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5 Bantamweight Contenders in 2015
Who do you think is the next champion?
#5. Bryan Caraway
A mainstay in the UFC's Bantamweight Division, #6 ranked Bryan Caraway has found himself nearing contender status after beating Eddie Wineland at UFC on Fox: Chicago via unanimous decision. Despite losing to #3 ranked Raphael Assuncao, Caraway rebounded impressively against Wineland. Outstriking him on the feet on route to the win, Caraway could find himself in a #1 contender fight or even a title shot if he wins against a Top 5 ranked opponent in his next fight. With Faber coaching on The Ultimate Fighter and Assuncao being recent, the only match-up available is #4 Michael McDonald who is set to return late 2015-early 2016, making this match-up viable.
#4 Thomas Almeida
Former Legacy FC Bantamweight Champion, Thomas Almeida has stormed the UFC's bantamweight division. Making his debut in November 2014 against Tim Gorman, he earned a Unanimous Decision and Fight of the Night Bonus. Since his debut, Almeida has not looked back, in his second fight at UFC 186, Almeida racked up a Performance of the Night bonus by making quick work of Yves Jabouin, finishing him in the first round by strikes. Almeida quickly returned to the octagon at UFC 189 fighting Brad Pickett in Pickett's return to the bantamweight division. Almeida racked up another Performance of the Night bonus for his flying knee finish of Pickett, 30 seconds into the second round. Unlike his first two fights, Almeida was put to the test, getting rocked a couple of times by Pickett and having to fight back from adversity to keep his unbeaten record of 20-0 (3-0 in the UFC) alive.
With his quick rise and 3 wins in 8 months, Almeida has cracked the Top 10 coming in at #10. Though not having fought anyone in the Top 15 just yet, Almeida looks to be a rising star with his exciting bouts, all 3 receiving "Of the Night" bonuses. Though still a few fights from earning a contender bout or title fight, Almeida may find himself fighting at least a Top 15 fighter to continue proving himself.
#3. Aljamain "Funk Master" Sterling
#7 ranked Aljamain Sterling has quickly established himself as an upcoming contender in the UFC's 135 division with an impressive 11-0 record. His latest win being a late submission finish over #8 ranked Takeya Mizugaki. With 3 fights and 3 wins in the UFC Aljamain is looking to a fast shot to contendership. Training out of the Serra-Longo camp with the likes of rising LW Al Iaquinta, and Middleweight Champion Chris Weidman, Sterling is improving immensely each times he steps into the octagon,
As of now, Sterling does not currently have a fight scheduled and with most of the Top 5 currently booked or not fighting, except for #4 ranked Michael McDonald, The Funk Master might have to take a fight with a fighter on the lower end of the Top 10. With Bryan Caraway winning recently a fight between the two may be made with the winner in a prime position for a contender bout and a fight away from a title shot or rising stars like Johnny Eduardo or Thomas Almeida may be matched up to see who will be ready for a Top 5 bout. No matter who he fights, Sterling finds himself only a couple fights from contending for the BW title, and with his exciting stand-up and solid grappling, showing he can finish no matter where the fight goes, Sterling is a tough match-up for anyone in the Bantamweight division.
#2. Raphael Assuncao
Though controversial, Assuncao is the last person to hand TJ Dillashaw is last loss in a split decision at UFC Fight Night 29 in late 2013. Currently on a 7 fight win streak starting back in August 2011, Assuncao has been battling injuries lately, his last fight being in October of 2014 and still yet to have a returning bout scheduled yet. Despite that, his previous wins over currently ranked #6 ranked Bryan Caraway, champion TJ Dillashaw, and #9 Johnny Eduardo, as well as 4 other BW fighters, Assuncao comes in at #3 only ranked behind the two former BW Champs #1 Renan Barao and #2 Dominick Cruz.
Assuncao's last scheduled fight was in March of 2015 against TJ Dillashaw's mentor and Team Alpha Male teammate Urijah Faber. In what would have certainly earned Assuncao a title shot if he had won, he was forced to pull out due to an injury to his ankle and has not fought yet or even been scheduled a return bout. With Cruz's return to the octagon once again imminent, Raphael Assuncao still finds himself one win away from a title shot and the closest to Dillashaw after Cruz. With#4 Michael McDonald being out of action for an extended period of time similar to Assuncao, these two could potentially be the biggest match in the UFC's BW division for the next contender after Dominick Cruz. A win over McDonald would put Assuncao at 8 wins in a row with another Top 5 win and certainly earning him another bout with TJ Dillashaw or potentially Dominick Cruz. Until then, Assuncao's biggest battle is staying healthy enough to return to the octagon to capitalize on his win streak and position in the UFC bantamweight division.
#1. Dominick Cruz
The former UFC Bantamweight Champion is looking to make his comeback and claim back the throne of the UFC's 135 division. Despite being a former champion, Cruz only lost his title when he could not return from recurring ACL injuries, thus forcing then Interim Champ, Renan Barao to become the undisputed champ. Looking to return from a groin injury after his quick finish over Takeya Mizugaki; Cruz looks to return in a title fight against TJ Dillashaw, training partner of Cruz's rival, Urijah Faber.
The big question is how much of Cruz's movement, the main aspect of his game, has been hindered from two ACL injuries and a groin injury. If Cruz can return even close to his former self, this will be TJ Dillashaw's biggest test and a must-watch fight between two fighters who rely on elusive movement to pick their opponents apart on the feet. After spending much of the past two years on the production side of the UFC doing analysis at the booth with the likes of Daniel Cormier, Rashad Evans for Fox Sports 1, Cruz is itching to get back into action where he looks to reclaim his throne.