It’s hard to find a main event more intriguing than what UFC 280 has to offer. I understand it doesn’t have the same mainstream appeal as a Conor McGregor fight – or Ronda Rousey for that matter – but those who follow the sport closely are far more interested in what Charles Oliveira and Islam Makhachev bring to the table than McGregor at this point.
Both men are on incredible runs, Oliveira the de facto champion after losing his title on the scales in his last fight, Makhachev the anointed one following Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement.
In the co-main, it’s plausible the two most hated men in the bantamweight division square off for the title. TJ Dillashaw believes he’s the rightful champion as he never lost his title in the cage while reigning champion Aljamain Sterling became the division’s king off a disqualification. Sure, Sterling defended it against the man he won it from, but it was a razor thin decision that some fans seem to believe should have gone to Yan. Regardless, it’s another banger of a fight that I can’t wait for.
Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev, Lightweight
Oliveira’s evolution into the lightweight champion is one of the greatest stories in all of mixed martial arts. While his exquisite talents have never been doubted, it has been his heart and will that everyone questioned. No one has missed weight more in the history of the UFC than Oliveira. Whether you want to throw an asterisk on that due to him trying to cut it at featherweight for so long is up to you, but facts are facts. He has several losses where it just looked like he quit. His loss to Max Holloway came less than two minutes into the fight, Oliveira grabbing his shoulder out of nowhere, claiming he can’t continue. Remember when he just collapsed from a Cub Swanson punch off a delay? There were several other head scratchers that had everyone declaring Oliveira a head case.
Here we are almost five years ago since his last loss and Oliveira carries himself in a completely different light. Very little about what he does in the cage has changed. He’s still the most dangerous submission threat in the game. But now, he exudes a confidence that lets everyone know he’s going to be just fine if he doesn’t submit his opponent on this trip to the ground... he’ll get them next time. That confidence has finally transcribed itself into his standup. Oliveira no longer feels like he needs to get the fight to the ground. Now, he throws his kicks and punches with reckless abandon, completely unafraid to have his opponents take or knock him to the mat. It has translated into several club and subs on his record. Or in the case of the Michael Chandler fight, club and continued clubbing.
Throughout Oliveira’s run, he hasn’t seen an opponent who is confident and skilled enough to take him to the mat and make him pay. That’s what has so many believing Makhachev is the man to do the job. Some consider Khabib’s protégé to be a spitting image of the former champion, but that’s far from the case. Yes, Makhachev’s skillset is very similar to Khabib, but his demeanor and fight style is completely different. Whereas Khabib was going to walk through fire to deliver his brand of violence, Makhachev has secured his ten consecutive wins on the back of being perhaps the most defensively conscious fighter on the roster. To put it in perspective, over the course of 12 UFC fights, Makhachev has been hit with significant strikes at a rate of less than one per minute. That may be the most ridiculous statistic in the UFC.
As the significant strikes number indicates, Makhachev is very precise with his movements. He knows how far his opponent is from him and just the right amount of ground he’ll need to cover to land a takedown or land a punch. It’s the threat of his power that has opponents reluctant to charge across and force the action. Makhachev may not storm across the cage the way Khabib did, but he sure has the physicality and technique to do so. In fact, Makhachev is the more technical fighter between himself and Khabib. It certainly shows in his striking. The caveat between Makhachev and Khabib is Makhachev doesn’t have the same natural feel for fighting that Khabib had, coming across stiffer in his actions. Then again, if that’s the worst that can be said in comparison to one of the all-time greats, that’s not too shabby.
In the process of this run, it can’t be disputed that Makhachev has proven himself to be a student of the game. One doesn’t walk through his opponents with the precision he has without being prepared. That’s ultimately why I’m picking him to beat Oliveira. He knows what Oliveira brings to the table and should be ready for it. Plus, Makhachev has rarely, if ever, found himself to be in serious trouble on the mat. Even scarier is Makhachev has been looking more dangerous than ever, running over both Dan Hooker and Bobby Green like they were nothing. To be fair to Oliveira, he’s been dealing with opposition far tougher than Hooker and Green in his recent stretch, but Oliveira has been controlled and caught on the mat before. Granted, that was prior to this recent championship iteration of himself, but we know it can be done. That isn’t to discount the possibility of Oliveira hurting Makhachev on the feet and finishing the job from there. Makhachev’s lone career loss was basically a one-punch finish. I’ve vacillated a LOT for this fight. The confidence Oliveira has shown is that of someone who can’t be broken. I’m of the opinion everyone can break. Makhachev will do so in a slow manner. Makhachev via submission of RD4
Aljamain Sterling vs. TJ Dillashaw, Bantamweight
We all know it takes a special talent to become a champion. Thus, it takes an especially unique talent to become a two-time champion. But a three-time champion? Well, that’s almost guaranteed to put someone into all-time great status. That’s what Dillashaw is aiming for.
