Who is the best lightweight fighter in the world?
We’re about to find out, courtesy of the UFC 280 pay-per-view (PPV) main event between Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev, a five-round battle that takes place tomorrow (Sat., Oct. 22, 2022) following a special main card start time of 2 p.m. ET from inside Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, UAE, also known as “Fight Island” during the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition, defending bantamweight titleholder Aljamain Sterling will look to end the comeback of disgraced ex-champion TJ Dillashaw, who is still looking to rebuild his image in the wake of a serious drug offense. In addition, Petr Yan fights to keep himself in the 135-pound title chase by eliminating bantamweight slugger Sean O’Malley in what is widely-considered the stiffest test for “Sugar” to date. Rounding out the main card is the lightweight clash between top contenders Beneil Dariush and Mateusz Gamrot, along with the opening showdown pitting flyweight veteran Katlyn Chookagian opposite the venerable Manon Fiorot.
Who wins and who loses? Before we get to the finer details, be sure to take a closer look at our comprehensive preview and predictions for all the UFC 280 preliminary card action by clicking here and here. The latest UFC 280 odds and a complete betting guide for the “Oliveira vs. Makhachev” PPV event can be located here. Remember, you’ll need a subscription to ESPN+ to order this weekend’s event but if the thought of listening to the “official” commentary has you down in the dumps, mute your volume and follow along with our live video play-by-play at our Combat Culture YouTube channel by clicking here.
Let’s talk shop.
155 lbs.: Charles “Do Bronx” Oliveira (33-8, 1 NC) vs. Islam Makhachev (22-1) for vacant lightweight title
Charles Oliveira has an opportunity to cement his status as the greatest lightweight champion of the modern era, assuming he can sail through the UFC 280 weigh ins without incident (Edit: he did). Featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski is waiting on standby in case he fails and let’s face it, a misstep similar to the one “Do Bronx” suffered at UFC 274 would be catastrophic for his career. Oliveira is redefining what it means to peak in combat sports and in many ways moving the chains further down the field when it comes to “prime” for combatants in MMA. The Brazilian turned 33 earlier this year and has never looked better, racking up 11 straight victories with an incredible 10 finishes, four of which have come within the first round. Three of those finishes eliminated fighters currently ranked in the Top 5, including Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. Regardless of how you feel about “The Diamond” or “The Highlight” when it comes to the annals of lightweight history, they represent the best the division has to offer. Admittedly, I was one of many critics who questioned Oliveira’s durability in recent years but there is no evidence across his 11-fight winning streak to support that argument. Even when he’s in trouble, “Do Bronx” finds a way to battle back and win, which is what a champion does in the heat of the moment.
Simply put, he shut a lot of people up (including myself).
Unfortunately for Oliveira (and fortunately for fans), the work is not complete. Hoping to contradict everything I just wrote is streaking lightweight sensation Islam Makhachev, who like his Brazilian counterpart, is tearing his way through the 155-pound weight class. The Dagestani bruiser has captured 10 straight and looked completely dominant in each of those performances. In fact, his 65.8% takedown accuracy (average) ranks him among the 10 best UFC fighters in history, across any weight class. There’s no questioning his ability to perform, I just can’t help but wonder how much of his presence is attributed to the shadow of Khabib Nurmagomedov, one of the greatest lightweights in history. “The Eagle” has been a great hype man and sharing camps between Eagles MMA and American Kickboxing Academy (AKA) certainly hasn’t hurt his reputation, I’m just not ready to anoint him the uncrowned champion. Yes, he racked up 10 straight wins, but only half of those opponents are still signed to the UFC roster. The other half have failed to crack the Top 10 of the lightweight division and only Dan Hooker — who’s dropped four of his last five — is (barely) ranked within the Top 15. If you’re expecting Makhachev to steamroll Oliveira, I would be concerned about that statistic because “Do Bronx” is out there making a mockery of the Top 5 while Makhachev is busy pushing around the “Fight Night” job squad.
Maybe Makhachev is that guy, maybe he is just as dangerous and dominant as the press clippings say, he just hasn’t proved it yet. If I have to pick a fighter to win the vacant lightweight strap this Sat. in Abu Dhabi, I’m going with the one who continues to prove his case against the best competition in the world, while also setting the promotion’s all-time records for both submissions (16) and overall finishes (19).
