If UFC 279 was marked by uncertainty and questions (namely “Why was the card booked the way it was” and later “What is happening?? ?”), then UFC 280 is much more traditional in comparison as far as stakes are concerned: Two title fights, a main card packed with ranked fighters, and immortality possibly on the line for at least one headliner.
Charles Oliveira aims to win the title that he has never lost. Islam Makhachev tries to show his dominance and Aljamain sterling aims to prevent T.J. Dillashaw becoming the UFC champion for the third time. Petr Ya Sean O’Malley Beneil Dariush , Manon Fiorot could also be competing for title shots.
There’s a lot to unpack with one of the most loaded events of 2022, and MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee, Damon Martin, and Jed Meshew are here to break down the three biggest storylines from an event that could produce ripples felt for years to come.
What does a win at UFC 280 mean for the legacies of Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev?
Lee: Let’s make one thing clear: Even if Charles Oliveira smokes Islam Makhachev in 30 seconds, that doesn’t make him the greatest lightweight of all-time.
However, it does set him up for a fight with the lightweight GOAT: Khabib Nurmagomedov.
This doesn’t seem to be the first time that I have suggested the idea that “The Eagle”, just being patient for the right fight, (in actuality I am probably a broken record), that fuels his competitive fires as well as carries an element of revenge. What matchup fits the bill better than returning to the octagon to not only get one back for his boy, but to also snuff out the suggestion that he’s not the best to ever do it at 155 pounds? Nurmagomedov has given no indication that he has any intention of fighting again, but he’s only 34 years young as of this past September. He ain’t done.
Then again, Makhachev could completely ruin this fantasy scenario if he beats Oliveira with his usual machine-like efficiency. The Dagestani wrestling beast has been called a Khabib-lite of sorts in the most complimentary way possible, and defeating Oliveira would provide an enormous boost to a resume that is just short of elite. Forget UFC gold, Makhachev could start carving own niche in the lightweight GOAT discussion if he beats Oliveira.
Martin: Charles Oliveira is already the best lightweight in the world, but if he’s able to vanquish the second coming of Khabib Nurmagomedov, it means in about 18 months, he would have wiped out just about every top-ranked fighter in the world at 155 pounds.
Think about that for a second.
If Oliveira wins, he’ll have defeated Makhachev and Dustin Poirier as well as Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler in four straight fights. He could be in conversation with Nurmagomedov for the title of greatest lightweight competitor in UFC.
Yes, Oliveira has a whole lot of losses on his record so it would be tough to ever see him pass up a fighter who retired undefeated while dropping maybe two or three rounds total in his entire UFC career. Still, Oliveira’s level of dominance and finishing power is unmatched, and beating Makhachev will put him in the same vicinity as Nurmagomedov, who can’t add anymore accolades to his resume after retiring from competition.
It’s highly unlikely watching Makhachev lose would suddenly change Nurmagomedov’s mind about fighting again, but he would absolutely see a challenge to his claim as the GOAT.
As for Makhachev, a win over Oliveira does one thing and one thing only — it justifies the hype that’s been building around him during this long unbeaten streak.
Not only has Nurmagomedov been his biggest cheerleader as coach and mentor, but Makhachev has legends of the game like Daniel Cormier praising him like he’s already the best fighter to ever put on a pair of gloves in the octagon. Despite all those compliments, Makhachev hasn’t really faced the level of competition to justify his position yet.
Sure, he’s beaten some solid opponents, but nowhere near the murderer’s row that Oliveira has gone through in the past couple of years. Makhachev will back up everything that everybody close to him has said with a single win over Oliveira at UFC 280.
Meshew: If Oliveira wins, it makes him the most interesting man in lightweight history. If Islam wins it puts an end to the argument about Khabib as the GOAT. It’s also pretty cool for Islam.
Because the lightweight division is the toughest in the sport, and has been since its inception, the 155 GOAT conversation is incredibly muddled. No one has that many title defenses, and everyone (not named Khabib) has a bunch of losses, which means you can find fault with anyone. This is especially true for Oliveira, who is on a sensational run right now, but was pretty middling before that. Still, the run is so good that beating Makhachev undeniably puts him in the conversation for lightweight GOAT. Although Khabib is the lightweight champion on Earth, Oliveira holds the title for only one year, I won’t rank him as such. But you cannot deny that he would have a case. A lightweight case is all that anyone could ask for.
