We haven’t even gotten to Halloween yet, but, for UFC fans, this weekend is just as exciting as Christmas morning. UFC 280 comes to us with two title fights atop the fight card in arguably the two deepest divisions in the promotion.
If it weren’t for a controversial weight miss, Charles Oliveira would come into this fight with the UFC lightweight belt wrapped around his waist. He is on an historic run right now, with eleven consecutive wins and three straight finishes over all-time greats Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier, and Justin Gaethje. This weekend, he takes on Islam Makhachev, who was named the heir apparent to the throne by former champion and potential GOAT Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Makhachev earned this title shot by winning ten straight fights, including four straight finishes where he has looked seemingly unstoppable once he gets the fight down to the mat. These two incredibly impressive, yet wildly different, grapplers will put on a show for the fans as they battle it out to claim one of the most prestigious belts in all of combat sports.
The co-main event is no less compelling, with the bantamweight championship on the line, as incumbent champion Aljamain Sterling looks to fend off former champion T.J. Dillashaw. Sterling claimed the belt in controversial circumstances, as an illegal knee from Petr Yan rendered the Long Islander unable to continue. He validated himself as champion in the pair’s rematch with a more conclusive, if not decisive, victory.
For his second title defense, Sterling faces a unique challenge, as Dillashaw tries to reclaim the belt he was forced to give away after testing positive for PEDs. Dillashaw has fought just once since his two-year suspension and earned a split-decision win over Cory Sandhagen, where he suffered a knee injury that has forced him out of action for the past 15 months.
The aforementioned Yan looks to prove that he is still the class of the bantamweight division, as he also fights on the main card and takes on one of the most dynamic personalities the sport has to offer in Sean O’Malley. This is a major opportunity for O’Malley to back up his trash talk by taking out a former champion and forcing the doubters to recognize his talent should he come away with a win.
The promotion travels overseas for UFC 280 as they host the event inside the Etihad Arena on Yas Island in the United Arab Emirates. Because of the location, the event will be a morning affair. The preliminary card airs live on ESPN+ and ESPNEWS starting at 10 a.m. ET, followed by the main card at 2 p.m. ET on ESPN+ pay-per-view. Combat Press writers Dan Kuhl and Matt Petela preview the action and make their picks in this week’s edition of Toe-to-Toe.
Charles Oliveira holds the record for the most stoppage finishes in UFC history; does he add to his resume by stopping Islam Makhachev and claiming the UFC lightweight title?
Kuhl: At this stage in the game, we have to call a spade a spade. Charles Oliveira, who is probably one of the most low-key, yet most dominant champs in recent history, cannot be doubted. He has continued to finish the best of the best in the lightweight division. He has completely dominated all of his opponents in the last five years, with only one decision amid 10 finishes. And, his last three were all finishes taking out Dustin Poirier, as well as NCAA Division I wrestlers, and former MMA champions, Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler. He’s still only 32 years old, which is the prime age for lightweights, and he hits all the major bullet points.
The reigning champ has a physical build that’s long and strong, he’s a legit third-degree BJJ black belt, and his boxing is always on point. Unlike many BJJ black belts who falter to superior wrestlers, he has dominated all of them. So, in comes the Khabib Nurmagomedov protégé Islam Makhachev.
The Nurmagomedov hype train is off the charts. In a way, this particular hype train resembles the Jackon-Winkeljohn hype train from several years ago. Meaning, anyone who was Jackson-Wink-adjacent was considered a force to be reckoned with, even if they weren’t a top contender. Just because someone trains with or under Nurmagomedov does not automatically give him Carte-Blanche status as one of the best in the world. Makhachev has done enough to deserve a shot at the title, but his climb to the top looks more like his mentor’s than it does like the current champ’s.
Oliveira has only faced true top contenders or grizzled vets for several years, while Makhachev has mostly faced guys who have not even had a whiff of a title shot or are basically washed-up vets. The strength of schedule leading into this bout is not even comparable.