Prediction: Oliveira def. Makhachev by technical knockout
135 lbs.: UFC Bantamweight Champion Aljamain “Funk Master” Sterling (21-3) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (17-4)
This is the first time in two-and-a-half years that Aljamain Sterling has fought someone other than Petr Yan and I gotta tell ya’, it feels a helluva lot longer. I don’t know if the time off due to neck surgery gave that feud such a long feel or whether it was the never-ending bickering from both sides, but it’s nice to have a fresh rivalry for UFC 280. Now let’s just hope we have a definitive ending so that we can get the 135-pound assembly line moving again. The worst case scenario from my perspective is a victory for both Sterling and Yan, which puts us right back where we started, but I guess “No Mercy” fans are still looking for payback after a disqualification was followed by a split decision that many outlets scored a draw, with a few leaning in favor of the former champion. That last performance is concerning if you’re rooting for (or betting on) Sterling because “Funk Master” completely shit the bed in the second half of the Yan fight, landing just 29 strikes across the final three rounds and going 1-for-18 in takedowns. Fortunately for him, Yan was asleep at the wheel and didn't attempt a single takedown, or perhaps “No Mercy” was convinced he was already ahead on the scorecards. Either way, there was nothing in that fight that should have Sterling fans feeling confident ahead of UFC 280.
TJ Dillashaw also went to a split decision when he made his UFC comeback opposite Cory Sandhagen in summer 2021. It was the first time the former bantamweight champion had seen action since getting his clock cleaned by Henry Cejudo in his ill-fated attempt to usurp the flyweight throne. Not only was he put out to pasture by Triple Cringe, he also failed his drug test for EPO, tarnishing his 135-pound legacy in the process. The former “Ultimate Fighter” runner-up had two years on the bench to mull it over and I’m probably more forgiving of his return fight because A) he was fighting Sandhagen, one of the best bantamweights in the world and B) two years off can leave a fighter considerably rusty. Against Sterling, the 36 year-old Dillashaw will have to fight fire with fire when it comes to wrestling. “Funk Master” was a Division III standout against Division I for Dillashaw and if you know anything about wrestling you know there is a considerable gap in talent between the two. That said, we’re not on the wrestling mats and I don't think their collegiate accomplishments are going to tell the tale here, particularly when Dillashaw holds such a marked advantage in striking.
Sterling has just two knockouts in 21 wins and only one of those came under the UFC banner. He’s also been held to just two finishes over the last seven years making it very difficult to build a case for his victory. Even if we call the wrestling even, the striking is not, and Dillashaw knows it. Much like the Yan fight, I would expect the champion to come out like gangbusters looking to run up a lead to help carry him through the latter half of the bout. Unlike the Yan fight, Dillashaw won’t take his foot off the gas or abandon his bread-and-butter when the clock starts running out. Sooner or later Sterling is going to burn himself out looking for takedowns that won’t come, leaving him open to a raged-up Dillashaw combination.
Prediction: Dillashaw def. Sterling by technical knockout
135 lbs.: Petr “No Mercy” Yan (16-3) vs. “Sugar” Sean O’Malley (15-1, 1 NC)
I don’t know why I’m so tickled by this matchup, maybe it’s the way fans reacted, but I think we need to stop acting like this is Mirko Cro Cop vs. Eddie Sanchez. Yes, Petr Yan is an excellent fighter but so is Sean O’Malley. I know it’s fun to goof on “Sugar” for his antics — and there are aplenty — let’s just not overlook his ability to knock people out with one punch. Yan hasn't really faced that kind of threat in his UFC career. It’s fair to say Yan had his work cut out for him against Jose Aldo at UFC 251, just as it’s equally fair to say the former featherweight sacrificed his power to make the bantamweight limit, which is why “Junior” — a prolific finisher — ended his UFC career with six fights at 135 pounds and zero knockouts. I’m also concerned about the former champion’s notoriously slow starts. It took him some time to get out of first gear against Cory Sandhagen at UFC 267 but Yan had the benefit of five rounds to work at his own pace. He also didn’t have to deal with the kind of bombs O’Malley drops when the leather starts flying. For me, this fight boils down to which version of “Sugar” shows up to the bowl.
I don’t want to start making assumptions about how the Pedro Munhoz fight would have ended because I don’t know (and neither does anyone else). What I do know is that I was very underwhelmed by O’Malley’s performance, which is not unlike the flop we saw against Marlon Vera back at UFC 252. That said, I don’t want to just take the Munhoz fight and use it to completely discount what came before it. Not that anyone is breaking out the red panties for stoppages over Kris Moutinho or Raulian Paiva, but it would be foolish to overlook what O’Malley can do on the feet when he’s dialed in. Is that the case for UFC 280? Part of me wonders if the former “Contender Series” standout is one of those talents who got seduced with the money and lifestyle that comes with being a star in UFC. Something tells me that O’Malley doesn’t need Lamborghini super yachts when he’s just as happy smoking designer weed and banging girlfriend-approved groupies. You don’t need a bantamweight title for that so we’re going to find out whether or not “Sugar” is committed to becoming champion when he faces off against Yan. The goofy, hey-look-at-me offense that we’ve seen in some of his previous performances will get him taken down and smashed into pieces.
I don’t believe Yan is taking this fight seriously and I’m also not sure he’s willing to come out of the gate with the intention of winning every round. That’s why I’m prepared to make myself the laughing stock of the MMA community (wouldn’t be the first time) and pick O’Malley. I think behind all the fight week antics “Sugar” is training for the fight of his life (because it is) and assuming he doesn’t waltz right into a double leg, he’s likely to slip one through and bring “No Mercy” to his knees.
