Merab Dvalishvili stole the show at UFC 288 without even fighting.
Dvalishvili provided one of the highlights of the weekend when he covertly stole Sean O’Malley’s Thriller jacket during an in-cage faceoff with Aljamain Sterling, then climbed atop the octagon to revel in the moment with fans in New Jersey’s Prudential Center.
As Sterling’s longtime friend and teammate, Dvalishvili was already in the cage to support the UFC bantamweight champion following Sterling’s win over Henry Cejudo. But once O’Malley arrived to set the stage for Sterling’s next title defense, chaos quickly ensued.
“I tried to get there [for the faceoff] quick, make sure I stay there, because [then I could] make sure [O’Malley] doesn’t do something stupid or his coach or somebody,” Dvalishvili explained on The MMA Hour. “I was there just in case, and when he started talking s***, I said, ‘Yo, yo, chill, chill.’ I was smiling, because ‘Aljo’ and him are going to fight, but I don’t want to be disrespectful to O’Malley, but I also I want to tell him, ‘This is Aljo’s moment. Yo, a little bit chill. Just be respectful for a champion.’ And he started taking [off his] jacket and I was there — and I can’t wait to grab his jacket.
“As soon as he takes it off — I help him actually to take off the hand and then I grab it — Al [Iaquinta] was next to me and then he told me, ‘Don’t give him it back.’ And then I’m like looking [around for] one second, I said, ‘I have an even better idea,’ and then I put it on. What’s he going to do?
“And soon as security break them a little bit,” Dvalishvili continued with a laugh, “I just ran to the cage and I just celebrate the new jacket.”
Dvalishvili added that he was surprised O’Malley’s jacket fit him so well considering the vast difference between his 5-foot-6 frame and O’Malley lankier 5-foot-11 body type.
“Actually, I liked the jacket. Like I said, man, I don’t like Henry Cejudo’s team jacket. I like O’Malley’s jacket,” Dvalishvili said with another laugh.
“I was scared if it was going to fit, because I have a lot of muscle. This guy is skinny. But because I guess he’s tall and he looks like a Christmas tree, it fit good on me.”
All in all, Dvalishvili’s antics brought some levity to an otherwise heated scene, as the faceoff between Sterling and O’Malley nearly ignited a melee in UFC 288’s octagon.
O’Malley eventually got his jacket back and later told MMA Fighting that he was amused by Dvalishvili’s sneaky move. In the moment, though, “Sugar” didn’t appear as receptive.
“This Christmas tree, I don’t care [if he was upset],” Dvalishvili said. “Sometimes he’s funny, sometimes he’s a little boy. Sometimes I like him, sometimes I’m not sure, because come on, he should never disrespect the champion and he shouldn’t act like this, act like a little kid. So yeah, and then when I jumped back [in the cage] and I saw, yeah, he was pissed off.
“I was feeling bad for him because he was standing naked [so I gave it back]. He’s a skinny guy. I don’t want to get him sick and make an excuse Aljo’s fight or something like that.”
Sterling and O’Malley are tentatively expected to fight for the UFC bantamweight title on Aug. 19 in Boston — and O’Malley could be seeing plenty of Dvalishvili that week too.
Dvalishvili told MMA Fighting on Wednesday that despite dealing with an injured hand, he’s open to fighting Cejudo on the same Aug. 19 card. And if Sterling follows through on his promise to move up to 145 pounds if he defeats O’Malley, that means a matchup pitting Dvalishvili against O’Malley for the vacant title after that isn’t out of the question.
“Let me tell you what, so let’s do this. O’Malley vs. Aljo. And Aljo will beat him, and then [O’Malley] can fight me,” Dvalishvili said. “Actually he DM’d me after I fought Petr Yan, he DM’d me, he texted me, ‘Hey, great fight. When the right time comes, I can’t wait to fight you.’
“That was nice of him, because I was chasing him all five years [of my UFC career] ... and he never responded. And after Petr Yan’s fight, he did text me that I will fight him when the right time comes. And after Aljo beats him, that will be the right time.”