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UFC debate: Aljamain Sterling? Petr Yan? The bantamweight champ a year from now will be ...

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Sterling hopes illegal knee doesn't alter his career (0:38)

Aljamain Sterling says he'll be cautious about when he returns and describes texting Dana White after the bout while in the hospital. (0:38)

The bantamweight division is perhaps the deepest and most intriguing in the UFC. Aljamain Sterling's recent dethroning of Petr Yan did nothing to clarify the division's hierarchy.

Yan was ahead on two scorecards in the fourth round when he landed an illegal knee to the head of a grounded Sterling, who became the first fighter to win a UFC title by disqualification.

Meanwhile, TJ Dillashaw is ready to return from his two-year PED suspension, and he may be lining up to fight Cory Sandhagen, whom the UFC ranks as the No. 2 bantamweight. Henry Cejudo, who hasn't stopped calling out opponents since he "retired" on May 9, 2020, also looms in the discussion of the division's best, as do Rob Font -- winner of three straight, and four of five -- and Cody Garbrandt.

So who will be the UFC bantamweight champ on March 17, 2022? ESPN's panel of Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim engages in a spirited debate with various predictions.

Okamoto: Looks like I get the first pick in this draft, and I'm going to plant my flag on former champion Petr Yan. And before we get into the why, I want to see where you guys stand. So, where are you at on this one, Marc? Did I just steal your pick?

Raimondi: No, Brett, you didn't steal anything. This would be a pretty lame three-headed panel if we were all picking the same guy, right? In fact, my selection for who will be the UFC bantamweight champion a year from now wasn't even involved in the title fight at UFC 259. I'm riding with Cory Sandhagen, the hottest fighter in the division and the future at 135 pounds. But I am very curious to see who Jeff "The Contrarian" Wagenheim is getting behind. This should be very interesting.

Wagenheim: I know we're talking about a long race, fellas, with the finish line -- or at least a checkpoint relevant to our conversation -- set way far ahead of us. But if someone wants to give me a head start in a footrace, I'll take it. So I'm going to go with the man now in possession of the belt, Aljamain Sterling. I mean, titles do change hands occasionally, but more often than not -- much more often -- they stay put. We're looking a year into the future here, but let's look a year in the other direction. Since March 17, 2020, there have been 14 fights in which a UFC champion was defending his or her title. Sterling was the only challenger who left the cage with a new belt. So I like his chance of keeping it. Is that contrary enough?

Okamoto: Alright, so we've got ourselves three candidates. I've got to say, I wouldn't feel super confident regardless of which of these three I argued for -- that is the level of parity in this division -- but I do think oddsmakers would open my choice as the favorite. I know he'd be favored over Sterling, because they've already opened a line on that rematch, and Yan is a much bigger favorite going into the second fight than he was the first.

I really thought Sterling had a chance to win at UFC 259, but I'll admit I'm lower on his chances in the rematch. And I don't think I'm stepping out on a limb there. The questions we had about Sterling going into that fight -- How successful will his wrestling be? Will his pace be a weapon against Yan? Can he avoid Yan's power? -- none of the answers really favor him in this matchup. Yan defended the wrestling. His cardio held up. He was in control of that fight, until he lost control.

Sandhagen scares me way more than Sterling, in terms of a matchup against Yan. But, Sandhagen doesn't even have a title shot yet. I think he'll fight TJ Dillashaw first, which is no easy fight. And if we do end up with Yan vs. Sandhagen, to me that's a coin flip, but I'll lean with the guy with more experience, both in championship fights and in general. So, yeah, now that I think about it, I am confident in this pick. Debate closed, yeah?

Raimondi: OK, let's pump the brakes here a minute. Brett, are you trying to convince the readers that Yan is a great pick, or are you trying to convince yourself?

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1:08

Sterling leaves belt in Octagon after victory due to illegal knee from Yan

After Petr Yan lands an illegal knee to the head of Aljamain Sterling, the fight is called off and Yan is disqualified, making Sterling the new bantamweight champion.

I do think a strong case could be made for Yan, and I do think he very likely wins the rematch against Sterling. Nothing that happened at UFC 259 made me think Sterling could pull it off in a second fight, but you never know. Sterling had the benefit of learning a ton about Yan in a fight in which he was losing -- and still ended up with the title in the end. Not a bad deal.

