If UFC 279 was marked by uncertainty and questions (namely “Why was the card booked the way it was” and later “What is happening???”), then UFC 280 is much more traditional in comparison as far as stakes are concerned: Two title fights, a main card packed with ranked fighters, and immortality possibly on the line for at least one headliner.
Charles Oliveira looks to regain the title he never lost in the cage, Islam Makhachev looks to prove that his dominance is as advertised, and Aljamain Sterling looks to stop T.J. Dillashaw from becoming UFC champion for a third time. Plus, Petr Yan, Sean O’Malley, Beneil Dariush, and Manon Fiorot could all be fighting to earn title shots.
There’s a lot to unpack with one of the most loaded events of 2022, and MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew are here to break down the three biggest storylines from an event that could produce ripples felt for years to come.
What does a win at UFC 280 mean for the legacies of Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev?
Lee: Let’s make one thing clear: Even if Charles Oliveira smokes Islam Makhachev in 30 seconds, that doesn’t make him the greatest lightweight of all-time.
However, it does set him up for a fight with the lightweight GOAT: Khabib Nurmagomedov.
This isn’t the first time I’ve proposed the theory that “The Eagle” has just been biding his time for the right comeback fight (in fact I’m probably a broken record at this point), one that stokes his competitive fires and even has an element of revenge to it. What matchup fits the bill better than returning to the octagon to not only get one back for his boy, but to also snuff out the suggestion that he’s not the best to ever do it at 155 pounds? Nurmagomedov has given no indication that he has any intention of fighting again, but he’s only 34 years young as of this past September. He ain’t done.
Then again, Makhachev could completely ruin this fantasy scenario if he beats Oliveira with his usual machine-like efficiency. The Dagestani wrestling beast has been called a Khabib-lite of sorts in the most complimentary way possible, and defeating Oliveira would provide an enormous boost to a résumé that is just short of elite. Forget UFC gold, Makhachev could start carving own niche in the lightweight GOAT discussion if he beats Oliveira.
Martin: Charles Oliveira is already the best lightweight in the world, but if he’s able to vanquish the second coming of Khabib Nurmagomedov, it means in about 18 months, he would have wiped out just about every top-ranked fighter in the world at 155 pounds.
Think about that for a second.
If Oliveira is successful, he will have beaten Makhachev, Dustin Poirier, Justin Gaethje, and Michael Chandler in four consecutive fights. At worst, that puts him in the same conversation as Nurmagomedov as the greatest lightweight to ever compete in the UFC.
Yes, Oliveira has a whole lot of losses on his record so it would be tough to ever see him pass up a fighter who retired undefeated while dropping maybe two or three rounds total in his entire UFC career. Still, Oliveira’s level of dominance and finishing power is unmatched, and beating Makhachev will put him in the same vicinity as Nurmagomedov, who can’t add anymore accolades to his resume after retiring from competition.
It’s highly unlikely watching Makhachev lose would suddenly change Nurmagomedov’s mind about fighting again, but he would absolutely see a challenge to his claim as the GOAT.
As for Makhachev, a win over Oliveira does one thing and one thing only — it justifies the hype that’s been building around him during this long unbeaten streak.
Not only has Nurmagomedov been his biggest cheerleader as coach and mentor, but Makhachev has legends of the game like Daniel Cormier praising him like he’s already the best fighter to ever put on a pair of gloves in the octagon. Despite all those compliments, Makhachev hasn’t really faced the level of competition to justify his position yet.
Sure, he’s beaten some solid opponents, but nowhere near the murderer’s row that Oliveira has gone through in the past couple of years. Makhachev will back up everything that everybody close to him has said with a single win over Oliveira at UFC 280.
Meshew: If Oliveira wins, it makes him the most interesting man in lightweight history. And when Islam wins, it ends the debate about Khabib being the GOAT. Oh, and I guess it’s pretty cool for Islam too.
Because the lightweight division is the toughest in the sport, and has been since its inception, the 155 GOAT conversation is incredibly muddled. No one has that many title defenses, and everyone (not named Khabib) has a bunch of losses, which means you can find fault with anyone. This is especially true for Oliveira, who is on a sensational run right now, but was pretty middling before that. Still, the run is so good that beating Makhachev undeniably puts him in the conversation for lightweight GOAT. I still won’t have him ranked as such because Khabib was the best lightweight on Earth for six years while Oliveira has held the title for one, but you can’t deny he’d have a case. And at lightweight, having a case is really all anyone can ask for.
As for Makhachev, a win does all the things a title win does for any first-time winner, but it does more for those around him, actually. A win completes the late Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s master plan, further entrenches Dagestan as one of the great MMA hubs in the world, and ends the challenges to Khabib’s title as GOAT. Rightly or wrongly, Makhachev will never get into the GOAT conversation because of his earlier loss and because he was second fiddle to Khabib. Even if he runs up six title defenses and Khabib himself says Islam is the best (both possible), the public will largely look at it in the simple terms that Islam was better than everyone else, but he still wasn’t better than Khabib.
Which bantamweight will make the biggest statement?
Martin: There’s a lot riding for the bantamweight division at UFC 280 between a title fight and a former champion battling arguably the most talked about prospect since a certain Irishman came strutting into the promotion nine years ago. But as much as Sean O’Malley beating Petr Yan would upset the apple cart and T.J. Dillashaw reclaiming a title he lost after he just couldn’t stop putting a needle in his ass would mean, the real answer to this question is the reigning and defending UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling.
Despite everything he’s done to cement himself as the best 135-pounder in the UFC, it feels as if Sterling is always ice skating uphill when it comes to his perception among fans and his fellow fighters. He tapped out Cory Sandhagen inside 90 seconds, yet that didn’t earn him much favor going into his first title fight opportunity against Yan.
He took an illegal knee from Yan and couldn’t continue, yet somehow Sterling ended up looking more like the villain than the guy who actually cheated! When he returned 13 months later, Sterling put on one of the best performances of his career to beat Yan and yet his win has been called a fluke or a gift of bad judging, neither of which are remotely true.
If Sterling can go out and beat Dillashaw — an established bantamweight legend, who may have even been chemically enhanced along the way — that should do more than enough to shake loose the last doubters who just refuse to give him any respect. Sure, Sterling will still have his fair share of haters, but dispatching Dillashaw after already handling Yan and Sandhagen should at least silence the trolls for a little while.
Meshew: It’s going to be a statement that no one wants to hear, but the answer is T.J. Dillashaw.
I think I’m higher on Sterling than most people are (I’m one of the few who stood by his first title win as legitimate and firmly scored the rematch for him), but this is not a good matchup for him. Whatever you think of Dillashaw, the dude is a damn good fighter, with a very tricky style, and I’m struggling to see how Sterling finds consistent offense. Dillashaw is an excellent defensive wrestler and his movement makes taking him down even more difficult. And while Sterling has steadily improved on the feet, he’s still obviously uncomfortable standing. I see Dillashaw kind of styling on Sterling like he did to Renan Barao, delivering one of his best performances and reminding everyone that he never lost his bantamweight belt in the cage.
I’ll also say that there was a very real part of me that wanted to pick Sean O’Malley here. I think Petr Yan is probably the “best” bantamweight in the world (i.e. I’d pick him in a third fight with Sterling) but that’s in five-round fights. Three rounds changes the math, and Yan’s style is much better suited to longer fights. O’Malley is usually a fast starter and so I can easily see Yan giving the first round away, at which point O’Malley only needs to win one of the final two frames. With his length and offensive acumen, that is definitely possible, though maybe not probable.
Lee: He’s the lowest ranked of all the bantamweights in discussion, but when the dust settles at UFC 280, there’s a good chance that Sean O’Malley is the man everyone is talking about.
Aljamain Sterling silencing what remains of the doubters with a definitive victory over T.J. Dillashaw would be big, Dillashaw becoming champion again could be just as big, and Petr Yan dispatching O’Malley would be expected. But O’Malley taking out a former champion and one of the three best bantamweights in the world? That might make O’Malley the biggest star of the whole event, forget just in his division.
From the moment Dana White first saw him on Contender Series, the UFC president has been dazzled by “Sugar” — and to O’Malley’s credit, he’s taken that initial push and run with it. He’s lost just once in nine UFC outings, and more importantly he’s cultivated a youthful fan base that few other fighters can boast. Whether people tune in to watch his entertaining striking style or are praying for his downfall, O’Malley draws eyeballs.
I don’t know if O’Malley can pull off the upset, but he has the most to gain out of anyone competing at UFC 280 if he does. The popular theory is that O’Malley is next in line for a title shot, and if he beats Yan, I’ll actually believe that he can win it.
Outside of the top 3 matchups, what’s the most intriguing fight of this stacked card?
Meshew: The true answer is probably Katlyn Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot, but since MMA fans have a pointed disinterest in “Blonde Fighter,” I won’t die on that hill. Instead, I’m choosing the functional lightweight title eliminator between Beneil Dariush and Mateusz Gamrot.
I love Gamrot. KSW champions will always have a special place in my heart and his fight with Arman Tsarukyan earlier this year was one of the best fights of 2022. He puts on a hell of a pace, wrestles his ass off, and just generally excels at all the little things I love in MMA. But I have serious questions about whether he can do those things to Beneil Dariush.
With Leon Edwards having won the welterweight title, Dariush now takes over the mantle of most underrated fighter in MMA. He’s won seven in a row, all good wins, and with some really fun performances. A world-class grappler, Dariush has added a legitimately dangerous striking game to the mix, and so he presents serious dangers to Gamrot. Most importantly though, assuming I’m correct in my belief that Islam Makhachev becomes the new lightweight champion, this fight is for the next title shot.
Alexander Volkanovski has his own division to attend to (he’s only beaten three currently ranked guys!), and Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler have already had their shot. If Oliveira wins, Conor McGregor is probably getting it because we follow a broken sport where the better you do, the less serious you become. But Makhachev is from the Nurmagomedov school of fighting: You fight the dudes who deserve it. The winner of this will deserve it, and God willing, that man will get his chance.
Lee: I’d lean towards Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot, but I’m not convinced that Dariush can do anything to convince the UFC that he deserves a title shot, so that immediately dulls some of the intrigue for me.
More likely to get a championship opportunity with an impressive performance? Manon Fiorot.
Undefeated in her past nine fights and 4-0 in the UFC, Fiorot is such an intriguing contender at 125 pounds, and that’s not something you get to write often when you’re talking about a division ruled over by Valentina Shevchenko. There’s enough mystery surrounding Fiorot that it’s possible she could present a challenging puzzle for Shevchenko, but also enough game tape that picking her for the upset wouldn’t be a complete shot in the dark.
All she has to do now is beat Katlyn Chookagian, one of the most consistently confounding gatekeepers in the UFC. Chookagian’s high-volume, low-impact style might infuriate fans, but guess what? It wins fights. And in the UFC, that matters more than anything. She has had her issues with accurate power punchers, a description that fits Fiorot to a tee, but she’s also stifled the title hopes of many aspiring flyweights.
Other than O’Malley, Fiorot is the surest bet to book herself a future title fight with a win at UFC 280.
Martin: On paper it’s Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot, because those two should throw down in a seriously entertaining contest that could secure the winner a title shot. But that’s the easy answer. That’s why I’m going with Belal Muhammad vs. Sean Brady, which headlines the preliminary card ahead of the pay-per-view.
While Khamzat Chimaev keeps stealing all the headlines at welterweight despite maybe not even being a welterweight any longer, Muhammad is by far the most criminally underrated fighter at 170 pounds. He’s put together an eight-fight unbeaten streak capped off by a pair of suffocating performances over Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson and Vicente Luque.
By all accounts, Muhammad has been getting better even as he climbs higher in the rankings, yet nobody ever calls his name. He should probably be facing someone in a No. 1 contender’s fight, but instead he’s taking on a very dangerous opponent in Brady in what amounts to a high-risk, low-reward situation.
That’s what makes this such an intriguing matchup, not to mention that Brady is really freaking good (yet by all accounts, most fans couldn’t pick him out of a line up consisting of two people). This fight is Brady’s chance to cross over from anonymity to relevance, especially when it comes to the welterweight division.
The winner won’t be getting a title shot, but it puts that person in a unique position to — at worse — call for a fight against an opponent that will earn them that opportunity. Whether it’s Khamzat, Colby Covington, or maybe even the loser out of Kamaru Usman vs. Leon Edwards 3, either Muhammad or Brady will be in a prime position in one of the toughest weight classes in the sport heading into 2023.