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UFC 299: Sean O’Malley could be the fighting champion that the bantamweight division and UFC needs

Sean O’Malley is all about the pageantry. His appetite for grandeur compelled him to call out Ilia Topuria for a champion vs. champion clash. But in an era where legacy often takes a backseat to rushed superfights, O’Malley is better situated than most to be a fighting champion.

“Let me start with this: Initially I was calling for Ilia. I wanted the Ilia fight. It excites me, but I also thought the fans would get excited about it. I got a lot of pushback saying, ‘You’re ducking Merab [Dvalishvili], Merab is next,’ so Merab is next,” UFC bantamweight champ O’Malley said on his YouTube channel after UFC 298. “Let’s do Merab. I’m telling you guys: I knock Merab out.”

O’Malley previously told CBS Sports that Topuria is “the fight that happens next” if Topuria defeated Alexander Volkanovski for the featherweight title. It was refreshing for O’Malley to later acknowledge Dvalishvili’s claim to a title shot. After all, Dvalishvili just beat former two-division UFC champion Henry Cejudo to improve his winning streak to 10.

“I’ll give credit where credit is due because Sean did backtrack on that one…” bantamweight contender Cory Sandhagen told CBS Sports. “I was a little curious about why he even wanted to go up and fight Ilia. Fight a few guys in your division first. I think Sean is a guy who likes to make the fans happy. I think that he likes giant fights with a lot of buzz around it, which is what we all like. I commend him big time for going back and being like, ‘You know what? If the fans want to see me and Merab then let’s do me and Merab.”

Check out the full interview with Cory Sandhagen below.

Bantamweight is one of UFC’s healthier divisions. Heavyweight is in an indefinite holding pattern until Jon Jones vs. Stipe Miocic happens. Light heavyweight, once the promotion’s marquee division, has struggled to find a healthy champion. Matchmakers seem hellbent on circumnavigating welterweight’s ugly duckling Belal Muhammad. Women’s bantamweight might have suffered the greatest in terms of visibility, from having a global superstar in Ronda Rousey as champion to its longest reigning and most heralded champion in Amanda Nunes to becoming a complete afterthought. Bantamweight can be problem-free if O’Malley stays the course.

O’Malley wants fights he believes will draw. The bantamweight division doesn’t have a standout star but it has contenders with the resumes and fan support to pique O’Malley’s interest. Dvalishvili’s grappling isn’t everyone’s cup of team but his zany personality has won people over. Sandhagen’s dynamic style and willingness to fight anyone has earned him goodwill with fans. Umar Nurmagomedov looks like the next big thing at bantamweight and has a large audience thanks to the last name he shares with his Hall of Fame cousin, Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s serendipitous.

“I have so many options,” O’Malley said. “It’s a great position to be in with this many options.”

Check out the full interview with Sean O’Malley below.

O’Malley’s first step to building that legacy is a title defense against Marlon Vera at UFC 299 on Saturday. Admittedly, it isn’t the most meritocratic booking, but there is a lot to like about it. “Chito” is the only person to defeat O’Malley, has a style that could trouble the champion and a wealth of interest from his home nation of Ecuador. It’s a solid step towards actualizing our belief that bantamweight is the deepest and most competitive division in the sport.

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