Making the Case for Each Bantamweight Contender After TJ Dillashaw Vacates Belt

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistMarch 20, 2019

Making the Case for Each Bantamweight Contender After TJ Dillashaw Vacates Belt

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    Early in 2019, UFC bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw went down to flyweight to challenge Henry Cejudo for his belt. He was knocked out in the first round. As it turned out, that would not be his only loss from that fight.

    Wednesday morning, Dillashaw announced on Instagram he was informed by USADA and the New York State Athletic Commission (NYSAC) that there was an adverse finding with a test for the Cejudo fight. As such, he voluntarily vacated the bantamweight title.

    Thus, the bantamweight division has no champion, and the sharks are beginning to circle as they prep for a feeding frenzy.

    There will be plenty of fighters calling for the upcoming fight for the vacant title, but there are only a handful of fighters with a rightful claim for the opportunity. There are four who stand out above the rest in their bid to grab one of the two slots for an upcoming bantamweight championship bout.

    Who are those four and who has the strongest claim to enter as a title challenger? Let's get right to answering those questions.

    Here is a look at four amazing challengers and their case for a UFC title shot.

Marlon Moraes

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    When there is a new bantamweight title tilt set, you can be assured Marlon Moraes will be one-half of the matchup.

    The 30-year-old has the strongest case for a title shot seeing as he is the No. 1-ranked contender in the division.

    He is coming off a victory over No. 2-ranked Raphael Assuncao. The former World Series of Fighting champion dropped his first UFC bout, a close decision to Assuncao, but rebounded with astonishing performances and finishes.

    The top contender is on a four-fight win streak with three straight finishes. He knocked out both Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera in a combined 1:40. The February submission win over Assuncao cemented his status as being next in line.

    Moraes has earned his shot at the title.

    A potential injury would be the only thing that could keep him out of the bantamweight title fight for the vacant belt. Any choice beside the Brazilian would be a mistake.

    Moraes has the strongest resume and will likely also be the betting favorite when it comes time to find a new champion.

Aljamain Sterling

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    Aljamain Sterling was once the prospect to watch in the division, but after back-to-back losses to Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao, his stock cooled.

    The 29-year-old has rebuilt himself back toward the top as the No. 3-ranked contender after a 5-1 record in his last six trips to the Octagon.

    The run includes wins over Renan Barao and Jimmie Rivera, and the lone loss was a KO to Moraes. Given the circumstances, a rematch with Moraes would make a lot of sense.

    Perhaps most in his favor is that he is the most charismatic of the available contenders. With Ray Longo and Matt Serra behind him, Sterling is not lacking opportunities to gain a little traction through the spoken word. A decided edge to help the UFC sell the title fight against other, more low-key, fighters vying for the spot.

    And if this were a pure sport, the Moraes-Sterling rematch would be the fight to make based on their rankings.

    Sterling gives the UFC its best marketing opportunity for the fight, and his recent run makes him one of the best options from a pure sporting aspect. The combination may net him a shot at gold in his fifth year under the UFC's bright lights.

Pedro Munhoz

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    What about a Cinderella? This is March after all. We should be looking at the underdogs, and that describes Pedro Munhoz perfectly.

    The 32-year-old is unassuming but every bit of an elite fighter worthy of a title shot.

    Munhoz was thought by many to be fodder for Cody Garbrandt at UFC 235, but he fed pundits and fans alike a heaping plate full of crow with a blistering knockout win. A win for Garbrandt may have ensured him a title shot under the current circumstances, so why not for the Brazilian?

    A winner of seven of his last eight, Munhoz has the resume to compete for the title.

    The win over Garbrandt moved him to No. 4 in the UFC rankings, but many fans are still unaware of his existence. His lack of marketability may hamper him and put him into a title eliminator instead of a proper title fight. But there is still a chance, right? He could be the 2019 version of No. 16-seed UMBC.

    Munhoz will be fully prepared to prove himself once again, but should the stars align he is very much in play to fight for the vacant belt.

Henry Cejudo

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    Henry Cejudo has a fantastic case at a title shot in spite of not being a member of the bantamweight division—yet.

    The 32-year-old kicked off the UFC-ESPN era with a swift knockout over Dillashaw. Sure, the fight was held at flyweight, but the bout showed his ability to decisively beat the top dog at 135 pounds. Why would that not create intrigue for a title shot at the heavier weight?

    Obviously, the knock against Cejudo is that he has no recent record at bantamweight. Why should he leapfrog other contenders who have put in the work? Should he not at least have to have one fight at bantamweight before challenging for gold?

    The other contenders will have solid arguments against the Los Angeles native's bid for a shot at a second championship.

    If Dillashaw was still the champion, Cejudo's case is stronger. But with Dillashaw dropping the belt, Cejudo's case takes a hit.

    Fans wanted to see the rematch with Dillashaw at his natural weight. The interest in Cejudo competing for the bantamweight title was predicated on Dillashaw being his opponent, and without him in the mix, that interest wanes a touch.

    Cejudo's bid to become a two-division titleholder will still create interest, but will it be enough to jump the line? That's the big question.