Paths to Victory: How Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev can claim the lightweight title at UFC 280

MMA: MAY 07 UFC 274

The biggest fight card of the year takes place this Saturday when UFC 280 goes down at the Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi. In the main event, former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira looks to reclaim the belt he lost on the scale when he faces the next great Dagestani lightweight, Islam Makhachev. This is undoubtedly the most interesting fight in the year. It has huge repercussions on both the legacy and the careers of both fighters. Let’s look at the requirements of each man to win the marquee fightup, as well as what the fight will be like.

MMA: MAY 07 UFC 274

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Paths to Victory for Charles Oliveira at UFC 280

Charles Oliveira hacked MMA.

A UFC fighter since 2010, Oliveira was viewed as a talented but underachieving prospect for the vast majority of his professional career. He could grapple his ass off and had some serious skills, but had also had some pretty big weaknesses that seemed doomed to limit him to the realms of “fun action fighter” forever. He started to accumulate wins, which would eventually lead him on this amazing run. And he changed the game.

At its most basic, fighting is a math problem: Hurting someone more than they hurt you. The art of combat sports lies in the various ways you can manipulate that problem in your favor. You can get stronger to hit harder, you can learn technique to do more damage or absorb less, you can watch tape to know where the math is good and bad for you; but what Oliveira has done is weaponize fear in a way that dramatically tilts the math in his favor.

*Oliveira can be a very dangerous fighter, but he is also a terrible defensive fighter. He gets hit A LOT, and historically that type of fighter is limited. If every fight turns into violence, you will eventually lose. Oliveira’s reputation as a predatory grappler means that no one would want to fight him on the floor, fearing they might be playing into his hands. Oliveira figured that out, and now whenever he’s in danger on the feet, he drops down. When his opponent refuses to follow, it affords Oliveira a chance to recover, reset, and when he stands up, start it all again, hopefully this time winning the violence coin flip. Oliveira basically has set up the system so that if he is hurt, it gives him a break and that he can reset when his opponent hurts. This is a MASSIVE advantage.

This fight will not give Oliveira that edge. Not only is Makhachev unafraid of following Oliveira to the floor, he’s actively courting it, which gives “Do Bronx” two viable paths forward: Bet on his grappling or change the math again.

If Oliveira truly believes in his ability to submit Makhachev off his back, then playing his normal game on the feet and looking for his opportunities when Makhachev inevitably goes for takedowns is not the worst idea. Oliveira is tricky and very active from the bottom and he’s got a killer guillotine in transition, all of which is imminently dangerous. Creating scrambles where his creativity can shine through could afford him the chance to lock up a fight-ending submission OR put the fear in Makhachev that the floor is indeed lava, reestablishing the core principle of Oliveira’s entire game.

Makhachev could also be proactive, and try to force Makhachev out of office. Makhachev is not a nail, but a hammer. His grappling game heavily relies on him being on top and smothering offense, and the two times we’ve actually seen him get taken down inside the octagon, he almost immediately gave up his back to stand up again. This is a habit that can work until it fails. Oliveira could force Makhachev to takedown, then leap to his back to get away, which would be the end of the fight.

UFC Fight Night: Makhachev v Green

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Paths to victory for Islam Makhachev at UFC 280

If Charles Oliveira presents a violence math problem, Islam Makhachev is Isaac Newton (or Gottfried Leibniz, if you prefer). The man does not alter violence math, he simply solves it.

Makhachev won by doing exactly the same thing Khabib Nurmagomedov did: smothering offense and closing down any counterattack. Then, he ended his opponents as there was no other outcome. He almost never gets hit on the feet (except that one time, the black mark separating him from Khabib-like immortality), his wrestling is unstoppable, and his grappling seems even more so. His finishes do not come as a violent exclamation point, but as a merciful ellipsis … and thus Makhachev wins, because of course he does. It’s why people think of him as boring despite the fact that seven of his 11 UFC wins are finishes. It is unavoidable.

And to beat Oliveira, that’s all he needs to be. Oliveira is an incredibly dangerous offensive fighter but lacks a lot defensively, so Makhachev needs to mind his Ps and Qs defensively and follow Father’s Plan by taking Oliveira down and beating him up. Less talented fighters have had success on the floor with Oliveira — Kevin Lee was winning until he gassed out and fell into a guillotine, and Paul Felder nearly killed him with elbows. Makhachev can and should do the same, especially as the fight drags on. Oliveira’s danger is greatest in the first round. However, he gets less dangerous as the fight progresses. Avoiding the danger early, dragging Oliveira into deep waters, and smashing his way to victory as the former champion tires should lead him to a UFC title.


Oliveira’s run was remarkable. But, I can think of no better matchup than Makhachev. Islam is competitive on the feet and a huge problem on the floor, with no fear of engaging there. Paul Felder is an excellent G. I don’t mean to disrespect him, but Makhachev could roll with Oliveira without getting tapped. Oliveira may make this fun to start, but he’s not a good enough wrestler to keep it standing and Makhachev is too good to submit, so this will slowly slip away from him. It will move quickly once it gets going. This is what happens for all who face “The Next Khabib .”


Islam Makhachev def. Charles Oliveira by TKO (punches) at 2:24 of Round 4.