Makhachev’s win is the same as a first-time title winner. But it also does more good for his friends. The late Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov’s plan is complete. It further cements Dagestan’s status as one of the top MMA centers in the world and puts an end to the challenges to Khabib’s title. Makhachev, rightly or wrongly will not be able to get in the GOAT conversation due to his previous loss as well as being second fiddle for Khabib. Even though he wins six titles defenses, and Khabib says Islam is best (both both possible), most people will view it as simple: Islam was superior to everyone else but not better than Khabib.
Which bantamweight will make the biggest statement?
Martin: There’s a lot riding for the bantamweight division at UFC 280 between a title fight and a former champion battling arguably the most talked about prospect since a certain Irishman came strutting into the promotion nine years ago. But as much as Sean O’Malley beating Petr Yan would upset the apple cart and T.J. Dillashaw reclaiming a title he lost after he just couldn’t stop putting a needle in his ass would mean, the real answer to this question is the reigning and defending UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling.
Despite everything he’s done to cement himself as the best 135-pounder in the UFC, it feels as if Sterling is always ice skating uphill when it comes to his perception among fans and his fellow fighters. He tapped out Cory Sandhagen inside 90 seconds, yet that didn’t earn him much favor going into his first title fight opportunity against Yan.
He took an illegal knee from Yan and couldn’t continue, yet somehow Sterling ended up looking more like the villain than the guy who actually cheated! When he returned 13 months later, Sterling put on one of the best performances of his career to beat Yan and yet his win has been called a fluke or a gift of bad judging, neither of which are remotely true.
If Sterling can go out and beat Dillashaw — an established bantamweight legend, who may have even been chemically enhanced along the way — that should do more than enough to shake loose the last doubters who just refuse to give him any respect. Sterling is sure to have his share of critics, but Dillashaw’s defeat after handling Yan and Sandhagen will at least put an end to the trolling.
Meshew: It’s going to be a statement that no one wants to hear, but the answer is T.J. Dillashaw.
I think I’m higher on Sterling than most people are (I’m one of the few who stood by his first title win as legitimate and firmly scored the rematch for him), but this is not a good matchup for him. Whatever you think of Dillashaw, the dude is a damn good fighter, with a very tricky style, and I’m struggling to see how Sterling finds consistent offense. Dillashaw is an excellent defensive wrestler and his movement makes taking him down even more difficult. While Sterling’s feet have improved steadily, his standing is still a problem. Dillashaw’s styling of Sterling is very similar to Renan Barao’s. He delivers one of his finest performances, reminding everybody that he has never lost his bantamweight title in the cage.
I’ll also say that there was a very real part of me that wanted to pick Sean O’Malley here. I think Petr Yan is probably the “best” bantamweight in the world (i.e. I’d pick him in a third fight with Sterling) but that’s in five-round fights. Yan’s style suits longer fights better than Yan’s three-round rounds. O’Malley can be a quick starter so Yan could easily give the first round away. O’Malley will only need to win the second and third frames. This is possible with O’Malley’s length and offensive acumen. However, it may not be probable.
Lee: He’s the lowest ranked of all the bantamweights in discussion, but when the dust settles at UFC 280, there’s a good chance that Sean O’Malley is the man everyone is talking about.
Aljamain sterling would silence any doubters by winning decisively over T.J. Dillashaw. Dillashaw could become champion again, while Petr Yan would defeat O’Malley. O’Malley removing a former champion, one of three top bantamweights around the globe? That might make O’Malley the biggest star of the whole event, forget just in his division.
From Dana White’s first encounter with him on Contenders Series ,, the UFC president was dazzled and captivated by Sugar — to O’Malley’s credit he’s made good use of that initial push. O’Malley has lost only once in his nine UFC fights and, more important, he has cultivated an impressive fan base of young fighters. Whether people tune in to watch his entertaining striking style or are praying for his downfall, O’Malley draws eyeballs.
