When we say MMA is supposed to be fun, we’re talking about cards like UFC 280.
What’s not to like about Saturday’s loaded lineup, which features the two hottest lightweights in the world competing for UFC gold, Aljamain Sterling going for his second defense of the bantamweight title against a former champion seeking a third reign, Petr Yan looking to prevent Sean O’Malley from leapfrogging him for a championship fight, plus big-time contender bouts at lightweight and flyweight?
And that’s just the main card.
We’ve been spoiled with great title fights this year, starting with Francis Ngannou vs. Ciryl Gane for the heavyweight title and Deiveson Figueiredo and Brandon Moreno giving us another classic in January, and followed by Jiri Prochazka vs. Glover Teixeira (one of the most fun, chaotic championship fights of all-time), Leon Edwards shocking the world against Kamaru Usman, Alexander Volkanovski putting the Max Holloway rivalry to rest for good, and Valentina Shevchenko nearly being upset by Taila Santos.
Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev could top them all. Both are riding double-digit win streaks, both are known for their incredible grappling, and both stand to gain or lose a lot depending on the outcome. You get the sense that even with everyone and their mother having a take on this fight, the fight will unfold in a way that none of us saw coming.
What: UFC 280
Where: Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi
(Numbers in parentheses indicate standing in MMA Fighting’s Global Rankings)
Charles Oliveira (1) vs. Islam Makhachev (3)
If you think I’m jumping off the Charles Oliveira bandwagon now, you’ve got another thing coming. I’ve been predicting Oliveira wins since the Michael Chandler fight and I’m not stopping now, especially when we’re oh-so-close to my fantasy booking of Oliveira vs. a returning Khabib Nurmagomedov.
“How quickly will Khabib come out of retirement after Charles Oliveira chokes Islam unconscious?” @AlexanderKLee battled @BCampbell this week on Between The Links ▶️ https://t.co/uKoucqLAIE pic.twitter.com/BTQkN5Or8E— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) October 21, 2022
But pipe dreams aside, let’s focus on this main event, which just so happens to be the best possible fight any promotion could make at 155 pounds. Oliveira is the real champ (forget that half-pound!) and Islam Makhachev is more than worthy of a title shot, lack of ranked conquests be damned.
I don’t understand how anyone could watch Makhachev fight and not want to see him compete for a title. You could have booked him in a title fight after he beat Thiago Moises and I wouldn’t have complained, that’s how impressive he’d been up to that point. If you care about the best fighting the best, then you should be thrilled that Makhachev is getting his shot.
When you’ve been nothing but dominant though, it raises the question of how you’ll deal with adversity, especially the kind of adversity that “Do Bronx” presents. The uncrowned champion simply does not go away. Oliveira has shown a level of resilience that should leave his doubters wondering if there’s anything that can keep him down. In a dogfight, I’m picking Oliveira all the way.
That said, you don’t need to be an MMA expert to know that powerful wrestlers have been neutralizing jiu-jitsu specialists for the better part of the last decade, and they don’t come much more powerful than Makhachev. There’s another question: What will the champion do if all of his ground wizardry has no effect? Will he instead work to get back to the feet? Will Makhachev even let him?
Oliveira’s legacy is already written as far as I’m concerned. He’s at worst one of the five best lightweights ever and now he’s just résumé building. A win over Makhachev would look real nice on the mantle. On the flip side, Makhachev adding Oliveira to his hit list would arguably give him a victory over an opponent better than anyone that his mentor ever beat.
Long story short, I’m sticking with my guns and picking Oliveira to choke Makhachev unconscious. Makhachev gets off to a great start, maybe even 10-8’ing Oliveira in Round 1, but Oliveira comes roaring back in the second and take Makhachev out.
When it’s all said and done, there will only be one question left: Where you at, Khabib?
Aljamain Sterling (1) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (3)
T.J. Dillashaw has every tool needed to topple Aljamain Sterling and reclaim the UFC bantamweight title. But has Father Time caught up to him?
As pointed out by the esteemed Shaheen Al-Shatti on this week’s episode of No Bets Barred, should Dillashaw beat Sterling he will become the oldest fighter ever to hold an undisputed UFC title in a weight class lighter than 170 pounds. Dillashaw turns 37 in February and the bantamweight division is filled with younger, up-and-coming killers known for their relentless pace, non-stop movement, and championship cardio. Those are the traits that made Dillashaw a two-time champion, but he has to prove that age is nothing but a number when he faces off with Sterling.