Can Makhachev out-wrestle Thiago Moises or Drew Dober? Sure. But, Oliveira has been able to dominate and stop top-five contenders in ways they have not been dominated and stopped before. The fact is that we are in the Oliveira era, and he may just be getting started. He had a hiccup in his fight with Gaethje, having botched his weight cut, but there were some extenuating circumstances that were still in question. All fuckery aside, I have the champ coming in, putting on a clinic, and delaying the 31-year-old Makhachev’s inevitable rise to glory until another day.
Oliveira by TKO near the midpoint of the third round.
Petela: Au contraire, mon frère. While trying to say that Islam Makhachev’s competition is on the same level as Charles Oliveira’s is a losing argument, the eye test tells me that Makhachev is going to have the advantage once this fight hits the mat where he will notch a late TKO win to earn the title.
All fights start standing, and Oliveira has become a markedly better striker than he was a few short years ago, but he also gets hit and rocked in nearly all of his fights. The problem his opponents face is that, once they drop him, they are too fearful to dive into his guard at the risk of being submitted. That won’t be the case against the Dagestani wrestler this weekend.
Makhachev will wobble Oliveira early and then score a takedown from the clinch, where he will be like a blanket on top. Oliveira won’t be able to be too active from his guard and won’t have the space he needs to pull off a sweep to reverse positions. That will zap the Brazilian’s energy and, coming out for Round 2, he will be diminished enough that he almost accepts being taken down, thinking he will work for the finish from his back. But, yet again, he will be completely neutralized and on the receiving end of a decent amount of ground-and-pound for the bulk of the second frame. Lather. Rinse. Repeat. In the final round, the ground strikes will be too much, and the referee is forced to step in to prevent Oliveira from taking any further damage.
The Islam Makhachev era truly begins this weekend as the changing of the guard is complete, and he begins a title reign that will ultimately surpass his friend and mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Aljamain Sterling made a successful first title defense in his rematch against Petr Yan; how does he fare against former champion T.J. Dillashaw?
Petela: This is one of the most interesting title showdowns in recent mixed martial arts history. Both of these fighters have unorthodox striking styles and a solid wrestling background, so both men probably truly believe they have the advantage no matter where the fight takes place. I expect this one to start out standing for the first couple rounds, with neither man overcommitting to the takedown in order to avoid the danger of being reversed in a scramble and winding up working off his back. It will take some time for both Dillashaw and Sterling to get a read on one another’s striking patterns, so, while there will be a plethora of movement and activity, not much damage will be incurred for the first 10 minutes.
With fans in attendance and at home starting to get restless, the action will begin to pick up in Round 3, where I expect Dillashaw to shoot and get a takedown. He has strong pressure from the top and will land a fair bit of ground-and-pound, but, eventually, the “Funkmaster” will be able to get a sweep from half guard and reverse position. The Matt Serra jiu-jitsu black belt takes the back better than almost any other fighter under the UFC banner, and that is exactly what will happen when Dillashaw looks to work back to his feet. Once Sterling gets the back and locks in a body triangle, he will quickly work to snatch the neck of Dillashaw and get the win via third-round submission due to rear-naked choke.
Kuhl: I am going to take a rather salty approach to start this one, but for a good reason. T.J. Dillashaw is not a great guy. I’ve interviewed him multiple times, and he was nice enough, but between the plethora of stories of him knocking out lesser training partners on purpose to the obvious juicing scam, the guy has, by all accounts, appeared to be every bit of a snake that Conor McGregor so famously coined him. However, all cheating aside, the dude is still a complete badass.
Dillashaw is a legit NCAA Division I wrestler who traveled the world perfecting his craft. He was a standout at Team Alpha Male, before acquiring some next-level striking acumen under the tutelage of Duane Ludwiig. His takedown defense is off the charts, his striking is super crisp, and his grappling defense is so freaking good that his offensive grappling game is all but unnecessary. He’s one of those guys that people love to hate, but you cannot deny just how good and dominant he is. In fact, move Henry Cejudo up, instead of Dillashaw down, and their bout, when Dillashaw was basically hanging on by a thread from a tough weight cut, likely would have gone a lot differently.
