The Loyalty Dilemma: Merab Dvalishvili’s Unwillingness to Fight Friend and Training Partner Aljamain Sterling Despite UFC Pressure

March 15, 2023
From: Spartacus

Despite Dana White’s warning, Merab Dvalishvili is still unwilling to fight “my friend and my brother,” Aljamain Sterling.

Dvalishvili dominated former bantamweight champion Petr Yan over the course of five rounds last Saturday at UFC Las Vegas, turning up the finest performance of his MMA career. A title shot would ordinarily be his after the victory. Yet because he and the reigning champion train together and are buddies, they have repeatedly ruled out a confrontation. Dvalishvili’s loyalty was criticised by UFC President Dana White, who termed it “a pretty stupid decision.”

Dvalishvili says White had warned him about that before during an interview with Ariel Helwani on The MMA Hour.

“I did see this, and actually, that wasn’t the first time. The first time he said it was after I beat Jose Aldo, and Joe Rogan asked me again, and I said very clear, ‘Please don’t ask me these questions again.’ I was mad, because right before the fight, people were asking me, ‘If you win, would you fight Aljo?’ I said, ‘Let me fight, let me win. Why are you asking me now?’ I was so over it, people asking the same question, and Aljo already had a booked fight. I said, true from my heart, and we met Dana White after, and he was talking to my coach [saying], ‘He should not mention that.’

“After that, matchmaker Sean Shelby was saying he cannot give me [Sean] O’Malley fight, he cannot give me [Marlon] ‘Chito’ Vera, he cannot give me Cory Sandhagen, or even Petr Yan, because if I beat them, then I’m not fighting my friend for the title. I understand business, and I was so sad there was no fight for me. But luckily, Petr pushed the fight and they gave me this Petr fight. I’m happy and I appreciate it.

There are now not many options for Dvalishvili other than a crack at the crown, which is his problem. Dvalishvili is currently ranked No. 4 in the MMA Fighting Global Rankings. He will almost certainly move up to No. 2 in the upcoming rankings cycle, so if he wants to keep competing, he will need to fight back in the rankings.

But Dvalishvili thinks Sterling might switch to featherweight before the year is out, which would free him up to compete for the title. Sterling has previously expressed interest in doing so.

Dvalishvili remarked, “I understand business and everything, but Aljamain Sterling is my friend and my brother. It’s all good. Aljo has a fight now. He’s fighting Henry Cejudo. I’m going to be back to the gym in about a week and I’m going to help him to prepare for Henry Cejudo. I think after that he will beat up O’Malley, and he said he’s planning to move up. If he wants to do it, I will fight [for the] title.”

On May 6 at UFC 288, Sterling is scheduled to face Cejudo in a championship defence. Dvalishvili would probably have to wait until 2024 for a title opportunity if he were to triumph because the Sean O’Malley fight might be the obvious next step.

Dvalishvili says that he would rather wait as he continues, “I beat Yan, Yan beat Sandhagen already. I beat Aldo, Aldo beat ‘Chito’ Vera already. I don’t have to prove that I’m better than those guys. I’d rather wait.”

The UFC might want Dvalishvili to take another fight, potentially against the victor of the forthcoming Cory Sandhagen vs. Marlon Vera bout, in order to maintain his position at the top of the rankings given the rapidly developing new competitors in the crowded bantamweight category. Yet if he had his way, Dvalishvili would just sit back and wait everything out.

Another scenario is if Cejudo defeats Sterling, allowing Dvalishvili to challenge for the title earlier than expected. But Dvalishvili isn’t considering that possibility because he is quite certain Sterling will win the championship. Instead, he appears satisfied to wait until the right moment and declares that there is only one scenario in which he would ever face Sterling in a cage.

Dvalishvili stated, “If they want me to fight Aljo, maybe they have to pay $10 billion. Then yes, I’ll be ready.”

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