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Sports Illustrated Notebook: Aljamain Sterling sets gameplan in second bantamweight title defense

Reigning division champion says his UFC 280 bout is more about 'the man in the mirror' than opponent T.J. Dillashaw.
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Aljamain Sterling defends the UFC bantamweight championship on Oct. 22 at UFC 280 against T.J. Dillashaw.

An extremely complicated opponent, Dillashaw is a former bantamweight champion. He relinquished the title in 2019 and was suspended by the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency for two years after testing positive for a banned substance. Although Dillashaw stated he only used it before his fight against Henry Cejudo, the suspension has stained his reputation.

"He's one of those guys who will do literally anything to win – and I mean anything, including all kinds of supplements," says Sterling (21-3 MMA, 13-3 UFC). "But I've put in the training and studied him, so I know what I'm up against."

This is Sterling's second defense of the title, with the first coming in April against Petr Yan. Dillashaw has been away from the cage far longer, last competing against Cory Sandhagen in January of 2021. That was a tightly contested bout, with Dillashaw (17-4 MMA, 13-4 UFC) winning by split decision.

"I know how I want to approach this fight," Sterling says. "For me, it's all about the man in the mirror. I need to do the things I'm capable of to win."

The bantamweight division is currently overflowing with legitimate contenders. If Sterling retains the belt at 280, he will have no shortage of opponents seeking a shot at the belt, beginning with the winner of next week's Yan-Sean O'Malley fight – as well as including Merab Dvalishvili, Marlon "Chito" Vera and Sandhagen.

"Right now, Yan's not a factor for me, but I'm sure there will still be some tension between us (at 280)," Sterling says. "In the back of his mind, I'm sure he wants to run it back. In the back of my mind, I know I'm going to step back in there with him. I know how good he is, and I know he'll get back to the championship level. I'll see him again.

"I'm keeping 'Chito' in mind, too. Khabib's younger cousin Umar is tough. There are so many high-level guys – Ricky Simon, Adrian Yanez, there are so many good opponents. Sandhagen just had a huge win against Song Yadong, who is so dangerous. One shot, he could put anybody to sleep. Anyone in the top 10, even the top 15, they're all potential opponents."

Sterling will have his hands full if he retains the title against Dillashaw, which is exactly what he wants to do.

"I'm not spending time thinking about who's next," Sterling says. "The only focus for me is T.J."

UFC 280 could be breakout night for Muhammad

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As outstanding as UFC 280 looks, the breakout performance may very well take place on the prelims.

The last prelim bout is currently scheduled to be Belal Muhammad against Sean Brady. If Muhammad wins, then he will have eight wins in his last nine fights, with the only blemish a no contest after he was accidentally poked in the eye by Leon Edwards. Extending his win streak to eight would be impressive, but even more noteworthy would be that Muhammad will have then defeated four ranked opponents during that stretch, with eighth-ranked Brady the newest addition to the list.

If he wins at 280, this current run should put Muhammad next in line for a title shot once Edwards and Kamaru Usman complete their trilogy. That would mean he would jump past Colby Covington and Gilbert Burns, as well as the controversial Khamzat Chimaev.

McKee ready for a title shot against either 'Pitbull'

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A.J. McKee was victorious last weekend in his lightweight debut, defeating Spike Carlyle by unanimous decision at Bellator 286.

Since Carlyle missed weight, this was technically fought as a catchweight bout. McKee (19-1 MMA, 19-1 BMMA) was in clear control from start to finish, and the win immediately placed him as the eighth-ranked lightweight in Bellator. His immediate future is now unclear. It is yet to be determined whether McKee will continue competing as a lightweight or if he will return to featherweight.

McKee and reigning featherweight champ Patricio "Pitbull" Freire have traded wins in their first two fights, and McKee would eagerly sign on if given the chance for a trilogy bout.

"If I'm not getting a rematch against Pitbull, then I'm going to stay at 155," McKee says. "There is no other point to go back other than the legacy of the trilogy.

"I don't know what's going to happen. In his heart, I don't think Patricio wants to fight me. He knows he didn't beat me last time, and I know it, too. If there is another fight between us, I'm not going to leave it in the hands of the judges."

Another option for McKee is Patricky "Pitbull" Freire, who is Patricio's brother and the current lightweight champ.

"I want to fight 'Pitbull' for the title," McKee says. "One 'Pitbull' or the other, it don't really matter – I'm going to walk the dog. As long as there is a title behind it, I'm fine with it."

Ideally, McKee would like to compete again for Bellator before 2023.

"I'm hoping before the end of the year," McKee says. "I'm not hurt, no injuries, so I want to be back sooner than later."

This story first published at SI.com/MMA.