This perspective is going to come with much scrutiny and controversy from certain circles, but the fact of the matter is that Sterling is nothing more than a paper champ at this point. He would have made a much better case for his title had he not pranced around like a child after winning the belt from Petr Yan off a technicality, and then followed it up with a dominant win. That did not happen. The fact that so many people felt his second win over Yan was validation of his title is comical. I still feel Yan would beat him in a trilogy fight, but that is neither here nor there.
Sterling was a solid NCAA Division III wrestler and holds a black belt in BJJ under Matt Serra. His grappling, both offensive and defensive, is excellent. He has cardio for days, and he’s quick and slick. Unfortunately for the champ, if you watch tape, his style is not nearly as refined and tight as Dillashaw’s.
I see Dillashaw coming into this one, putting on an absolute clinic, and ending Sterling’s run as a champ, likely forever. Dillashaw was an EPO doper. It’s not like he was taking some magical pill that made him a more technical fighter. EPO is a physical doping that affects cardio through blood-oxygen levels. Since he has been back from suspension, he has shown that he is as good or better than he ever has been.
Dillashaw stops the champ in Round 1 or Round 2 and will likely hold the title for a long time.
Yamato Nishikawa – do we need to know this name?
Petela: Absolutely. This 19-year-old is already a veteran of twenty-four fights and has 14 knockout victories to his name. This will be a rough debut for the Japanese prospect, taking on Magomed Mustafaev, but a slow start to his tenure with the promotion shouldn’t detract much from his potential rise towards the top of the lightweight division. He is certainly a fighter to keep a close eye on as he continues to develop and becomes a problem for anyone standing across the cage from him.
Kuhl: I agree with my colleague. Nishikawa has been a complete buzzsaw in Shooto, and he’s still really young. To be fair, the level of competition he has faced has been really lackluster, so one could argue his record is padded. However, he has a ton of upside potential, so it will be interesting to see how he fares against Mustafaev.
Who’s the biggest winner at UFC 280?
Kuhl: T.J. Dillashaw. He will come in, put an end to the Sterling hype train, and hold onto his new-found glory for a long time. Many people may not like him, due to his past transgressions, but in a very Colby-esque manner, he has embraced the hate and continues to get better. His suspension forced him to fine tune his game, and, when he came back and edged out Cory Sandhagen two-and-a-half years later, he proved that he still has it.
Petela: Beneil Dariush. A main card fight on the night his division’s champion will be crowned is the perfect place for him to showcase his abilities. Not to mention, he was supposed to fight Islam Makhachev previously and has been named as the backup fighter, should one of the main event participants be forced out of the fight at the last minute. The table has been set for him to earn himself the next title shot, and Dariush will deliver and then some this weekend as he stops the momentum of rising star Mateusz Gamrot.
Who’s the biggest loser at UFC 280?
Petela: Sean O’Malley. The hype train stops here. There are two fights in O’Malley’s career where he hasn’t gotten the victory. First, his loss to Marlon “Chito” Vera and his most recent no contest against Pedro Munhoz. After both of those fights O’Malley has postured as if he actually won the fights and still considers himself to be undefeated. The odd circumstances of how those fights ended allowed O’Malley to buy into his own delusion. He is going to get a rude awakening when he squares off against Yan, and, after getting thoroughly dominated and stopped late in the fight, both O’Malley and his supporters will be forced to open their eyes to the fact that “Sugar” has a long way to go before he is ready to compete with the most elite fighters at bantamweight.
Kuhl: Aljamain Sterling. I know he thinks he put the doubters to rest with his questionable split-decision win over Petr Yan last April, but when people say, “to be the champ, you have to beat the champ,” they usually mean, “decisively.” He skated by Yan the first time on Yan’s brain fart of an illegal move, and the second one was anything but decisive. A win by Dillashaw will expose the true nature of Sterling’s championship run, and a dominant stoppage will extinguish any possibility of an immediate rematch.
What one fighter’s UFC career is on the ropes at this event?
