In terms of non-title fights, it is hard to find a trio of fights that are more impactful on the landscape of their respectful divisions than the three non-title fights on the main card of UFC 280. It isn’t out of the question for the winners of each of the contests to be fighting for the big gold belts in each of their divisions. Of course, some of that could be dependent on who wins the fight – poor Katlyn Chookagian may need to go on a record-breaking win streak for that to happen again... and she isn’t there yet – but it isn’t out of the question. But there’s no doubt management favorite Sean O’Malley is going to get that opportunity if he can get past former champion Petr Yan. It’s hard to believe the same wouldn’t happen if Manon Fiorot can defeat Chookagian. There isn’t the same dependency in the lightweight contest between Beneil Dariush and Mateusz Gamrot, but there’s also more doubt in their situation. After all, lightweight is the glamour division and a long winning streak means less than being a management favorite... and neither Dariush nor Gamrot is a favorite. Regardless, all these fights are absolute fire.
Petr Yan vs. Sean O’Malley, Bantamweight
While I have no doubt O’Malley signed off on the fight, it looks like the UFC is finally taking the training wheels off the much hyped O’Malley... sort of. Out of all the elite fighters available to match O’Malley up with at the time the fight was made, Yan is easily the most favorable matchup for O’Malley.
It’s not like this is something new for O’Malley. His most recent opponent, Pedro Munhoz, was another favorable contest for him. Given how much Uncle Dana loves O’Malley’s star potential, he’s more than happy to help the market savvy O’Malley maximize his star potential. After all, it isn’t like the UFC doesn’t benefit from O’Malley winning as many fights as possible. What Munhoz had going against him is being one of the shortest bantamweights on the roster, not to mention a reach that makes him a negative on the ape index. Given O’Malley is one of the tallest bantamweights on the roster with a masterful use of his reach, it only makes sense for O’Malley to prefer short opponents.
Yan isn’t exactly undersized for the division, but no one has ever mistaken him for being one of the bigger members of the division either. O’Malley with have an advantage of four-inches in height and five-inches in reach. That’s a bigger advantage than Cory Sandhagen had over Yan. And while Yan did ultimately win that fight, Sandhagen did ultimately secure a notable advantage in significant strikes for the contest. And while Sandhagen is a talented striker, I believe most would agree O’Malley tends to have more oomph in his kicks and punches than Sandhagen.
The other thing that O’Malley has avoided is the better wrestlers in the division. O’Malley has displayed some good grappling chops, but it could be argued he hasn’t faced an opponent who regularly makes securing takedowns and grinding out their opposition a priority. Granted, O’Malley probably shouldn’t emphasize takedown defense too much given his footwork, reach, and elusiveness is a fantastic form of takedown defense as it is, but we have no clue what can happen if someone manages to close the distance.
When people think of Yan’s skillset, wrestling is rarely the first thing that comes to mind, unlike Merab Dvalishvili or Ricky Simon. However, it would be foolish to think Yan isn’t one of the better wrestlers at 135. Sure, Yan averages less than two takedowns over the course of 15 minutes, but few are better at securing takedowns when that’s what they want to do. In his first contest with Aljamain Sterling, Yan secured every single takedown he attempted... and no, not all of them came after Sterling exhausted his gas tank. Perhaps O’Malley thinks his ability to maintain his distance is enough, but he’s fooling himself if he thinks he’ll be able to keep Yan from taking him down if they end up in close quarters.
There are two other things that feel important to point out. First, O’Malley has a documented weakness: his fragility. Not his toughness; O’Malley is willing to fight through pain. But he has also suffered leg injuries in two of his fights thus far. O’Malley appears dead set on protesting his loss to Marlon Vera until the day he dies, but Vera’s kicks to his legs led to the defeat. Yan doesn’t have the reputation of Vera for his kicks, but he tends to throw a steady diet of them. In fact, the head may be the area Yan attacks the least in space, Yan regularly finding his opponent’s midsection. Second, everyone talks about O’Malley’s potential. I get it. He’s only 27. However, Yan is only 29 and made his amateur debut after O’Malley made his professional debut. I’m of the opinion Yan isn’t done improving either and can see him taking some lessons from his second loss to Sterling.
I understand those picking O’Malley. O’Malley has more physical advantages and has a way with fakes, feints, and hand fighting that appears to be unrivaled that works due to his ungodly hand speed. He’s a special talent. Plus, Yan has a patient style that is better suited for five round fights. I strongly thought about picking O’Malley. In the end though, Yan may be the one guy in the division who can challenge his hand speed. Plus, Yan has a more well-rounded attack and a proven track record against the best in the division. Yan’s best wins have come over the likes of Jose Aldo and Cory Sandhagen. O’Malley’s have come over Raulian Paiva and Thomas Almeida. Going from beating Paiva to beating Yan is a big jump... one I don’t see happening. Yan via TKO of RD3
Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot, Lightweight
There’s a part of me that wishes Dariush was an asshole. Maybe then he’d start to get some respect from the fans. After all, nice guys finish last, at least in terms of popularity.
As it currently sits, Dariush is on a seven-fight win streak with over half of those contests coming before the final bell. Given a win over Tony Ferguson doesn’t appear to mean as much as it did at the time of Dariush’s win over him, there’s question to the legitimacy of Dariush’s streak as Ferguson is the only fighter in the official rankings whom Dariush secured a win in his rise to the top. Given Gamrot is coming off a win over Armen Tsarukyan, many are saying the Pole’s four-fight win streak has more legitimacy than Dariush’s own streak.