I don’t know if O’Malley can pull off the upset, but he has the most to gain out of anyone competing at UFC 280 if he does. O’Malley could be next to win the title, according to popular belief. Yan will lose it if O’Malley beats him.
Outside of the top 3 matchups, what’s the most intriguing fight of this stacked card?
Meshew: The true answer is probably Katlyn Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot, but since MMA fans have a pointed disinterest in “Blonde Fighter,” I won’t die on that hill. Instead, I’m choosing the functional lightweight title eliminator between Beneil Dariush and Mateusz Gamrot.
I love Gamrot. KSW champions will always have a special place in my heart and his fight with Arman Tsarukyan earlier this year was one of the best fights of 2022. He puts on a hell of a pace, wrestles his ass off, and just generally excels at all the little things I love in MMA. But I have serious questions about whether he can do those things to Beneil Dariush.
With Leon Edwards claiming the welterweight title in MMA, Dariush takes the role of the most underrated fighter. Dariush has won seven consecutive fights, with all of them good wins and some great performances. A world-class grappler, Dariush has added a legitimately dangerous striking game to the mix, and so he presents serious dangers to Gamrot. Most importantly though, assuming I’m correct in my belief that Islam Makhachev becomes the new lightweight champion, this fight is for the next title shot.
Alexander Volkanovski has his own division to attend to (he’s only beaten three currently ranked guys! ), and Dustin Poirier and Michael Chandler have already had their shot. If Oliveira wins, Conor McGregor is probably getting it because we follow a broken sport where the better you do, the less serious you become. But Makhachev is from the Nurmagomedov school of fighting: You fight the dudes who deserve it. This fight will be won by the winner, God willing.
Lee: I’d lean towards Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot, but I’m not convinced that Dariush can do anything to convince the UFC that he deserves a title shot, so that immediately dulls some of the intrigue for me.
*] More likely to be awarded a title with an outstanding performance. Manon Fiorot.
Undefeated in her past nine fights and 4-0 in the UFC, Fiorot is such an intriguing contender at 125 pounds, and that’s not something you get to write often when you’re talking about a division ruled over by Valentina Shevchenko. Fiorot is full of mystery that Shevchenko could find challenging, but there’s also enough tape to make it possible that Shevchenko would not be surprised that Fiorot was chosen for the upset.
All she has to do now is beat Katlyn Chookagian, one of the most consistently confounding gatekeepers in the UFC. Chookagian is known for her low-impact, high volume style that can frustrate some fans. But guess what? It is the only way to win fights. And in the UFC, that matters more than anything. She has had her issues with accurate power punchers, a description that fits Fiorot to a tee, but she’s also stifled the title hopes of many aspiring flyweights.
Other than O’Malley, Fiorot is the surest bet to book herself a future title fight with a win at UFC 280.
Martin: On paper it’s Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot, because those two should throw down in a seriously entertaining contest that could secure the winner a title shot. That’s not the hard answer. This is why I am going with Belal Mohammed vs. Sean Brady. The preliminary card will be shown before the pay-per view.
While Khamzat Chimaev keeps stealing all the headlines at welterweight despite maybe not even being a welterweight any longer, Muhammad is by far the most criminally underrated fighter at 170 pounds. His eight-fight streak of unbeaten results was capped by two suffocating fights over Stephen Thompson and Vicente Luque.
Muhammad is improving by the day, despite climbing higher up in rankings. Yet, no one calls him. He should probably be facing someone in a No. 1 contender’s fight, but instead he’s taking on a very dangerous opponent in Brady in what amounts to a high-risk, low-reward situation.
This is what makes it so interesting. Brady, on the other hand, is freaking great. But most people wouldn’t be able to pick him from a fight line-up with only two. Brady has the chance to transcend anonymity and become relevant in this fight, particularly when it comes down to the welterweight category.
The winner won’t be getting a title shot, but it puts that person in a unique position to — at worse — call for a fight against an opponent that will earn them that opportunity. Whether it’s Khamzat, Colby Covington, or maybe even the loser out of Kamaru Usman vs. Leon Edwards 3, either Muhammad or Brady will be in a prime position in one of the toughest weight classes in the sport heading into 2023.