It’s a meeting of bantamweights projected to be potential champions seeking to get things moving in that direction again as “Sugar” Sean O’Malley looks to rebound from his first professional loss in a clash with former rising star Thomas Almeida.

O’Malley returned from a two-year absence last March and instantly rekindled all the excitement about his upside in the bantamweight division, earning a first-round stoppage win over “Teco” Quinonez before following it up with a similar effort against veteran Eddie Wineland three months later. But he stumbled, literally and figuratively, at UFC 252 against Marlon “Chito” Vera, as one of his legs quickly became compromised before the confident Ecuadorian secured the stoppage late in the opening stanza.

Now the flamboyant 26-year-old is staring down a different kind of comeback fight — one where he’s returning from defeat for the first time, and still facing the same “How good is he?” questions that have followed him throughout his meteoric rise in the UFC.

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Heading into his main event showdown with Cody Garbrandt in May 2016, Almeida was 21-0 overall, 4-0 in the UFC, and primed to establish himself as the top young contender in the 135-pound weight class. That night, he was knocked out in less than three minutes and it’s been a rough road ever since, as the Brazilian dropped two of his next three fights before an eye injury nearly cost him his career.

Almeida returned to action last fall, facing Jonathan Martinez in a featherweight contest, and once again landed on the wrong side of the results, dropping a unanimous decision to “The Dragon,” leaving many to wonder what the now 29-year-old former rising star has left in the tank.

This is a critical moment for the highly regarded and highly scrutinized O’Malley, as an impressive return to the win column quiets much of the lingering chatter that remains following his loss to Vera and puts him back in a position to potentially face a Top 15 opponent later this year. Almeida was one of the most dangerous and explosive fighters in the division prior to his recent run of bad results, and channeling that again here would certainly shift perceptions of where he’s at in his career heading into the second quarter of the 2021 schedule.