This weekend will see the Bantamweight championship up for grabs as Aljamain Sterling puts his title on the line for a fourth time against one of the biggest stars in the sport right now Sean O’Malley.
As we wait and see whether Sterling has the ability to set a new record for the number of title defences at 135lbs many fans and pundits alike have argued that if he is successful in doing this then he has cemented himself as the GOAT of the division, some even argue that he already has achieved this. Yet plenty of others share their various reasons and explanations as to why Sterling is not the greatest of all time in the division with the two other main names mentioned being TJ Dillashaw and Dominick Cruz.
This article will attempt to dissect how these three stack up against each other in the debate for greatest of all time, examining a range of factors including their fighting style, respective competition and of course the legacies that each man will leave behind.
Part two will conclude who really is the bantamweight GOAT.
Fighting Style – Aljamain Sterling
Aljamain Sterling is likely the most powerful bantamweight the UFC has ever seen. Cutting serious weight and always looking shredded at weigh-ins it may come as surprising that he does not possess a host of knockout finishes in the UFC, only two in fact.
Instead of being seen on the feet, Aljo’s power and strength is really evident in his grappling. Even when taking someone down when in a somewhat compromised position, Sterling is able to use his strength and long limbs to complete the sequence and normally establish himself in a dominant position. Sterling’s game on the top is among the best in the UFC and he rarely, if ever loses position and is able to keep his opponents on the ground while inflicting damaging hammer fists from above.
Sterling can also utilise his skills to complete submissions to great effect. Possessing four wins via submission in the UFC, Sterling has shown time and time again how easily he can throw up a fight ending submission. His bouts with Cody Stamann and Takeya Mizugaki show how even when in an awkward or unorthodox position Sterling is always capable of ending a fight.
Fighting Style – TJ Dillashaw
Dillashaw is an extremely technical striker as well as an excellent overall martial artist. Possessing several knockouts on his record which all utilised a variety of techniques from head kicks to right hands Dillashaw is one of the greatest strikers that the bantamweight division has ever seen.
Even more impressive than his actual fighting skills and techniques was his physical prowess. Dillashaw is lightning fast, strong and was able to sustain that pace consistently over five rounds, many of his finishes coming in the later rounds due to his opponents being unable to keep up with his pace. An excellent combination puncher, Dillashaw’s two finishes over Renan Barao will always be particularly memorable as are his victories over Cody Garbrandt. Utilising excellent footwork TJ always seemed to be out of distance for the opponent to strike him while always managing to land shots of his own.
Fighting Style – Dominick Cruz
While TJ Dillashaw displayed highly effective footwork throughout his career, perhaps no one possessed as iconic of a fighting style as Dominick Cruz. Cruz utilised an extremely unique style of movement based on constantly shifting off towards either side and creating angles that many fighters would never ever expect to be hit from. Not only was he successfully able to land on fighters from positions and areas that they did not expect but this constant movement was also perhaps his biggest defence as they were not able to hit him.
As well as physically moving his body, Cruz is also an expert at slipping punches and even if a blow did reach his head, a simple shift of the shoulder would see him move out of range by just an inch or two, yet he always timed this to perfection.
Not packing serious power, Cruz would use cardio as his biggest weapon. The sheer volume of strikes that he would throw along with his constant movement have led many to believe that he had one of the best gas tanks that the sport has ever seen. While Cruz was of course very capable on the ground also he did not often end up on the canvass as his opponents would find it extremely difficult to land a successful takedown on a moving target, let alone one moving as erratically as Dominick Cruz.
While all three of these fighters have fought within the last year, each certainly represents a different generation of the sport. Cruz is the OG so to speak, around long before the UFC even had a bantamweight division Cruz had established himself as the king of the bantamweights in the WEC which at the time was the premier organisation for lower weight classes in the world. At bantamweight in the WEC Cruz would pick up wins over the likes of Joeseph Benavidez, Ian McCall and Brian Bowles, all of which were considered among the greatest bantamweights in the world at the time.
Upon the acquisition of WEC by the UFC Cruz would be crowned the inaugural Bantamweight champion and in his first defence of the UFC belt would defeat Urijah Faber. Faber in his own right can be considered as one of the best lower-weight division fighters ever and is considered to be a pioneer of the lower-weight classes of MMA. Cruz’s second title defence would be against Demetrious Johnson, A man who has since gone on to establish himself as one of the greatest to ever do it. Being forced to vacate the belt, Cruz would return and defeat TJ Dillashaw to become champion for a second time and would defeat Urijah Faber a final time before losing the belt decisively to Cody Garbrandt at the end of 2016.
Dillashaw represents the middle era of the three, despite Cruz actually beating him for the belt. After Cruz vacated the belt after defeating Demetrious Johnson the bantamweight division was held hostage by Renan Barao. Barao won the Interim title and when it became clear that Cruz would not be returning for some time was promoted to undisputed champion. For a time Barao dominated the division and with a 32-fight win streak looked totally unbeatable, a pound-for-pound number one and someone expected to rule the division for a long time. Then came his title defence against TJ Dillashaw. In one of the greatest upsets in the history of the sport, Dillashaw produced one of the greatest performances of MMA and pulled off a historic upset winning the Bantamweight crown. He would defend against Joe Soto and Barao once again before losing the belt to Cruz. In his quest to regain his title, Dillashaw would pick up a victory over Raphael Assuncao and John Lineker before challenging and beating the man who defeated Dom Cruz. Dillashaw also possesses a win over current top contender Cory Sandhagen.
Current champion Aljamain Sterling certainly represents the modern era of the bantamweight division. Making his debut in the UFC back in 2014, Sterling established himself as a solid bantamweight fighter in his initial years in the promotion, beating names such as Takeya Mizugaki and an admittedly on-the-decline former champion Renan Barao. It wasn’t until he suffered a devastating knockout loss to Marlon Moraes that Sterling’s career really took off. Following the defeat to Moraes, Sterling has gone undefeated, enjoying a nine-fight win streak. He has become champion during this time and has defended the belt three times so far with his fourth defence set for Saturday. Sterling has picked up victories over big names such as Cory Sandhagen. Pedro Munhoz and three former champions with Petr Yan being defeated twice, Henry Cejudo once and fellow GOAT contender TJ Dillashaw once. With a resume such as this, it may seem that Sterling deserves to unquestionably be labelled the greatest to ever do it at 135 lbs, yet we will delve into why this may not be the case in a moment.
Our next piece will conclude who is truly the bantamweight GOAT.