The UFC returns to New England this weekend as the promotion hosts UFC 292 in Boston on Saturday night (10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV, with prelims at 8 p.m. on ESPN/ESPN+).
The fight card will be headlined with a bantamweight title fight as Aljamain Sterling looks to set the record for most bantamweight title defenses against Sean O'Malley. This will be O'Malley's first UFC title fight. The women's strawweight title will be on the line in the co-main event as Zhang Weili takes on Amanda Lemos. Beyond the title fights, there are plenty of intriguing matchups on the card that fans should keep an eye on.
ESPN MMA analysts Megan Anderson and Andres Waters highlight the top storylines to watch during the fights this weekend.
Sterling vs. O'Malley is more than just a title fight
Anderson: There will be more on the line than just the bantamweight title when Sterling and O'Malley clash on Saturday night. O'Malley has a chance to prove he is who the promotion thought he could be after earning a contract with the promotion on "Dana White's Contender Series" in 2017.
Some feel O'Malley has had an easy path to a title shot. Of the ten opponents O'Malley has faced inside the Octagon, four are no longer with the promotion, and a fifth, Thomas Almeida, hasn't fought since his loss to O'Malley in 2021. In his three fights against higher-level competition (Marlon Vera, Pedro Munhoz and Petr Yan), O'Malley has a record of 1-1 with one no contest.
Meanwhile, Sterling can stake his claim as the most accomplished champion in and possibly even the greatest bantamweight in UFC history. With a win, Sterling, who is tied with TJ Dillashaw and Renan Barao for the most defenses of the belt (3), will be in sole possession of the record. According to Sterling, this will be his last fight at bantamweight. He said he plans to move up in weight and compete at featherweight.
Does Zhang have staying power as the women's strawweight champion?
Amanda Lemos locks in a second-round submission attempt on Marina Rodriguez and ultimately gets the TKO win in the third round.
Anderson: There has been plenty of turnover at the top of the women's strawweight division over the last five years. Since Joanna Jedrzejczyk lost the title to Rose Namajunas in 2017, Namajunas has been the only champion to hold the belt for longer than a year. There have been six different title holders since -- Namajunas (twice), Jessica Andrade, Zhang (twice) and Carla Esparza. Zhang has a great opportunity to stamp herself as a champion with staying power at the top of the division.
Zhang will be taking on a worthy challenger in Lemos. Lemos has won seven of her last eight fights, with each of the wins coming via stoppage. Lemos is a powerful and efficient striker and should be a good new test for Zhang, who has faced the same three opponents in her last five fights.
Welcome back, Chris Weidman
Anderson: When you have an injury like the one Weidman suffered against Uriah Hall at UFC 261 in April 2021, you're never the same. An experience that horrific mentally changes you. While coming back from a serious injury, in training, there are ways to protect yourself and play it safe to "baby" the injury. But there's no way to fully replicate a real fight to see how your body and the previously injured area will hold up. A fight is much more reactive, and fighters who know an opponent is coming back from injury are generally not opposed to exploiting that.
Tavares, his opponent, needs a win after suffering back-to-back losses. So, this is a great return fight for Weidman. While this is a winnable contest for Weidman -- the former middleweight champion -- I wouldn't be surprised if this is his last fight, regardless of the result. Then he gets to walk away on his terms rather than walking away due to injury.
TUF Season 31 finale
Waters: After 12 weeks, we will finally crown the newest "The Ultimate Fighter" winners on Saturday night. Team Chandler teammates and former UFC fighters Austin Hubbard and Kurt Holobaugh will face off in the lightweight finale. While Brad Katona of Team McGregor, another former member of UFC's roster and TUF Season 27 winner, will take on the winner of Cody Gibson and Rico DiSciullo. On Tuesday night, Gibson and DiSciullo will square off on Episode 12 of TUF. If Gibson wins, both matchups will be UFC veterans taking on each other for a chance to re-sign with the UFC. On the other hand, if DiSciullo wins, the bantamweight finale will feature two fighters from Team McGregor.
Holobaugh claimed a spot in the finale after beating another member of Team Chandler, Jason Knight, in the most action-packed fight of the season thus far. Hubbard, who also beat a Team Chandler fighter, Roosevelt Roberts, to become a finalist failed to impress UFC president Dana White in his last bout. He gets a chance for redemption against Holobaugh. Katona earned a spot in the finale after beating Timur Valiev by split decision in the closest fight of the season.
No Geoff Neal, no problem for Ian Garry
Anderson: Garry still gets his wish. After his win over Daniel Rodriguez in May, Garry said he wanted to fight either Neal or Neil Magny in his next bout. Clearly, the UFC liked the matchup with Neal as they booked that fight for UFC 292, but unfortunately, Neal was forced to withdraw. Luckily for Garry though, the other Neil (Magny) was able to step in and take the fight on short notice.
Obviously, it's frustrating when an opponent pulls out on short notice. But, at least for Garry, he gets an opponent he wants to fight. Unlike Neal, Magny is unranked by ESPN, but he is still a great test for Garry. Magny is no walk in the park. He's very experienced, with 30 fights inside the Octagon and big wins throughout this career. He's got a long reach and is also an excellent fighter in the clinch. And even though Garry didn't get to face Neal, Magny did get a win over Neal in 2021, so according to 'MMA math', a win for Garry could be more impressive than even beating Neal.
Can Marlon 'Chito' Vera stay in title contention?
Marlon Vera almost finishes Rob Font three times throughout their main event bout at UFC Fight Night.
Anderson: Vera is looking to bounce back from a split decision loss to Cory Sandhagen. Before the loss, Vera was on the shortlist of bantamweights on the path toward a title shot. A win here would allow him to stay within reach of title contention, but Vera will have his hands full with Munhoz.
Munhoz looked great in his last fight. His patience and control were on display in his last fight against Chris Gutierrez. Both fighters are very exciting, but the question here is can Munhoz deal with Vera's range? A win for Munhoz could put him just one or two wins away from his first UFC title shot.