If T.J. Dillashaw (36) wins at #ufc280, he will become — *BY FAR* — the oldest man in UFC history to win a title fight under 170lbs (LW, FW, BW, FLW).— Shaheen Al-Shatti (@shaunalshatti) October 21, 2022
Figueiredo: 34 yrs, 1 month
Sherk: 33 yrs, 11 months
Volk: 33 yrs, 9 months
Cejudo: 33 yrs, 3 months
Sterling: 32 yrs, 8 months
On paper, Dillashaw is the perfect foil for “Funk Master.” Sterling’s striking has improved greatly since he made his UFC debut in 2014, so he can be competitive there, but his bread-and-butter is that thrilling grappling game. The problem with this matchup is that Dillashaw simply does not get dominated by grapplers. He rarely gives up takedowns and even more rarely gets controlled when he’s on the mat, so I’m not sure what Sterling can do with him there. He’ll have to take his standup game to another level if he hopes to send Dillashaw to the back of the line.
It’s impossible for me to ignore that age stat, but it’s also impossible for me to envision a scenario where Sterling submits Dillashaw or outwrestles him for 25 minutes (seriously, if he grapples his way to a decision, it will be ridiculously impressive). Dillashaw will beat him on the feet, wearing Sterling down before finding a finish in the championship rounds.
It’s about to be #AndAgain again.
Petr Yan (2) vs. Sean O’Malley
It might surprise some to learn that Sean O’Malley is not only outside of the top 15 of the illustrious MMA Fighting Global Rankings, he’s not even a FARV (fighter also receiving votes)! That says more about the depth of the bantamweight division than any shortcomings on O’Malley’s part, but it also gives you some idea of the challenge that O’Malley faces in Petr Yan.
For me, this is a no-lose situation for O’Malley. Few would have predicted he’d earn an opportunity like this coming off of a forgettable no contest against Pedro Munhoz. Even less expect him to actually beat Yan. It’s true that a title shot is almost definitely in the cards for O’Malley should he win, but if that doesn’t happen can you really lose something you technically didn’t have?
So O’Malley should feel little pressure as he heads into the biggest fight of his career and while that may mean we see the best version of him yet, I don’t think it’s good enough to beat Yan. “No Mercy” is a terminator, one of the best at adapting mid-fight and arguably the best boxer in the UFC. Those picking an upset will point to his tendency to start slow, but I’m convinced that’s a luxury he’s allowed himself due to his past four fights all being five-rounders. Knowing that he has less time to mess around, Yan will work harder to prevent O’Malley from stealing any rounds.
Yan also hasn’t had to show much of his wrestling recently, but he has excellent takedowns and ground-and-pound. Add in the fact that O’Malley occasionally struggles to create offense against more patient foes and you can see why I’m bullish on Yan preventing a rankings shakeup here.
Yan by decision.
Beneil Dariush (5) vs. Mateusz Gamrot (8)
Pardon the technical jargon, but Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot is what we in the industry call “high-level s***.”
I don’t particularly care that neither man gets much closer to a title fight with a win (Dariush is forever cursed to be a non-factor in the UFC’s championship matchmaking plans, Gamrot feels like he needs one or two more big names on his resume), I only care that this fight is happening and its awesome. Dariush doesn’t get enough credit for being one of the most compelling fighters in the lightweight division, a well-rounded veteran equipped with slick submission skills who also enjoys mixing it up on the feet. And Gamrot has been as good as advertised coming off of a two-division title run in KSW.
This is just about a toss-up for me, but if I have to get off the fence, I’m going with Gamrot. We are going to be treated to some incredible grappling exchanges, as well as some close calls on the foot as both fighters can land bombs. Gamrot has historically been more durable, which is one of the deciding factors for me here. I’m just picturing Gamrot eventually getting the better of an exchange and flooring Dariush. From there, Dariush won’t recover.
Let’s enjoy this one while it lasts, people, because these two aren’t going the distance.
Katlyn Chookagian (4) vs. Manon Fiorot (T7)
With Katlyn Chookagian missing weight on Friday, the flyweight division is much more interesting place should Manon Fiorot pick up this victory.
Chookagian enters UFC 280 on a four-fight win streak, but her title hopes are hindered by the fact that she’s already suffered a one-sided loss to Valentina Shevchenko and that her status as a decision machine means most fans don’t consider her to be appointment viewing. Still, winning is winning, and Chookagian does that as well as anyone.
That puts the onus on Fiorot to push the action and not let Chookagian turn this into a Chookagian fight. What that means is she has to match Chookagian’s volume, while also staying accurate and finding a home for the power-punching that has made her such an intriguing contender. Fiorot is a plus-athlete, which goes a long way, but it’s unclear how she’ll fare against a standup grinder like Chookagian.
If Fiorot can mix in some takedowns, that would be big, as it would not only take Chookagian’s tricky movement out of the equation, it would leave “Blonde Fighter” having to play catchup on the feet. That’s not ideal of Chookagian, who excels when she’s leading the dance, not when she’s forced to take risks.
That’s the position I expect Fiorot to put her in and while I don’t see her putting Chookagian away, she’ll take advantage of this opportunity and win on points to set up a 2023 encounter with Shevchenko.