To be fair, Gamrot’s run can’t be discounted either. The former KSW champion has proven himself to be one of the best scramblers in the division with an endless gas tank. He isn’t the biggest lightweight, but his relentlessness makes up for that. His performance against Tsarukyan is an excellent example of that, constantly looking for takedowns. Whether he scored the more effective offense in that fight is still up for debate, but the fact that he had Tsarukyan constantly on his heels fighting off Gamrot’s attempts was a major factor in Gamrot swaying the judges in his favor. The fact Tsarukyan, arguably considered the better wrestler going into their fight, struggled greatly to get Gamrot to the mat, didn’t hurt either.
I’m making it sound Gamrot got the win based on smoke and mirrors, which isn’t a fair assessment. Gamrot is an exceptionally economical striker, rarely wasting any motion in his strikes. In fact, prior to touching down in the UFC, he was accused of being too patient at times and being overly reliant on his jab to produce offense. No doubt, it is a great jab, but the jab has become more of a tool to set up the rest of his offense as opposed to the focal point. It has helped him land his takedowns as well as lead to several dangerous flurries of offense. Most encouraging is he has been exhibiting power with more consistency than he did in KSW. Given Dariush has been KO’d three times in the UFC, some think that could result in a finish for Gamrot.
Despite all that, there’s reason to believe Dariush is going to be the one with his hand raised in the end. For one, while Dariush has been thought of as chinny, it’s been several years since he’s had his block knocked off. It’s not like the UFC has been pairing him with pillow fisted opponents either. Plus, it’s not like those finishes have been happening by accident. Dariush has some of the most underrated power in the division, maybe the roster. A big reason why it has been underrated is he is thought of as a submission threat thanks to his grappling accolades. Dariush isn’t the dynamic submission threat Charles Oliveira is, but it wouldn’t be blasphemous to say Dariush is a most technically sound BJJ practitioner, operating with patience and minutia rather than explosive moves.
What this could come down to is how they match up. Gamrot loves utilizing techniques like leglocks, something that is very likely to get him in a world of trouble with Dariush. Plus, while Gamrot isn’t lacking in the strength department, Dariush has proven to be an absolute bully in the clinch. If Dariush gets his way, he’s likely to look to wear down Gamrot against the fence for long stretches. However, Gamrot is quicker and has a more proven gas tank. In Abu Dhabi, that’s something to keep in mind, even indoors. This is very much a coin flip fight. There’s a part of me that believes Gamrot’s speed and stamina will make the difference, another part that believes Dariush’s size and power will do the trick. I do have concerns about Dariush returning from a broken ankle, but I also don’t believe he’s the type to come back to early from that type of injury. I’ve gone back and forth on this several times... and am ultimately siding with youth and speed. Gamrot via decision
Katyln Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot, Women’s Flyweight
It shows my age and/or my fandom when I look at Chookagian and see her as this era’s version of Jon Fitch: the ultimate gatekeeper of the division who is unlikely to ever receive a second opportunity to fight for the title due to her unexciting nature. Ultimately, I’m not sure if that’s to be taken as an insult or a compliment.
Chookagian is what she is and she’s not going to change that. That’s good for her in terms of winning fights, but not good in terms of winning over fans. She tends to stay on the outside, flicking out jabs, low kicks, and the occasional short combinations. With her knowledge of angles and distance combined with her length, she does a pretty good job of avoiding return fire. What Chookagian doesn’t have is any power behind her punches as evidenced by all eleven of her UFC wins coming via decision. Thus, even though Chookagian can clip her opponents as they come in, they typically don’t mind eating some punishment from her in order to close the distance.
That’s may be what Fiorot needs to do. Fiorot may be one of the few strikers in the division who is more technical than Chookagian. Hell, she has comfortably outstruck every one of her UFC opponents thus far, by a wider margin than Chookagian has been able to do. However, Fiorot has been working her way up the ladder, facing lesser competition than Chookagian by a wide margin. Plus, Fiorot is noticeably shorter than the rangy Chookagian. Fiorot’s advantages in technique may be negated by her size disadvantage.
Then again, Fiorot may be content to allow Chookagian to come to her. The native of France may be at her best on the counter and Amanda Ribas had more success with that type of fight than anyone expected her too. What’s more, Fiorot’s most defining feature has easily been her power. The list of those within the division who hit harder than her is very short, which is why it isn’t difficult to see Fiorot gambling on charging down Chookagian.
If Fiorot doesn’t get the finish, it may come down to whether she can score some takedowns. It’s unlikely she’ll be able to keep Chookagian down for long stretches – only Valentina Shevchenko has been successful in doing that – but that may prove the difference in the judges eyes if Chookagian can get her volume flowing. Even if Chookagian isn’t landing, her keeyups tend to trick judges into thinking she is landing more volume than she actually is. However, while I disagree with the length of the odds, I do believe the right call is to favor Fiorot. She’s getting better and I expect she should have another wrinkle to her game that should do the trick for her. Plus, while it can be argued Fiorot has been overconfident at times, no one can say she has fought stupidly. I see her getting the job done. Fiorot via decision