The lightweight champion has a name — and his name is Islam Makhachev. The pride of Dagestan steamrolled over Charles Oliveira to claim the vacant UFC lightweight belt with a second-round submission on Saturday in the main event of UFC 280. The performance capped off a busy pay-per-view that also saw Aljamain Sterling rout an injured T.J. Dillashaw, Sean O’Malley rocket into title contention with an upset win over Petr Yan, and much more. There’s much to discuss, so let’s hit our six biggest takeaways from UFC 280.
1. The burden of inevitability is a funny thing. Imagine, if you can, life in Islam Makhachev’s shoes over these past seven years. The mountain of pressure he’s been buried under as Dagestan’s second son. Propped up as a future champion from the moment he entered the public consciousness, touted throughout his entire UFC career as the heir apparent of the greatest lightweight of all-time. The weight of Father’s Plan? He was its sole inheritor. The last man standing, the successor handpicked to carry on the impossible legacy of his late coach and mentor Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov.
It must have been suffocating. To be measured daily against Khabib Nurmagomedov and know that anything less than perfection would qualify as an outright disappointment.
So sure, Makhachev’s long-awaited coronation as the new king of the lightweights may not have come as a surprise — he was the betting favorite to beat Charles Oliveira, after all, just as he’s been in every one of his UFC fights — but it was a spectacular feat nonetheless. Because here’s the thing: Outside of one blip in 2015, Makhachev’s run to the belt has been every bit as dominant as Nurmagomedov’s ever was. Oliveira landed more significant strikes on Makhachev at UFC 280 than anyone else has in the UFC, which sounds impressive until you check the stats and realize that Oliveira’s mighty tally was really just a paltry 19.
The more things change, the more they stay the same.
And we’re already off to a rollicking start of the second Dagestani dynasty. Heading into UFC 280, I’ll admit I was lukewarm on the idea of Alexander Volkanovski challenging for the 155-pound title — featherweight remains a shark tank and there are still plenty of intriguing young contenders I’d like to see get their shot — but the post-fight promotion orchestrated by Dagestan’s knuckle cartel sold me. Every note was hit pitch-perfect, right down to Nurmagomedov totally owning the pro-wrestling manager role and Volkanovski delivering the event a killer tagline: Your lightweight title vs. my No. 1 pound-for-pound ranking.
To demand to fight the pound-for-pound king in his territory as your first act as champion, especially when he’s one of the toughest stylistic tests available to you? Gangster.
Count me in.
Lightweight has always been a volatile game of hot potato at the very top, but would anyone be surprised if Makhachev winds up breaking the division’s record for UFC title defenses? All he needs to get is three, and he’ll be the betting favorite in every lightweight title defense for as long as he can last. Hell, he’s already a massive 4-to-1 favorite over Volkanovski in the early betting lines, enemy territory be damned.
Welcome to the Islam Makhachev era, ladies and gentlemen. You should probably grab a few blankets and get comfortable, because we may be here for a while.
2. Speaking of eras ... now that it’s over, can please we take a moment to celebrate the violent splendor that was the Charles Oliveira era? It’ll go down in the record books as one of the wildest, most entertaining title reigns in UFC history.
.@CharlesDoBronxs on bouncing back from defeat...— MMAFighting.com (@MMAFighting) October 22, 2022
“No one’s ever going to hit me as hard as life has hit me. Fell down and I’m going to get up and I’m going to get this belt back.”
Full #UFC280 post-fight scrum ▶️ https://t.co/7NPwr0Akwh pic.twitter.com/R791voIgVb
Robbie Lawler will always hold the mantle of the most exciting UFC champion ever — his run of absurd Fight of the Year title bouts from 2014-16 is unmatched — but for my money, Oliveira is the clear-cut No. 2. All four of his title fights were bangers, and few champs have ever openly courted chaos quite like “Do Bronx” did. To put it another way: No one ever willingly took a bathroom break when an Oliveira title fight was next up on the card.
That’s not to say Oliveira is done. Far from it. He’s only 33 years old and is still clearly one of the best lightweights in the world. But that’s a deceiving 33 — the same way Max Holloway’s 30 feels slightly off the mark without the necessary context. Oliveira is 12 years and 31 fights deep into his UFC run, and the damage he’s accrued is far from negligible, not to mention his extended history of destroying his body on the scale. That all takes a toll.
Oliveira isn’t going to morph into the new sacrificial lamb of the 155 pounds overnight, and no one should be the slightest bit surprised if he mounts another quality run. But folks, my Red Flag Detector is sounding off some alarms right now. That’s all. History is not kind to former champs who’ve been in Oliveira’s spot, and as long as Makhachev is the king of the lightweights, it feels as if Brazil’s time with the belt may have passed.
3. It’s through little fault of his own, but Aljamain Sterling is really out here stringing together one of the most bizarre UFC title reigns we’ve seen in quite some time, huh?
Just think about it.
Sterling captured the belt in 2021 by becoming the first fighter in UFC history to win a title via disqualification. He spent a year trapped in the strangest sort of MMA limbo, then escaped his first title defense with a win many fans still dispute he deserved. (Sterling vs. Yan 2 is still the No. 1 most trafficked result of 2022 on MMADecisions.com and Yan 48-47 is the overwhelming winner on the fan vote.) Then we reached Saturday night, when Sterling dominated a former champion in T.J. Dillashaw whose shoulder popped out of its socket almost immediately in the fight, only to reveal afterward that he’d been injured since April.
