If you want to get to 135-pound champion Aljamain Sterling, you’ll first have to go through No. 1-ranked bantamweight contender Merab Dvalishvili, who is content to play gatekeeper so long as his friend and teammate remains atop the division throne.
That’s why “The Machine” welcomes a potential title eliminator against the red-hot Cory Sandhagen, who is now the winner of two straight, including last weekend’s split decision nod over Top 5 bantamweight bruiser Marlon Vera.
“I love the match because he’s great,” Dvalishvili told ESPN. “He’s a high-level fighter. Now he will be ranked maybe No. 3, so I love the fight. This guy (Sterling) is my friend. He’s the champion for a reason, and I would love to clean the division. I would love a new challenge. He called me. It makes sense, and I would love to fight him anytime.”
Read a transcript of Sandhagen’s post-fight callout here.
“He’s good, he’s very technical, footwork, he has jiu-jitsu and everything,” Dvalishvili continued. “Even (though) I beat Petr and Petr beat him, I don’t overlook him. He’s dangerous, he’s a good fighter, he proved today by beating a tough ‘Chito’ Vera, and I would love to fight him.”
The bantamweight title is up for grabs when Sterling battles former champion Henry Cejudo atop the UFC 288 pay-per-view (PPV) card in Newark. The winner is expected to face top contender Sean O’Malley at the end of the year, so a battle between Sandhagen and Dvalishvili makes sense for the division, as well as the championship timeline.
Whether or not UFC matchmakers agree remains to be seen.