UFC President Dana White doesn’t want his fighters to reject championship contests simply because they train at the same gym or help each other prepare for upcoming bouts, otherwise the promotion will be unable to keep the assembly line moving.
Just ask Rashad Evans, one of the first athletes to incur the wrath of White when he boldly declared he would never fight Keith Jardine, regardless of what matchmaking plans the promotion had in the wake of UFC Fight Night 8 all the way back in early 2007.
Fast-forward to March 2023 and top bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili finds himself in the same boat. “The Machine” jumped into a very shallow pool of 135-pound title contenders when he defeated former champion Petr Yan, but resigned himself to gatekeeper status for as long as Aljamain Sterling remains king of the bantamweight castle.
“That wasn’t the first time,” Dvalishvili told The MMA Hour. “First time he said that was after I beat Jose Aldo. We met Dana White after and he was talking to my coach like I should not mention that. After that, matchmaker Sean Shelby was saying he cannot give me [Sean] O’Malley fight, he cannot give me ‘Chito’ Vera, he cannot give me Cory Sandhagen, or even Petr Yan because if I beat them, I’m not fighting my friend for the title. I understand business and I was so sad that there was no fight for me but luckily Petr pushed for the fight and they give me this Petr fight.”
Sterling previously went on record to state his intention of moving up to the featherweight division, which could happen with a successful title defense over Henry Cejudo at the UFC 288 pay-per-view (PPV) event on May 6 in Newark. If Sterling loses then it doesn’t matter because that will clear the way for Dvalishvili, though he may have to wait for No. 1-ranked Sean O’Malley to shoot his shot.
“I understand business, everything, but Aljamain Sterling is my friend, my brother, so it’s all good,” Dvalishvili continued. “Aljo has a fight now, he’s fighting Henry Cejudo, I’m going to be back to the gym in about a week and I’m gonna help him with his preparations for Henry Cejudo and I think after that he will beat up O’Malley and he says he’s planning to move up. If he wants to do it, I will fight for the title.”
Sounds like there’s a lot at stake when UFC 288 lands in “The Garden State.”