Aljamain Sterling will defend the UFC Bantamweight Championship once more when he meets TJ Dillashaw in the UFC 280 co-main event.
Sterling most recently defeated Petr Yan by split decision to walk away as the undisputed champion and earn the respect of fans in the process. Dillashaw returned to the cage last year following his USADA suspension and managed to defeat Cory Sandhagen by split decision. With top contender Yan now 0-2 against the champion following his earlier disqualification, Dillashaw’s win helped him emerge as the next title contender.
The Sterling vs. Dillashaw bout will feature on the UFC 280 PPV main card that takes place at a special time on Saturday afternoon only on ESPN+ PPV. Fight fans can order the event to watch Sterling vs. Dillashaw, Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev, Petr Yan vs. Sean O’Malley and more.
Continue reading for our staff predictions and analysis of the Aljamain Sterling vs. TJ Dillashaw fight before UFC 280.
Betting lines suggest that the fight will last the full five rounds, with the over 4.5 rounds betting option currently -212 before UFC 280. Anyone wanting to take the under 4.5 rounds selection can get +163 odds right now at MyBookie. As it stands, Sterling is the betting favorite for this title fight.
Sterling is a highly skilled and well-rounded fighter who excels because of his athleticism and decision-making. On the feet, Aljo has a variety of athletically delivered and accurately landed strikes which he combines with excellent wrestling and grappling. The flow that Sterling fights with is unique to himself. He embodies Bruce Lee’s famous “be water” by fluidly combining all aspects of his game, specifically striking and grappling, without a hitch or telegraphed transition. Sterling is able to combine his striking and grappling so seamlessly because he uses his striking as a precursor, or setup, for his grappling. Typically, Sterling will strike from a bouncy and jittery foundation where he glides into range behind a snapping jab and looks to land a fundamental combination. Under the tutelage of Ray Longo, Sterling has evolved from a striker with natural physical gifts into an intelligent and fundamentally sound striker who can still land something that requires unique athleticism. While Sterling’s striking has come a long way, his wrestling is what got him to the show and what put a stamp on his most recent title fight. Sterling was a collegiate wrestler who quickly adjusted his skills on the mat to skills on the canvas. Aljo is adept at timing his shots to protect himself from counters and strong enough to drive opponents down even if he doesn’t have ideal position.
Once on the mat, Sterling looks for the same transition we saw so effective against Yan last time out: taking an opponent’s back. Sterling’s fluidity on the feet is nothing compared to his effortless transitions on the mat. After getting a takedown, Sterling will methodically but still smoothly transition from any position to the back. Once there, Sterling masterfully holds the backpack position while still looking for submission attempts. While many fighters are position or submission, Sterling is such a high-level grappler that he can accomplish both simultaneously. His biggest, and possibly only exploitable weakness, comes if an opponent can disrupt his rhythm. Just like a dance, in fights where Aljo is forced offbeat, the rest of his game becomes sloppier and disjointed.
Sterling’s game can be described like Bruce Lee’s famous quote. Meanwhile, Dillashaw’s game can be described by a chant heard at high school football games around the country: “be aggressive, be aggressive.” A high-level fighter, specifically as a wrestler, in his own right, Dillashaw is focused on seamlessly transitioning from one aspect of his game to another and more focused on driving through opponents by any means necessary. Dillashaw is a high accredited and successful wrestler who fights with an aggressive mindset, especially against opponents incapable of hurting him on the feet. Unless an opponent can stun Dillashaw, he’ll keep coming, over and over until the fight ends. Dillashaw, once the bantamweight champion in the UFC, gained and maintained success on the back of his wrestling. Dillashaw, typically, strikes well enough to open up an avenue for a takedown attempt. Dillashaw will shoot with even the slightest sliver of an opening. If he can’t finish the takedown on the first attempt, a second, third, and so on are not far behind. Once on the mat, Dillashaw continues the pressure. He’ll drive his head and shoulder into his opponent, laying heavily in top position so his opponent can’t escape. Once his opponent is properly controlled, Dillashaw will start to rain down ground and pound designed to inflict as much damage as possible without sacrificing positional dominance. His striking is good enough to create takedown opportunities, his cardio is at an elite level to wrestle for 25 minutes, his wrestling is at an elite level that he can make the most of even the smallest opening, and his aggression is so persistent that he’ll force his game plan into any situation.
Dillashaw’s aggression is simultaneously one of his biggest strengths and one of his few weaknesses. Fighters with high-level fight IQ and an ability to take advantage of a small opening can find success against Dillashaw’s predictable game plan. He tends to move linearly and strike with the intention of hurting and opponent, then he’ll almost visibly transition when he feels it’s time to wrestle. Opponents who can time that transition can better defend the takedown and tag Dillashaw as he’s transitioning. Much easier said than done as this transition is untelegraphed and happens in an instant, but other high-level fighters have found success in those moments. In a razor-thin fight, those moments might be enough.
This fight comes down more to Aljo than it does to Dillashaw. Despite the fog that surrounds Dillashaw outside of the cage, his game plan and execution of that game plan are consistent. Sterling is the one who will have to find a path toward success when faced with a hyper-aggressive wrestle boxer who won’t go away unless he’s put away. I anticipate Sterling to find success in his counterstriking and wrestling reversals. If Sterling can use Dillashaw’s aggression against him, Sterling should be able to make reads, land impactful strikes, and take advantage of chaotic scrambles for the victory.
Pick: Sterling to win
Aljamain Sterling is one of, if not the single most, underappreciated champions currently in the UFC. While he is 13-3 in the UFC, in his prime, and is the current champion who defeated Peter Yan – the clear-cut champion prior to him – he is viewed by many as a short-lived belt holder. The reasoning for this is nothing to do with his skill level, instead, a culmination of the talent seen within the bantamweight division coupled with believing Sterling beat Yan on Yan’s worst night. Regardless of if the reasoning fully encapsulates the general negative opinion towards Sterling’s belt status, the overarching negative sentiment heard across social media pertaining to Sterling is simply unwarranted given he secured the belt the “correct way” from the “correct opponent”, and, he is truly elite everywhere the fight takes place.
The latter half of my explanation for unwarranted backlash towards Sterling may receive pushback, as many see him as a relatively one-note fighter with an impressive ability to implement that one-note. This one-note alluded to his Sterling’s grappling, as he is one of the best wrestlers, scramblers, and submission artists in the division. Defense of this statement is easy, as he took Peter Yan, an elite wrestler, down to the mat and secured a body lock against him that was a complete neutralizer in the fight and the reason why Sterling won the belt. Moreover, in his lead-up to the Yan bouts, Sterling secured a quick submission win over Cory Sanghagen, who is one of the most talented and dangerous fighters in the division. This historical data, which is quite recent, showcases that when it comes to grappling, Sterling understands how to find success against the most talented and find success in the most important ways – to win rounds/fights.
The elite grappling for Sterling is often seen rather quickly in his fights and that is why many may see him as a one-note fighter. But, I assure you, he has more than solid enough striking to remain on the feet for ample time, particularly when facing a non-elite technician such as Peter Yan. If Sterling elects to stand, and yes, it would be him choosing to stand contrary to successfully wrestling, he is quite dangerous with what he does well. Specifically, he is a fantastic mover in the octagon and understands how to merge natural athleticism with successful striking, particularly at range. The success he has is throwing with speed and end-of-punch snap, but the downside to him eventually finding success in a flow state is with the establishment of distance, as he can overextend on punches early, which, in turn, creates openings for his opponent to land somewhat easily. If he can clean up finding his distance in a more defensive lens, Sterling is more than sufficient to use footwork and his long limbs to find success on the outside, and once the opponent rushes in to cut distance, land a knee or elbow which he is more than talented enough to do.
Having elite wrestling with sound striking has been a recipe for the success of TJ Dillashaw for many years now. This success extended to the highest level, as he was a bantamweight champion himself prior to his loss to Henry Cejudo, followed by a two-year suspension for PED usage. While he suffered a downspell in his career, Dillashaw battled back from adversity by winning a tough five-round fight against Cory Sanghagen, his first fight back from suspension, and now, fighting for a shot at the world title.
In his last fight against the extremely talented Sanghagen, Dillashaw showcased a breadth of skills that warrants a relatively short underdog price against Aljamain Sterling. Specifically, he displayed tight boxing, relentless wrestling, and, perhaps most importantly, an ability to wear impactful blows that would put many to sleep. This final point is important to note as many questioned his ability to withstand strikes, knowing he is no longer juiced up in the octagon. And, while an upcoming fight may result in unexpected outcomes, Dillashaw more than answered the question of being durable for a full 5-round, tough affair.
Displaying toughness in the octagon intrinsically means that damage was worn, an indication of necessary improvement in his next fight. The benefit for TJ is that the movement, size, speed, and overall strike intention is quite similar for Sterling as it was for Sanghagen, but, many would presume the sharpness of Sandhagen would warrant the conclusion he is the slightly better striker of the two. Because of this, Dillashaw can not only enter the cage with confidence knowing he can hold up against an elite athlete, but also, learn from a full 25-minutes of fighting an opponent who mirrors that of his next. And lastly, Dillashaw, an elite wrestler in his own right, is more than capable to win scrambles and implement his desired offense in the octagon, making him a truly well-rounded fighter who just beat an opponent of similar acumen as Sterling – the difference though is Sterling can match the offensive wrestling of Dillashaw while Sandhagen simply defended shots.
If kept standing, the argument can very well be made that the crisp, tight boxing of Dillashaw can find more damaging openings than that of the hyper-movement style of Sterling. While indeed the case, the margin on the feet is, simply put, quite close, and, knowing both men shoot takedowns repeatedly – Dillashaw 19 in his fight and Sterling 22 – warrants the methodology of prediction being that based on a grappling perspective.
Because the fight is likely more grappling-centric, the question is, who is the better overall grappler? I ask grappler over wrestler because the complete scope of grappling – takedown, takedown defense, scramble, submission – begins to create a larger disparity in projected ability that that of strict wrestling alone. Meaning, while I do not know who would win a strict wrestling match, I do believe the skills displayed on the actual mat itself by Sterling of recent not have surpassed what we have seen out of Dillashaw. Because Sterling has shown the ability to successfully control elite grapplers, while Dillashaw has simply shown trust in his offense wrestling, I favor Sterling in the grappling exchanges, thus, project him to level victorious in this extremely close matchup.
Bet: Sterling to win