UFC for more than five years, and just doesn’t have the name recognition to show for it. He has suffered only three losses in the Octagon, but every loss sets him back a little further than most because he doesn’t have the luxury of notoriety. But this time, he and Sterling have gone back and forth a little bit in the headlines, and everyone recognizes this as a significant fight in the division. This is his chance to make some noise.

Style breakdown: One of the reasons everyone was so high on Sterling early is he’s a potential matchup problem for anyone. He has size for the division, and length. He’s a physical grappler, but he has speed to go along with it. And his endurance isn’t an issue. Recently, his experience and ability to blend everything together seems to have caught up to his raw gifts. Munhoz is an underrated striker though, and a Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt. This is a very close fight on paper.