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Bubble Busters is a limited series examining each division for on-the-bubble MMA contenders who operate just outside of Top 10 contention and outlining their potential paths to ranked recognition. From skills fighters could improve to possible matches for which they should campaign, we attempt to solve the riddles associated with crossing the contender threshold. Next up, the bantamweights.
Sean O'Malley: With the issues that kept him away from competition for a little more than two years now seemingly in the rearview mirror, the sky appears to be the limit for “Sugar Sean.” He showed no signs of ring rust in his return, as he knocked out Jose Alberto Quinonez in the first round of their UFC 248 encounter on March 7. The win pushed O’Malley to 11-0 overall and 3-0 in the UFC, putting the 25-year-old MMA Lab prospect in position for a promotional push. A graduate of Dana White’s Contender Series, the charismatic bantamweight offers a fan-friendly style and the magnetic personality to match. A summer date was predicted for O’Malley’s next assignment, and the bantamweight division has a variety of options available to him. Perhaps the UFC could look into pairing him with Merab Dvalishvili. While Dvalishvili may not fall into the upper-echelon category at 135 pounds, he has the wrestling chops and cardio necessary to drag O’Malley into deeper water.
Marlon Vera: After starting his run in the UFC with a pedestrian 4-4 mark through eight appearances, the Team Oyama export enjoyed a breakout 2018-19 campaign that resulted in a five-fight winning streak that featured three knockouts and two submissions. Despite a controversial decision loss to Yadong Song at UFC on ESPN 8, Vera still finds himself knocking on the door to top-flight competition. “Chito” has several factors working in his favor: length, power and the ability to finish a fight no matter where the action takes him. Whether it comes in the form of his snatching a neck or connecting on a well-timed knee, Vera has a knack for putting away opponents. Wins over Brian Kelleher, Brad Pickett, Frankie Saenz and Andre Ewell provide the proof.
Raoni Barcelos: Although he was touted as a Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist upon entering the UFC, Barcelos has done plenty of talking with his fasts. The former Resurrection Fighting Alliance champion has delivered eight of his 15 career victories by knockout and two more by submission. Barcelos, 33, finds himself on an eight-fight winning streak that includes a perfect 4-0 record in the UFC, and his unanimous decision over Said Nurmagomedov at UFC Fight Night 165 in December only boosted his stock. Cody Stamann, another under-the-radar contender on the brink of stardom at 135 pounds, could provide a stern test for the Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt. Well-rounded and well-conditioned, Stamann likely would not fade as other Barcelos opponents have in the past.
Related Coverage »
• Bubble Busters: The Heavyweights
• Bubble Busters: The Light Heavyweights
• Bubble Busters: The Middleweights
• Bubble Busters: The Welterweights
• Bubble Busters: The Lightweights
• Bubble Busters: The Featherweights
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