If Sean O'Malley is to become the UFC's bantamweight champion this summer, he'll have to defeat the most dangerous bantamweight in the history of the sport -- at least in the opinion of his coach.
O'Malley (16-1) will challenge Aljamain Sterling (23-3) in the main event of UFC 292 on Aug. 19 in Boston, officials announced earlier this week. It's a quick turnaround for Sterling, who just recorded the third defense of his 135-pound title via split decision against former two-weight champion Henry Cejudo on May 6.
Sterling, 33, has actually been an underdog in two of his three title defenses. O'Malley's longtime coach Tim Welch, however, believes Sterling is the toughest matchup he's ever seen at 135 pounds -- even over the likes of longtime king Dominick Cruz, TJ Dillashaw or Petr Yan.
"Stylistically, I think this is the most dangerous bantamweight champion there's ever been," Welch told ESPN. "I really think that. He's so athletic, long and strong. He's not just a good wrestler, he's a good wrestler with good jiu-jitsu and he's very funky. He switches stances, he throws spazzy things at you. He's good at chaining his wrestling together. Most dangerous bantamweight ever, in my opinion."
Sterling, who fights out of New York and Las Vegas, holds an impressive 13-3 record, but his reputation isn't historically one of a "dangerous" bantamweight, despite six finishes. Much of that is likely due to his style, which is grappling based. He has two wins by knockout in his UFC career, both of which ended with punches on the ground, after Sterling established a dominant position.
Nevertheless, Welch said that Sterling and his longtime teammate and No. 1 ranked bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili, are the most dangerous matchups in the division.
"Merab is definitely up there," Welch said. "Anyone who can put the pedal to the medal for five rounds is a freak of nature. But [Sterling] is just so funky. If you make one simple mistake, he's going to be on your back the whole time. His cardio has gotten better. He's not only good at grappling but MMA grappling. The timing is going to be right when he's ready to start punching you or advancing to half guard or mounting and forcing you to give up your back. He's very good physically and technically."
O'Malley earned his title shot with a narrow split decision over Yan last October. O'Malley, 28, has not yet faced a grappler in his UFC career with anything near Sterling's accolades on the ground. That said, Welch said he's supremely confident with the training partners O'Malley has worked with in that area for years, as well as the experience O'Malley has against this skill set.
"If anybody's going to [beat Sterling], it's 'Suga,'" Welch said. "His whole career, the game plan against Sean has been to put him on the fence and take him down. His whole career has been that way."