Still, Yan is the safe pick here. I dig it, I just have to respectfully disagree. You are right that bantamweight is absolutely loaded and is one of the few divisions where we could do this kind of exercise and get several credible answers. That said, Sandhagen has the most momentum of anyone in the division by far. I'm not sure if anyone at 135 pounds right now can stand and trade with him successfully, even Dillashaw. Look at what Sandhagen did to Marlon Moraes and Frankie Edgar. We're talking about a pair of "Knockout of the Year" contenders. I'm not sure I'd pick anyone to beat Sandhagen right now, including Sterling, who has a win over him already.

Wagenheim: That's a fair point, Marc. In fact, while Yan is the rematch that's right in front of Sterling, the one that concerns me even more would be a second date in the cage with Sandhagen. The first one went perfectly for Sterling, and Sandhagen is a far better fighter than he showed that night.

Likewise, Sterling is far better than the fighter who showed up earlier this month to challenge Yan. He appeared to be caught up in the immensity of a moment he had been waiting for since he started out in the sport. He fought like he was double-parked. Maybe he was following the blueprint of his fight with Sandhagen, in which he wasted no time before getting it to the canvas, where he went to work. But against Yan, he didn't patiently set up his advances. He'll have to do better next time. He knows that. His coaches know that. I think he is capable of that, and if he uses better setups to get the fight where he wants it, he will show off a big advantage on the mat -- a bigger edge over Yan down there than Yan had over him when they were on their feet, fighting in Yan's wheelhouse.

Okamoto: Here's what I'm hearing ... "If" Sterling can do all these things, he can beat Yan. And "if" Sandhagen has improved enough, maybe he can beat Sterling -- who he lost to, in the first round, less than one year ago. Look, like I said, I'm not low on Sterling or Sandhagen. I'd actually buy stock in both of them as a champion in 2022 because, again, this title is so up for grabs. We haven't even really mentioned Dillashaw, who has a very legitimate shot at reclaiming the belt. We haven't mentioned Henry Cejudo, who says he's retired ... but acts like he's the most active fighter on the UFC roster. This division is fun and competitive. But that's why Yan is the only correct answer here. In a division in which there are so many variables, you have to go with the constant. And right now, the only constant I see at 135 pounds is Yan beating up every opponent he gets in there with.

Wagenheim: You left out one "if," Brett: If Yan's foul had not ended the night for Sterling, the point deduction would have made it an even fight. That was no blowout. You know what it was? It was an experience, a first experience for an athlete who'd been waiting forever to be in a championship fight. Now Sterling has essential title fight experience, and he has one other thing going for him: the belt.

So I look at a 13-for-14 year for defending UFC champs, and I will lean on the expertise of noted MMA scholar Isaac Newton. You know, the physicist whose first law of motion states that an object remains at rest until acted on by an external force. Do any of these other bantamweights have the force to move the title belt in their direction? Newton and I have our doubts.

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0:37

Sandhagen predicts he'll KO winner of Yan-Sterling

After his stunning knockout of Frankie Edgar, Cory Sandhagen predicts he'll knockout the winner of Petr Yan vs. Aljamain Sterling.

Raimondi: Truthfully, I don't know much about Newton. I'm just an MMA reporter. Is he the cookie guy? Anyway, I do know a little bit about this crazy sport, and Brett, I'm glad you brought up Cejudo and Dillashaw. Bantamweight is so good, and arguably the two best fighters in the division have been inactive for nearly a year or more.

Cejudo might never fight again. If he were to come back, I might have to change my pick. I'd like Cejudo with his skill set over just about anyone else we've talked about here. But Triple C doesn't seem to be walking through that door any time soon. So, I'm very happy with my selection of Sandhagen here.

While both of you gentlemen made strong cases for your selections, I've noticed that you have not written much against Sandhagen's résumé. And the reason why is pretty clear to me: you can't. No one has been able to do what Sandhagen has to fellow bantamweight contenders. And while I think Sandhagen's likely fight against Dillashaw will be very competitive, Sandhagen has an edge, I feel, because they have trained together in the past and he won't be fooled by Dillashaw's misdirection.

Plus, Dillashaw will be coming off a two-year layoff. Sandhagen's complex striking and footwork is not the kind of thing you want to see across the Octagon when you haven't quite gotten your rhythm back yet.

I like Sandhagen to win that fight, then move on to fight the Yan vs. Sterling 2 winner late this year. "The Sandman" might enter his name onto the list of bantamweight titleholders ahead of schedule. Take my hand, fellas. We're off to never, never land.

Okamoto: I have no idea what that last line means, Marc, but you guys feel free to call and congratulate me on March 17, 2022. Maybe we'll all be in Russia, covering a Yan title defense.