27 Mar

Sean O’Malley shines once again, but Merab Dvalishvili lies in wait

If the old adage is true that you’re not truly a world champion until you defend your title, UFC 299 pay-per-view card in Miami was a coming-of-age moment in the rise of bantamweight king “Suga” Sean O’Malley.

O’Malley didn’t just redeem his lone pro defeat suffered four years earlier against Marlon “Chito” Vera, he delivered a five-round beating that challenged every fiber in Vera’s immaculate reputation as one of the most durable fighters in UFC history.

In just about every single category, the 29-year-old O’Malley shined brightly, particularly in his virtuoso striking that lit up Vera throughout. Even O’Malley’s chin and recuperative skills were challenged as he survived Vera’s Round 4 flurries that bloodied his nose and a body shot in the closing seconds of Round 5 that forced the champion to take a seat to nurse the pain after the win horn to end the fight.

Can’t get enough boxing and MMA? Get the latest in the world of combat sports from two of the best in the business. Subscribe to Morning Kombat with Luke Thomas and Brian Campbell for the best analysis and in-depth news.

Vera certainly wasn’t the most skilled challenger available to O’Malley in the sport’s deepest division and may have benefited from his history with the champion in getting the title shot. But his name adds yet another dangerous challenge that O’Malley was able to vanquish, combining with wins over former champions Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan over the past 18 months to solidify “Suga” among the pound-for-pound best.

Few strikers can move with the fluidity of O’Malley while combining such a sublime mastery of distance and a creative arsenal of offense. But despite the ambitious side of O’Malley offering up a challenge to new featherweight king Ilia Topuria after the fight, the true test of his career will likely come in his next title defense, which is expected to be against top contender Merab Dvalishvili.

After spending years waiting for his shot while his friend and teammate Sterling ruled the division, the 33-year-old Dvalishvili is now overdue to test himself for the sport’s top prize at 135 pounds as he rides a 10-fight win streak and brings the perfect contrast behind a never-ending motor and elite grappling skills to counter O’Malley’s offense.

Using a criteria that takes into account everything from accomplishments to current form, let’s take a closer look at the top fighters inside the Octagon.

For CBS Sports’ updated divisional rankings, click here.

Men’s pound-for-pound rankings

  1. Islam Makhachev — Lightweight champion
    Record: 25-1 | Previous ranking: No. 1

A pair of title defenses against former featherweight king Alexander Volkanovski, including a head-kick knockout in their short-notice rematch at UFC 294, helped Makhachev capture fighter of the year honors in 2023. The 32-year-old is expected to return this spring after observing Ramadan and has called out Dustin Poirier.

🤫🤫🤫 #UFC294 pic.twitter.com/i9FgTUBAmt

— UFC (@ufc) October 21, 2023

  1. Jon Jones — Heavyweight champion
    Record: 27-1, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 2

Jones’ first title defense at heavyweight, scheduled for UFC 295 in November against former champion Stipe Miocic, was canceled after Jones suffered a pectoral tear in training. An eight-month recovery is expected for Jones, who will turn 37 this summer. Despite the ill-timed injury creating more havoc in the heavyweight title picture, Jones has vowed he will be back.

  1. Leon Edwards — Welterweight champion
    Record: 21-3, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 3

If anyone felt Edwards’ run to the 170-pound title was a fluke, his UFC 286 trilogy win over Kamaru Usman silenced those doubters. His second title defense, against Colby Covington in December, brought Edwards another dominant win yet plenty of boos for the lack of action thanks to Covington’s avoidance.

  1. Alex Pereira — Light heavyweight champion
    Record: 9-2 | Previous ranking: 4

In just seven UFC bouts and 11 pro MMA fights overall, “Poatan” is now a two-division champion after knocking out Jiri Prochazka for the vacant 205-pound title at UFC 295 in November. The 36-year-old Brazilian slugger returns in April for the main event of UFC 300 against former champion Jamahal Hill.

Poatan does it again 🏹

He gets the finish in round 2 to become the LHW champion! #UFC295 pic.twitter.com/7BXxXE81nr

— UFC (@ufc) November 12, 2023

  1. Ilia Topuria — Featherweight champion
    Record: 15-0 | Previous ranking: 5

A changing of the guard atop the 145-pound division at UFC 298 in February might have produced the next breakout star of the sport. Topuria did everything he said he would against Alexander Volkanovski, including finishing him in the first two rounds. His precision was only trumped by his one-punch power as Topuria patiently dismantled one of the best fighters in history.