The other three-time UFC champions are Georges St-Pierre, and Amanda Nunes. Neither of them were able to do so without the help of taking a belt in another division. Granted, Randy Couture, the only five-time champion the UFC has seen, required two divisions to secure all his reigns, but three of those reigns were at heavyweight. Regardless, that’s special company the likes of Anderson Silva, Demetrious Johnson, and Jose Aldo haven’t been able to break. Which has me wondering... why are so many willing to write off Dillashaw so fast?
There’s a LOT of question marks around Dillashaw. He has one victory over the last four years and many don’t even believe he was the deserved winner of that fight. The reason for so much inactivity is twofold. First, a suspension for using EPO cost him two years of fighting, not to mention casting doubt on the legitimacy of his title reigns. Second, in his comeback fight against Cory Sandhagen – his lone win in that time – he blew out his knee, putting on the sidelines for another year plus. His two wins previous to the long stretch of inactivity have aged poorly too, both coming over Cody Garbrandt. Now 36-years-old, Dillashaw is at an age where most bantamweights are well past their prime. In fact, Sterling is the oldest bantamweight champion the UFC has ever seen... and he’s three-and-a-half years younger than Dillashaw.
All that said, all-time greats become all-time greats by defying the odds and Dillashaw is a difficult matchup for Sterling. Sterling is very reliant on getting his ground game working and Dillashaw has proven difficult to take down throughout his career. The only fighter who has found success getting Dillashaw to the mat is Dominick Cruz. Plus, there’s no denying Dillashaw has the edge in power. I hesitate to say he has consistent one-punch power, but Dillashaw has put a beatdown on several opponents that resulted in the fight ending before the final bell. Sterling’s last stoppage win via strikes came against Hugo Viana all the way back in 2014... the only stoppage via strikes in his career at bantamweight.
Another thing some might point out is Sterling gassed hard in his first fight with Yan, a big part of the reason so many despise him as they believed Yan was well on his way to victory. While there is no denying that, Sterling also bounced back in a big way in his title defense, proving capable of going five hard rounds without fading. Perhaps it was title fight jitters in their first contest, maybe it was an unwise strategy... whatever it was, it still leaves a lot of mystery to how well Sterling will hold up over five rounds. We’ve seen Dillashaw do so many times, often at a pace that few can keep up with. If Dillashaw fights at his pace, that could very well be enough to break Sterling.
Despite all that, there’s still reason to believe Sterling comes out on top. The age thing does make a difference. Dillashaw could have already fallen off the cliff. Sterling also has a big reach advantage of four inches and has consistently improved his ability to utilize that over the course of his career. Sure, he doesn’t have a lot of sting in his strikes, but he can pile up the volume in a hurry if he chooses to take that route. Sterling still had a notable striking advantage over Yan when their first fight ended and he racked up 174 significant strikes on Pedro Munhoz over three rounds. If enough of those kicks hit the gut, it can change the momentum in a hurry.
While Dillashaw has proven difficult to takedown, an opponent having excellent takedown defense hasn’t stopped Sterling before. He attempted 39 takedowns against Yan in their two fights, only securing three takedowns out of all those attempts. However, what he did with those takedowns is what is key, controlling Yan for long stretches, threatening submissions throughout that time. Well, at least that’s what he did in their second contest. Dillashaw has never been submitted, but he’s also never faced someone as dynamic on the mat as Sterling. Plus, there’s always a first time for everything. You stay in the fight game long enough, you’ll find yourself tapping, napping, or snapping at some point.
Dillashaw is a huge mystery. I can question how he’ll come back from the knee injury, but he also beat Sandhagen despite having the injury for most of their fight. The dude has grit. He’s a smart fighter too. However, I can’t get behind a bantamweight at his age in a fight with this much at stake. Jose Aldo fell to a younger Merab Dvalishvili in August. Dominick Cruz fell to Marlon Vera that same month. Dvalishvili and Vera were younger and in their physical prime. Sterling’s physical prime may soon pass, but indications are he’s still there. Plus, Sterling is a smart fighter himself. He learns from his mistakes, thus why his first title defense proved to be a success. I’ll admit Dillashaw can do it, but I’m not expecting him to. If he does, he’ll be joining some very elite company... much to the chagrin of many fans. Sterling via decision