Bantamweight has somewhat quietly developed into one of the strongest divisions in the UFC; while the champion’s stock dropped immensely with his loss to Henry Cejudo, he’s still a top pound-for-pound talent and is surrounded by a nearly unparalleled supporting cast.
The current top contender is clear: Marlon Moraes, who finished the excellent Raphael Assuncao inside a round in Fortaleza. The rest of the division looks to make a claim for the subsequent title crack, and that includes two of Moraes’ victims in Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera.
#5 and #7 at this time, Rivera and Sterling actually have very few obstacles to a title shot beyond each other; the loser of Dillashaw/Moraes will likely be out of immediate title contention, Assuncao is off a loss, and Cruz has been forced into hiatus by injury. The winner of Garbrandt/Munhoz may be in the picture, and the same goes for uber-prospect Petr Yan if he convincingly beats John Dodson, but neither is a guarantee. The division is somewhat congested at the top, but the winner of Rivera/Sterling is right in position to make a claim for the title shot regardless.
Aljamain Sterling was one of the stronger prospects at bantamweight when he was undefeated, and many expected the flashy grappler to be a champion; however, that fizzled with his performances against Bryan Caraway and Raphael Assuncao. The Caraway fight largely came down to the grappling, as Sterling dominated the first round but got outworked in the following two, but the striking was also somewhat concerning on Sterling’s end; he tried to play an outside kicking game and did somewhat well, but Caraway was also able to follow his kicks back with counters (and Caraway isn’t a particularly good counterpuncher). This issue was even clearer when Sterling did fight an elite counterpuncher in Assuncao; not only did Assuncao counter Sterling’s somewhat unconvincing efforts to set up his kicking with his hands, he also defused and countered a good deal of Sterling’s linear kicks.
While Sterling can work at range, as shown in his strong outside kicking performance to beat Brett Johns, it’s rarely as clean as he wants it to be (in terms of not getting pushed to the fence and forced into the pocket); he’s best when able to leverage a punishing top game that mixes traditional jiu-jitsu understanding with flashes of unorthodoxy. Be it the kneebar from back control he hit on Cody Stamann, the arm-triangle finished from guard on Takeya Mizugaki, or the fact that he’s had two different opponents in locked-in full nelsons, Sterling has rarely ceased to impress from the top. Aljamain Sterling was touted as a future champion a while ago, and while that isn’t likely to pan out, he isn’t a busted prospect but a solid mid-ranked competitor with the potential to be elite.
Sterling’s formidable but bizarre skillset faces the cohesively-built Jimmie Rivera, one of the most underrated bantamweights on the roster. Rivera burst into the top of the division with a clinical win over Urijah Faber, fresh off Faber’s title shot at UFC 199; while Faber was clearly on the decline for a while before that fight, Rivera made Faber look totally useless. Rivera looked excellent in the pocket in that fight, especially on the counter; Faber’s more winging strikes never seemed to land cleanly on Rivera as Rivera landed tighter right hands off parries and slips, and often cracked Faber with a left hook on the exit (even when Faber was able to close distance on a missed Rivera kick to catch him out of position, he still ate that left hand on the retreat). Rivera’s leading was no less impressive; he took some time to feint and draw out Faber’s check hook, and once he keyed on that, found opportunities to blast Faber with clean pocket combinations.
Rivera’s strength in the pocket was also evident in his first round against the offensively frightening Thomas Almeida; Rivera’s strongest moment came when he pushed Almeida to the fence with a combination to the body, Almeida looked to lash back with a 1-2, and Rivera entered with a right to the body before landing a left hook for the knockdown. Even against the blisteringly fast John Dodson, Rivera regularly found the mark with his hands on the counter. Rivera isn’t flashy, but there’s a lot he does right.
Conclusions and capping
Given Rivera’s historically robust takedown defense, this fight largely comes down to whether Rivera can compete with Sterling enough on the outside to be able to force him into the pocket, and there’s good reason to favor Rivera in that battle.
The most dangerous kicker that Rivera has faced is probably Pedro Munhoz, who at times had his round kicks followed back with heavy counter combinations; this is likely to give Sterling serious problems, especially if Rivera can use it to push him back. Rivera’s own kicking game isn’t as diverse or as flashy as Sterling’s; he largely sticks to the round leg kick and sometimes a lead-leg body kick, as opposed to Sterling doing everything from round kicks to linear kicks to spinning kicks. However, Rivera does an excellent job using his more powerful kicks to facilitate his boxing; for example, he was able to punt Pedro Munhoz out of his stance with a leg kick to land a powerful uppercut very early in their fight, and exploited Urijah Faber’s bladed stance with leg kicks to slow down Faber’s entries and exits.
If the fight turns into a kicking match at range, it won’t be where Rivera is best, but he can largely be trusted to key on the opportunities to get into the pocket. Expect for Rivera to pressure as Sterling looks to keep moving on the outside, and for Rivera to win a decision that isn’t horrifically wide but also isn’t particularly close.
Prediction: Rivera via decision. This writer caps Rivera at -170.
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