— UFC (@ufc) February 18, 2024

  1. Charles Oliveira — Lightweight
    Record: 34-9 | Previous ranking: 6

The former 155-pound champion redeemed himself after losing his title by finishing Beneil Dariush in the first round at UFC 289. But the Brazilian submission threat suffered a costly cut above his right eye in sparring that pulled him from a title rematch at UFC 294 against Makhachev. “Do Bronx” will return at UFC 300 in April against fellow top contender Arman Tsarukyan.

  1. Sean O’Malley — Bantamweight champion
    Record: 17-1, 1 NC | Previous ranking: 8

The “Suga Show” turned in quite possibly the best striking performance of his career over five rounds in dominating Marlon Vera at UFC 299 to make his first title defense. O’Malley avenged the only defeat of his pro career and challenged featherweight champion Ilia Topuria during his post-fight interview.

Sean O’Malley’s +141 significant strike differential ranks 2nd largest in a UFC bantamweight fight, behind only O’Malley’s own +160 vs. Kris Moutinho 👊#UFC299 | @SugaSeanMMA pic.twitter.com/OVRs8mpjgM

— UFC (@ufc) March 10, 2024

  1. Alexandre Pantoja — Flyweight champion
    Record: 27-5 | Previous ranking: 7

The Brazilian submission threat relied much more on his chin and iron will to edge Brandon Moreno by split decision at UFC 290 in one of the most thrilling and savage fights in flyweight history. At 33, Pantoja now owns three wins over Moreno and he returned in December to record a hard-fought decision over Brandon Royval in his first title defense.

  1. Dricus du Plessis — Middleweight champion
    Record: 21-2 | Previous ranking: 9

Unbeaten in his seven trips to the Octagon, the proud native of South Africa can now call himself champion after edging Sean Strickland via split decision at UFC 297 in January. Du Plessis, who called out former champion Israel Adesanya in the aftermath, has evolved at an alarming rate to mix technique and a deep gas tank to his big power and takedown threat.

NEW CHAMP ALERT 🚨#UFC297 | @DricusDuPlessis pic.twitter.com/qExDirZg61

— UFC (@ufc) January 21, 2024

  1. Merab Dvalishvili — Bantamweight
    Record: 17-4 | Previous ranking: 10

By improving his win streak to 10 fights, Dvalishvili finally secured a title shot thanks to his breakthrough win over Henry Cejudo at UFC 298. The victory now gives Dvalishvili three straight over former UFC champions. Dvalishvili, 33, has a gas tank like no other and remains a problem for any style of opponent he will face.

Dropped out: None
Just missed: Alexander Volkanovski, Israel Adesanya, Justin Gaethje, Sean Strickland, Aljamain Sterling

Women’s pound-for-pound rankings

  1. Zhang Weili — Strawweight champion
    Record: 24-3 | Previous ranking: No. 1

The first Chinese-born UFC champion regained her 115-pound crown by dominating Carla Esparza at UFC 281 via second-round submission. The 34-year-old followed it up with a statistically historic beatdown of Amanda Lemos in August and returns at UFC 300 against Yan Xionan.

  1. Alexa Grasso — Flyweight champion
    Record: 16-3-1 | Previous ranking: 2

The native of Mexico teamed up with former champion Valentina Shevchenko to co-author an exciting and tactical 125-pound title rematch at Noche UFC. A split draw was the result as the defending champion Grasso benefitted from a controversial 10-8 final round to curtail defeat. The two fighters will coach opposite one another on “The Ultimate Fighter” this spring ahead of a fall trilogy fight.

  1. Valentina Shevchenko — Flyweight
    Record: 23-4-1 | Previous ranking: No. 3

The future all-time great nearly regained her flyweight title from Alexa Grasso in their September rematch. A disputed draw was the result, with Shevchenko openly considering an appeal in the aftermath. Now, at 36, Shevchenko will coach opposite Grasso on TUF before a likely third meeting at Noche UFC this fall.

  1. Erin Blanchfield — Flyweight
    Record: 12-1 | Previous ranking: 4

The native of New Jersey is 6-0 in the UFC and seemingly on the verge of a title shot following consecutive victories over Jessica Andrade and Talia Santos. Although Blanchfield’s grappling skills remain her calling card, her striking has improved tremendously. She returns in a pivotal No. 1 contender’s match against Manon Fiorot on March 30 in Atlantic City.

  1. Manon Fiorot — Flyweight
    Record: 11-1 | Previous ranking: 5

Add Fiorot’s name to the list of those knocking on the door of the 125-pound crown. The native of France is a dynamic kickboxer who is fresh off a unanimous decision win over former strawweight champion Rose Namajunas in September. She meets Erin Blanchfield in the main event of UFC Atlantic City in March.

Dropped out: None
Just missed: Yan Xionan, Tatiana Suarez, Rose Namajunas, Raquel Pennington, Julianna Pena

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *