The biggest fight card of the year takes place this Saturday when UFC 280 goes down at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi. In the main event, former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira looks to reclaim the belt he lost on the scale when he faces the next great Dagestani lightweight, Islam Makhachev. It’s arguably the most intriguing fight of the year, with enormous repercussions for the legacies of both men, so let’s take a look at what each needs to do to win this marquee matchup and ultimately what will happen on fight night.
Paths to Victory for Charles Oliveira at UFC 280
Charles Oliveira hacked MMA.
A UFC fighter since 2010, Oliveira was viewed as a talented but underachieving prospect for the vast majority of his professional career. He could grapple his ass off and had some serious skills, but had also had some pretty big weaknesses that seemed doomed to limit him to the realms of “fun action fighter” forever. And then, suddenly, he started stacking together wins that would ultimately become this incredible run that he’s on, and he did it by changing the game.
At its most basic, fighting is a math problem: Hurting someone more than they hurt you. The art of combat sports lies in the various ways you can manipulate that problem in your favor. You can get stronger to hit harder, you can learn technique to do more damage or absorb less, you can watch tape to know where the math is good and bad for you; but what Oliveira has done is weaponize fear in a way that dramatically tilts the math in his favor.
Oliveira is a dangerous offensive fighter and a pretty bad defensive one (the man gets hit A LOT), and historically, that sort of fighter has a ceiling (if every fight is a violence coin flip, eventually you lose). But because Oliveira is known as this predatory grappler, no one wants to engage with him on the ground for fear that they’re playing into his hands. Oliveira figured that out, and now whenever he’s in danger on the feet, he drops down. When his opponent refuses to follow, it affords Oliveira a chance to recover, reset, and when he stands up, start it all again, hopefully this time winning the violence coin flip. In essence, Oliveira has made it so when he gets hurt, he gets a break, and when he hurts his opponent, it’s curtains. That’s a MASSIVE advantage.
Unfortunately for Oliveira, that advantage won’t exist in this fight. Not only is Makhachev unafraid of following Oliveira to the floor, he’s actively courting it, which gives “Do Bronx” two viable paths forward: Bet on his grappling or change the math again.
If Oliveira truly believes in his ability to submit Makhachev off his back, then playing his normal game on the feet and looking for his opportunities when Makhachev inevitably goes for takedowns is not the worst idea. Oliveira is tricky and very active from the bottom and he’s got a killer guillotine in transition, all of which is imminently dangerous. Creating scrambles where his creativity can shine through could afford him the chance to lock up a fight-ending submission OR put the fear in Makhachev that the floor is indeed lava, reestablishing the core principle of Oliveira’s entire game.
Alternatively, Makhachev can be proactive and force the issue by looking to take Makhachev down himself. Makhachev is a hammer, not a nail. His grappling game heavily relies on him being on top and smothering offense, and the two times we’ve actually seen him get taken down inside the octagon, he almost immediately gave up his back to stand up again. That’s the sort of habit that works right up until it doesn’t, and if Oliveira can force a takedown and then jump to the back when Makhachev inevitably gives it up to escape, that could be the entire fight.
Paths to victory for Islam Makhachev at UFC 280
If Charles Oliveira presents a violence math problem, Islam Makhachev is Isaac Newton (or Gottfried Leibniz, if you prefer). The man does not alter violence math, he simply solves it.
Makhachev wins by doing the exact same thing Khabib Nurmagomedov did, smothering offense, closing down all methods of counterattack, and then ending his opponents because there could never have been another outcome. He almost never gets hit on the feet (except that one time, the black mark separating him from Khabib-like immortality), his wrestling is unstoppable, and his grappling seems even more so. His finishes do not come as a violent exclamation point, but as a merciful ellipsis ... and thus Makhachev wins, because of course he does. It’s why people think of him as boring despite the fact that seven of his 11 UFC wins are finishes. He is inevitable.
And to beat Oliveira, that’s all he needs to be. Oliveira is an incredibly dangerous offensive fighter but lacks a lot defensively, so Makhachev needs to mind his Ps and Qs defensively and follow Father’s Plan by taking Oliveira down and beating him up. Less talented fighters have had success on the floor with Oliveira — Kevin Lee was winning until he gassed out and fell into a guillotine, and Paul Felder nearly killed him with elbows. Makhachev can and should do the same, especially as the fight drags on. Oliveira is most dangerous in the first round, but he becomes less and less so as the fight drags on. Avoiding the danger early, dragging Oliveira into deep waters, and smashing his way to victory as the former champion tires should lead him to a UFC title.
Oliveira’s run has been remarkable, but I cannot think of a worse matchup for him than Makhachev. Islam is competitive on the feet and a huge problem on the floor, with no fear of engaging there. Absolutely no disrespect to Paul Felder, who is a G, but if he can roll around with Oliveira and not get tapped, I suspect Makhachev can do the same or better. Oliveira may make this fun to start, but he’s not a good enough wrestler to keep it standing and Makhachev is too good to submit, so this will slowly slip away from him. And once it starts going, it will go quickly, as it does for everyone who faces “The Next Khabib.”
Islam Makhachev def. Charles Oliveira by TKO (punches) at 2:24 of Round 4.
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