Aljamain Sterling: ‘Comical’ that UFC stacked 299 ‘to make it feel like’ Sean O’Malley is the draw

Aljamain Sterling can’t help but notice a curious coincidence when he looks at UFC 299 and sees what the UFC has planned for Sean O’Malley’s first title defense against Marlon Vera.

“In terms of styles, it’s still a good fight. Don’t get me wrong, I’m going to watch. It’s just kind of funny that the UFC felt the need to stack this card so much to make it feel like Sean is the draw,” Sterling said Monday on The MMA Hour. “It’s actually comical, because I know people were kind of trying to s*** on the [UFC] 300 [card]. I’m like, well, a lot of those fights that people probably would’ve wanted [for UFC 300] were on 299, for whatever reason. It doesn’t take much to kind of draw conclusions — [if] you want to build somebody up, you build [them] up and you bring the other eyeballs with all these other people.”

UFC 299 takes place March 9 in Miami and marks the first undisputed UFC bantamweight title bout to not feature Sterling since 2021. Aside from a main event of O’Malley vs. Vera 2, the card also includes Dustin Poirier vs. Benoit Saint Denis, Curtis Blaydes vs. Jailton Almeida, Gilbert Burns vs. Jack Della Maddalena, Kevin Holland vs. Michael Page, Petr Yan vs. Song Yadong, and Mateusz Gamrot vs. Rafael dos Anjos, among others. O’Malley ended Sterling’s record-setting championship reign with a second-round knockout at UFC 292.

Sterling, 34, is readying to make his featherweight debut against Calvin Kattar on April 13 at UFC 300, so he’s no longer very concerned with the inner workings of the bantamweight division. But in regards to UFC 299, he sees a clear path for Vera to steal away the title.

“I think ‘Chito’ has to play the long game, and I think while playing the long game, he needs to chip away, and I think his gas tank will start to take over and I think his durability will start to take over,” Sterling said. “I don’t think Sean is as durable and I don’t think mentally he’s as tough. I think the jury’s still out. Again, if he wants to say, ‘Well, I beat the greatest bantamweight,’ just to make himself feel better — I mean, it’s between myself and Dom [Cruz] at this point — but if he wants to use that as like, ‘Well, what does that mean about you?’ I’m just calling it how I see it. I’m looking at his fights from the past where he got hit and then he kind of just rolled over. The one with ‘Chito,’ the Andre Soukhamthath.

“There’s fights that you can look at and be like, I’m not sure where he’s really at. In a five-round fight that goes a distance, if it goes a distance, I think ‘Chito’ gets stronger.”

Vera previously defeated O’Malley via first-round knockout back at UFC 252 in August 2020. That setback remains the lone blemish of O’Malley’s professional MMA record.

O’Malley has improved significantly since that first bout, however, and will likely enter the rematch as more than a 2-to-1 betting favorite to exact his revenge on “Chito.”

Sterling wouldn’t be surprised if that’s exactly how it plays out.

“If Sean could land big damage, make it count, let ‘Chito’ wear it, I think he can kind of discourage him a little bit,” Sterling said. “He’s going to have the speed advantage — and says it, he’s like, ‘Oh Chito, you’re too slow, you’re too slow. You won’t be able to hit me.’

“But the thing about this, as a guy who uses a lot of footwork, if O’Malley wants to keep circling around the cage and using all these feints, that uses up so much energy. And he cuts a lot of weight also — just because he doesn’t cut as much as me, he’s also just as lean as me — so when he cuts down, he loses a lot. And I think in a situation like that, if he’s not effective with that energy output, I think that’s were ‘Chito’ can get him. But again, I think Sean is the better skilled fighter in this in this matchup.

“‘Chito’ doesn’t have the wrestling background, but if [O’Malley] trips and slips on a banana peel again, he hurts his big toe, and Sean ends up on his back, I think the fight ends the same exact way it did in the first time,” Sterling continued. “I know he was saying, ‘Oh, I was killing you in like 30 seconds of the fight.’ I mean, Leon Edwards was losing to [Kamaru] Usman for all of 20 minutes until he wasn’t, so I hate that narrative of, the fight’s not over until the freaking fight’s over. So again, that’s a tough one. I’m not sure who to pick in this one. I think Chito’s a little bit more proven and more tested, and that can be the difference.

“I just think at some point you’ve got to be real with yourself in your analysis when you’re approaching these fights, and I just hope Sean is doing the right things to get himself prepared for this. May the best man win. I don’t have a dog in the race. I really don’t care as long as Merab [Dvalishvili] gets the next crack in the title.”