Prediction: O’Malley def. Yan by knockout
155 lbs.: Beneil Dariush (21-4-1) vs. Mateusz “Gamer” Gamrot (21-1, 1 NC)
Beneil Dariush believes he was snubbed when it came time to pick a contender to battle Charles Oliveira for the lightweight strap and if he wasn’t going to get the division title shot, he at least wanted to prove he was more deserving than Islam Makhachev by defeating ... Islam Makhachev. Instead he got neither and even with a victory over the fast-rising Mateusz Gamrot — certainly no walk in the park — Dariush will have to yield to reigning featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski, who looks to join the “champ champ” club at some point in early 2023. Dariush had a rough stretch from 2017-18, sandwiching knockout losses to Edson Barboza and Alexander Hernandez around a majority draw opposite Evan Dunham. Since then, the 33 year-old Californian has captured seven straight, including his UFC 262 decision over the free-falling Tony Ferguson. How much stock we put into that victory, as well as his winning streak, all depends on the value of his competition which in my book has been ... well, somewhat lacking. Outside of his Ferguson win, Dariush hasn’t beaten anyone in the Top 15 and yet somehow managed to land at No. 6 in the official rankings, coming in three spots ahead of Gamrot.
The Polish import knows a thing or two about win streaks, bouncing back from a debut loss (via split decision) to Georgian “Viking” Guram Kutateladze to rack up four straight victories, three of which ended by way of knockout or submission. You can also argue that Gamrot hasn’t beaten anyone in the Top 15; however, unlike Dariush, “Gamer” has just five fights in two years with the promotion, opposed to 20 fights across eight years. Gamrot and Dariush stand at 5’10” and fight from the southpaw stance, though Dariush enjoys a two-inch reach advantage. I’m not sure that will come into play in a battle that is likely to come down to who controls the wrestling. Both fighters share similar stats in offensive and defensive wrestling: Gamrot has 18 takedowns during his win streak against 17 for Dariush (in more fights). This is a difficult fight to pick because a solid argument can be made for either fighter, though the sports books are siding with Gamrot, who no doubt impressed with his recent “W” over Arman Tsarukyan. I’m not sure I can build a good enough case to contest those numbers because “Gamer” has pretty much pulled even with Dariush in terms of lightweight ranking and only needed a quarter of the fights to get it done. A late finish would not surprise me.
Prediction: Gamrot def. Dariush by submission
125 lbs.: Katlyn “Blonde Fighter” Chookagian (18-4) vs. Manon Fiorot (9-1)
This flyweight clash is an interesting choice to kick off the UFC 280 PPV main card, a spot I expected to go to the welterweight showdown between Belal Muhammad and Sean Brady, though you can argue that Katlyn Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot is just as important in terms of how it affects its division. Chookagian is ranked No. 1 in the world at 125 pounds and a victory for Fiorot — currently seated at No. 7 — could provide a fresh face for current division titleholder Valentina Shevchenko, who may or may not rematch Taila Santos in her Octagon return. Chookagian was shot down by “Bullet” at UFC 247 back in early 2020 but has since put together a 5-1 record, which includes four straight wins heading into UFC 280. The only knock against “Blonde Fighter” is that she’s been to a decision in 15 of her 18 wins and has never scored a finish under the UFC banner. It’s also worth pointing out that four of Chookagian’s decisions have gone a split, including her close nod over Amanda Ribas at UFC Vegas 54 Last May. Winning ugly is still winning and she continues to get the job done, I just have a hard time building a case for victory on Saturday, based on those performances and the caliber of opponent she’s facing in Abu Dhabi.
Fiorot dropped a split decision to Bellator standout Leah McCourt in her pro MMA debut but has since fired off nine straight wins, including four under the UFC umbrella with knockouts over Victoria Leonardo (UFC Fight Island 8) and Tabatha Ricci (UFC Vegas 28). Her most recent victory came over former title challenger Jennifer Maia and as I mentioned above, it would not be a tough sell to have Fiorot elevated to a Shevchenko title fight if she makes a convincing statement against Chookagian, who according to the rankings is the second best fighter in the division. They call Fiorot “The Beast” and from what we’ve seen thus far inside the Octagon there is zero evidence to contradict that name. Fans of the French phenom need to be concerned about the height and reach disadvantage against the taller and longer Chookagian, though I wouldn’t be surprised to see Fiorot circumvent that obstacle by taking her opponent to the floor. “Blonde Fighter” has given up over 20 takedowns in her UFC career and Fiorot has scored six takedowns in her first four fights. I think Chookagian will be able to hang tough for all three rounds, but I do not expect her to win a single one of them.
Prediction: Fiorot def. Chookagian by unanimous decision
MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 280 fight card RIGHT HERE, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches at 10 a.m. ET, followed by the remaining undercard balance on ESPN+/ESPNews at 12 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+.
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