At this rate, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Sterling’s next foe pulls a Kevin Randleman and slips on some pipes backstage, knocking himself unconscious on the arena floor before even getting the chance to make his walk to the cage. Nothing is outside the realm of possibility.
That’s the UFC’s problem though, not the champ’s. Especially when you consider who Sterling was to the MMA community last year. He was the actor. The faker. The complainer. The false king. The man just keeping the belt warm for Petr Yan. Now he’s put both Yan and Dillashaw in his rear-view mirror, cashed a handful of championship paydays, and on Saturday the first legitimate money fight of his career somehow dropped right in his lap.
If I’m Sterling, I’m at the UFC offices bright and early Monday morning pushing for the Sean O’Malley bout. Frankly, I’m surprised he didn’t already do it on fight night.
Which leads me to...
Sterling vs. Cejudo is certainly the more compelling matchup stylistically and even in terms of historical stakes, but the reality is that Cejudo is still Cejudo — he hasn’t done himself any favors during his absence. When you retire prematurely to try to coax more money out of the UFC, and that retirement (and its 20 fake comebacks) are met by resounding indifference, that’s probably not a sign that you’re the best option for business.
But O’Malley? This is what the UFC has been waiting for the past five years! You can’t convince me matchmakers haven’t been dying to steer “The Sugar Show” into a big-money title fight at the first sign of it being possible to justify! Now it’s finally here, and instead of pumping up the wildly popular contender who just beat the No. 2 guy in the division, White picked Saturday night as the moment to pull out the “What About Cejudo” card?
It was just odd — and frankly, very un-UFC.
Of course, O’Malley’s controversial win likely played a factor. I scored his bout 29-28 for Yan, and I’m not clearly alone. But either way, there’s no question now whether O’Malley belongs in the conversation with the elite of this bantamweight division. Even the biggest “Sugar” skeptic had to be impressed by how he acquitted himself to the upper echelon of the 135-pound ranks, because at no point on Saturday did O’Malley look out of his depth.
We repeat it often, but the speed with which things change in MMA is dizzying.
(That being said, I don’t hate the idea of O’Malley vs. Marlon Vera 2 as a nice little plan B.)
5. The lightweight division is chaos incarnate and the notion of a UFC meritocracy is a myth, but I’m just saying: If Conor McGregor ends up challenging for the 155-pound title before Beneil Dariush, something has gone terribly, terribly wrong with this sport.
Dariush continues to be one of the most criminally underrated talents in MMA, but after his hopes of challenging for the belt lasted all of an hour before it became apparent that Volkanovski had cut the line, I fear Dariush is setting down the path of becoming the new Tony Ferguson. You know exactly what I mean: The lightweight with the long win streak who brings the action and deserves his damn opportunity, only fate and the UFC’s machinations and the endless politicking within the sport conspire against him at every turn.
In a just world, Dariush’s exhilarating win over Mateusz Gamrot on Saturday would’ve been enough to earn him his spot, especially since Dariush just watched the man he was supposed to fight (Makhachev) win the title without having to reassert his claim. Instead, Dariush is left with two options, neither of which are particularly good: Either roll the dice by sitting out, or put his remarkable eight-fight streak on the line all over again against another uber-tough contender, whether that’s Oliveira (which would make the most sense), the Poirier-Chandler winner (which would make less sense), or someone else entirely.
That sucks. And just like Ferguson didn’t deserve the endless runaround that ultimately prevented him from ever vying for an undisputed UFC title, neither does Dariush.
I just hope “Benny” doesn’t wind up nursing the same regrets “El Cucuy” is today, because once your moment is gone in this game, there’s rarely any getting it back.
6. Speaking of underrated, Belal Muhammad keeps laughing at all your busted parlays.
The No. 6=ranked welterweight in the world might be the single most disrespected title contender in MMA, and UFC 280 fight week was no exception. Over countless preview posts and pick breakdowns this past week, not once did I see anyone in the industry pick Muhammad. Yet he did exactly what he’s done over the past four years and played spoiler once again, this time with his second-round standing TKO of Sean Brady.
To illustrate what I mean: A hypothetical “Remember The Name” parlay of each of Muhammad’s past three wins (Stephen Thompson, Vicente Luque, Brady) would’ve netted you more than $1489 for a $100 bet. Muhammad, of course, has been the underdog in all three. There’s something to be said for the man no one believes in who keeps getting it done despite the noise and extracurriculars swirling around him on a daily basis.
Saturday felt like the turning point, though, because UFC 280 was no lay-and-pray snoozefest. Rather, Muhammad tore through Brady for the type of statement victory that his résumé sorely lacked. His run to contention somewhat felt like smoke and mirrors prior to Saturday night, but at this point, how can anyone deny him?
Muhammad called out Khamzat Chimaev for a No. 1 contender bout — and you know what? If the Colby Covington fight doesn’t come together — which is very, very possible, as always with any Covington matchup — then the UFC should grant Muhammad his wish.
Congrats to one of MMA’s great unsungs. The schadenfreude must taste delicious.