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Aljamain Sterling and Jimmie Rivera can help sort out UFC bantamweight division on Feb. 17

Aljamain Sterling celebrates after defeating Cody Stamann in

Aljamain Sterling celebrates after defeating Cody Stamann in their bantamweight mixed martial arts bout at UFC 228 on Sept. 8, 2018, in Dallas. Credit: AP / Jeffrey McWhorter

Put aside all that talk and conjecture about the dissolution of the UFC’s flyweight division and take a look at a few meatball heroes to the north.  There’s an exciting and crowded group of bantamweights all hungry to position them for a title run in 2019.

Cody Garbrandt, the former champion and the No. 1 ranked fighter in the division, faces No. 9 Pedro Munhoz at UFC 235 in March. Garbrandt lost his title to TJ Dillashaw in 2017 and then lost again to him in the rematch in 2018.

No. 3 Raphael Assuncao and No. 4 Marlon Moraes face each other Feb. 2 in Brazil in a bout that figures to determine the next title contender for Dillashaw, provided a rematch with flyweight champion Henry Cejudo doesn’t materialize next.

And then we have the night of Feb. 17, in Phoenix, Arizona, when Uniondale’s Aljamain Sterling faces New Jersey’s Jimmie Rivera.

"This one is going to propel the next guy forward in terms of who’s going to be the next guy in line,” Sterling said last Saturday at UFC Brooklyn at Barclays Center. “I think Feb. 17 is going to be the coming-out party for the ‘Funkmaster.’”

Sterling and Rivera know each other from the regional circuit when they competed in Cage Fury Fighting Championship and Ring of Combat before reaching the UFC.

“We’ve had our back and forths for, like, I think 5 or 6 years at this point, we finally we get to lock it up,” Sterling said.

Sterling detailed the back story with Rivera on a recent episode of his Weekly Scraps podcast. Rivera said this fight is “not personal” to him. But it is critical to his career path toward a title shot, a journey derailed a bit when Rivera (22-2, 6-1 UFC) lost by first-round knockout to Moraes last summer to end a 20-fight win streak.

It is equally critical for Sterling (16-3, 8-3), who also lost by first-round knockout to Moraes at the end of 2017 and lost a split decision to Assuncao at the beginning of that year. Sterling has won his last two bouts and looked impressive as ever in each. He ended his last bout in September at UFC 228 against Cody Stamann with a submission via a Suloev Stretch kneebar. It was the second such submission in UFC history and the first since UFC 157.

“I feel like the Assuncao-Marlon fight is the No. 1 contender fight,” Rivera said, “but you really don’t know what’s going to happen.”

Perhaps the next six weeks will sort it all out for everyone.

New York Sports