With an absolutely loaded main card, featuring a pair of title fights, Saturday’s UFC 280 pay-per-view event from Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi offers a little something for every type of mixed martial arts fan.
Former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira looks to regain the 155-pound title he dropped on the scales in May when he welcomes red-hot Islam Makhachev in the main event. Meanwhile, former bantamweight king TJ Dillashaw looks to become a three-time champion when he faces defending titleholder Aljamain Sterling.
With so many big names set to face off, including an intriguing Petr Yan-Sean O’Malley bantamweight tilt that might produce the next title challenger, let’s take a closer look at the biggest storylines entering this weekend.
1. Charles Oliveira is approaching rarefied territory
Although the Brazilian submission expert, who holds the company record for finishes, saw his championship reign interrupted by a weigh-in mishap at UFC 274, his performance 24 hours later only reinforced the idea that Oliveira is the best lightweight in the world. But even separate from how impressive his current 11-fight win streak is, Oliveira has an opportunity — should he defeat the 22-1 Makhachev — to author one of the most impressive five-fight winning streaks that UFC has ever seen. Jon Jones’ initial run as light heavyweight champion might be the best comparison, in this case. Starting with first title win in 2011, Jones defeated five straight former champions and legends in Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Vitor Belfort, all in succession of each other. Two-division champion Amanda Nunes also had a pair of memorable five-fight stretches, including the one beginning in 2016 that saw wins over Miesha Tate, Ronda Rousey, Valentina Shevchenko, Raquel Pennington and Cris Cyborg. But Oliveira’s current streak isn’t that far off. After taking a 2020 decision from Tony Ferguson, who had entered 12-1 in his last 13 fights, Oliveira went on to finish Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, all in title bouts. A potential win over Makhachev, with former division king Khabib Nurmagomedov in his corner, would make this stretch a historic one and further cement Oliveira’s name in lightweight history.
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2. Islam Makhachev can usher in a changing of the guard at lightweight
At 31, it’s time to find out just how good Makhachev truly is as he enters his first title shot still carrying the burden of being pressured to pick up where Nurmagomedov left off at 155 pounds following his abrupt retirement in early 2021. Yes, it’s still difficult to mention Makhachev without then linking Nurmagomedov in some form. Nurmagomedov is not only his head coach and fellow native of Dagestan in Russia, carrying on the teachings of his late father/trainer Abdulmanap, the unbeaten “Eagle” also still carries a large and legendary shadow as one of greatest fighters in UFC history. But not only is Nurmagomedov’s glory days in the rearview mirror, the same can be said for most of his lightweight contemporaries during an era in which the 155-pound division was considered the deepest in promotional history. Ferguson, Poirier, Gaethje, Chandler and former champion Conor McGregor all seem to be entering the twilights of their great careers at various speeds. And even though Oliveira is 32, just one year older than Makhachev, he’s one of nine UFC fighters in history with at least 30 trips to the Octagon. Makhachev is currently the face of a new generation of lightweight fighters, which also includes Mateusz Gamrot, Rafael Fiziev, Arman Tsarukyan and Damir Ismagulov. And they appear to be coming on, right now.
3. Sterling-Dillashaw is about as good as it gets in MMA
Overshadowed just a bit by the main event and some of the bigger personalities fighting at UFC 280, this bantamweight title tilt between 135-pound champions of two different eras might be the best fight on the card. Sterling, who sits firmly in his fighting prime at age 33, brings a seven-fight win streak and a newfound level of confidence into this fight after defending his title against Yan in their rematch. Although Sterling won by split decision, the performance was a mature one. It also firmly put behind him the bad taste in the mouth of many fans from the way he initially captured the belt via disqualification against Yan in a fight he was losing. And then there’s Dillashaw, the former two-time champion who never actually lost his title the second time around, having been stripped following his flyweight title loss to Henry Cejudo for failing a drug test. Dillashaw is more than comfortable playing the victim role for critics who remind him of the two-year USADA suspension he recently served. But his comeback victory, also by split decision, over Cory Sandhagen in July 2021 was a reminder of how great Dillashaw still is. Yes, he will need to prove he’s fully back from a knee injury that sidelined his comeback for more than a year. But the betting odds for Saturday’s co-main event are razor thin and, at age 36, Dillashaw has a chance to separate himself a bit historically from his bantamweight contemporaries with a third title reign.
4. Sean O’Malley is pushing all of his chips to the center of the table
Whether it was his two-year USADA suspension that ended in 2020 or a recent stretch of matchmaking against questionably inferior talent, the MMA world has been waiting for awhile now to find out if O’Malley can live up to his enormous hype. The 27-year-old rising star and influencer has won three straight (including one no contest) since his lone pro defeat in 2020 when he succumbed to a leg injury against Marlon Vera. The fact that the jury is still somewhat out about how good O’Malley really is remains a huge part of the intrigue entering his key bantamweight showdown with the former champion Yan. This is O’Malley leapfrogging into the deep end of the pool, in what is likely his toughest test to date. Given his starpower, it wouldn’t be out of the question for a title shot to come next should he win. Consider this referendum time for “The Suga Show.”
5. Belal Muhammad-Sean Brady might be too good for featured prelim placement
The UFC matchmakers certainly had their hands full in deciding among three remaining pivotal divisional matchups, which two would round out the PPV card and which pairing would become the preliminary featured bout on ESPN. In the end, Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot at lightweight and Kaitlyn Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot at women’s flyweight won out, in terms of placement. But it might be the fans, particularly the casual ones who might stumble into it, that win out on getting Belal Muhammad vs. Sean Brady at welterweight on free TV. In a huge matchup for future title positioning, the contrast of Brady’s wrestling with Muhammad’s motor and striking skill is expected to be a potentially epic clash. Add in the presence of Nurmagomedov, once again, who slides into the corner of Muhammad, presumably to aid his wrestling takedown preparation, and you have the very definition of must-see TV. Both fighters are riding impressive win streaks coming in and the 15-0 Brady has yet to taste defeat as a professional.