Kuhl: Lina Lansberg. This one should be pretty obvious. She’s only 4-5 in the UFC, is on a two-fight skid, and hasn’t finished an opponent since Mar. 2016, before she even joined the promotion. Her days are numbered, and Karol Rosa should put this one to rest.
Petela: On a fight card this stacked from top to bottom, Lina Lansberg is really the only fighter in danger of losing her roster spot with a loss. That really speaks to the depth of this card and the quality matchmaking that was done heading into the event. Typically, somewhere in the card, there’s a few squash matches where old fighters are basically sacrificed in order to prop up the names of potential new contenders. There’s none of those on this card. These are all compelling fights that are not only going to have meaningful results, but they’ll be fun to watch as well.
Which fight is the sleeper match-up on this card?
Petela: Muhammad Mokaev vs. Malcolm Gordon. Mokaev is undefeated and followed up his debut victory over Cody Durden with a dominant decision victory over Charles Johnson in his sophomore outing. He takes on a tough veteran this weekend in Malcolm Gordon, but expect this to be another win for Mokaev, as he continues to climb up the ranks and shows off another seemingly unstoppable wrestling heavy attack. It will be a fun fight to watch, as Gordon shows off some savvy defense but is ultimately unable to stop the high-pressure attack from “The Punisher” early on in the event.
Kuhl: Abubakar Nurmagomedov vs. Gadzhi Omargadzhiev. There are a lot of factors at play in this fight. It’s already rare to see the UFC pit two Russian up-and-comers against each other so early in their respective times with the promotion. But, it’s even rarer that, with a combined three fights total in the Octagon, their combined record is 1-2. Their pre-UFC careers were full of finishes, and both are effectively backed against a wall, so this one could lead to some proverbial fireworks if either man wants to remain relevant.
Who takes home the “Performance of the Night” honors?
Kuhl: Charles Oliveira. I truly believe the champ is going to show that Makhachev, with all the momentum and hype behind him, is just not at his level yet. The Russian is likely going to try to out-wrestle the Brazilian, and Oliveira could very well land a fight-ending sequence en route to a performance bonus.
Petela: Volkan Oezdemir. His last fight against Paul Craig was less than thrilling to put it mildly. For an action fighter like “No Time,” that can’t sit well with him. Fortunately, for him and for fans, he has a fellow finisher across from him in Nikita Krylov. Certainly Krylov will be the better grappler, but, after an early exchange, Oezdemir will be able to draw Krylov into a brawl where wild punches are thrown back and forth until Oezdemir connects with a big right hand that closes the show before the first round comes to a close.
Pair this card with…
Petela: Dogfish Head 120 Minute IPA. It comes in as one of the strongest beers around, at somewhere between 15% – 20% ABV, so it is the perfect pairing for this wildly strong fight card. Just don’t have too many while you’re watching the prelims or you might not make it to the main event.
Kuhl: I will also go with a beer, but I’m going with SweetWater Trainwreck Hazy Double IPA. It’s not as strong as Matt’s brain-melting choice, but at 8% ABV, it will be easier to stay awake until the main and co-main events. During those two highly anticipated title fights, two hype trains will come to a crashing close, as Oliveira and Dillashaw claim victories.
Main Card (ESPN+ pay-per-view, 2 p.m. ET)
LW Championship: Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev
BW Championship: Aljamain Sterling vs. T.J. Dillashaw
BW: Petr Yan vs. Sean O’Malley
LW: Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot
Women’s FlyW: Katlyn Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot
Preliminary Card (ESPN+/ESPNEWS, 10 a.m. ET)
WW: Belal Muhammad vs. Sean Brady
MW: Makhmud Muradov vs. Caio Borralho
LHW: Volkan Oezdemir vs. Nikita Krylov
FW: Zubaira Tukhugov vs. Lucas Almeida
LW: Magomed Mustafaev vs. Yamato Nishikawa
WW: Abubakar Nurmagomedov vs. Gadzhi Omargadzhiev
MW: Armen Petrosyan vs. A.J. Dobson
FlyW:Muhammad Mokaev vs. Malcolm Gordon
Women’s BW: Karol Rosa vs. Lina Lansberg
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