UFC 280 was headlined by a pair of championship fights and featured five matchups of top-10 contenders, but for many the most anticipated bout on Saturday in Abu Dhabi was the first big test for Sean O'Malley, a men's bantamweight star.
Naysayers and even acolytes were terming it time for the flamboyant 27-year-old to put up or shut up.
O'Malley put up in a big way, taking a split decision win over former champion and current (for now) No. 1 contender Petr Yan. It was a fast-paced fight in which both men were bloodied and hurt, and all three judges scored it 29-28, with two going for O'Malley, who certainly won't be shutting up anytime soon. Nor should he.
There might be no "shut up" in O'Malley's game, but there is plenty of upside for him after getting the biggest win of his career -- and doing it by showing grit that never before had been called upon.
"Fighting is the craziest f---ing sport in the world," said O'Malley (16-1, 1 NC). "I had to go somewhere I've never been before. That's what happens when you fight the No. 1 guy in the world."
O'Malley showed right from the start that he was not out of his league. He traded punches from distance, using his height and reach to give as much as he took. Yan, best known for his boxing, had to utilize his well-rounded skills in this one, getting six takedowns. But even after being wrestled to the mat again and again, O'Malley never settled for bad positions.
In the standup, O'Malley hurt Yan several times, but every time that happened, Yan (16-4) would come right back with a damaging flurry of his own. Both men had big moments, as O'Malley acknowledged afterward when asked about the decision.
"I thought it could have went either way," he said. O'Malley also did not directly call for a title fight, which would not be out of the question considering his star power and big victory. But he did point out the obvious.
"I mean, I think the people would love to see me be the bantamweight champion," O'Malley said. "So we'll give the people what they want."
Lightweight championship: Islam Makhachev (23-1, 12-1 UFC) def. Charles Oliveira (33-9 1 NC, 21-9 1 NC UFC) by submission (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Islam Makhachev embraces Khabib Nurmagomedov after defeating Charles Oliveira to become lightweight champion.
Ever since Khabib Nurmagomedov retired from mixed martial arts two years ago as an undefeated champion, Islam Makhachev's reclaiming that lightweight title felt like a preordained moment. That moment came on Saturday.
Makhachev (23-1) seized the UFC's 155-pound championship by submitting Oliveira (33-9) at UFC 280 inside Etihad Arena. The finish came at 3:16 of the second round, via arm triangle choke. Oliveira, who saw an 11-fight win streak snapped, tapped to the choke after he was dropped by a right hand.
The victory solidified what Nurmagomedov and Makhachev have long referred to as "Father's Plan." Nurmagomedov's late father, Abdulmanap, who died in 2020 due to complications of COVID-19, always envisioned Nurmagomedov would retire as champion and Makhachev would pick up where he left off.
Men's bantamweight championship: Aljamain Sterling (c) (22-3, 14-3 UFC) def. TJ Dillashaw (18-5, 13-5 UFC) by TKO (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Aljamain Sterling defends his bantamweight belt with a convincing TKO win over TJ Dillashaw.
Aljamain Sterling has had one of the most bizarre title reigns in recent MMA memory, but to his credit none of it has been his own doing -- and all he does is keep winning.
Sterling beat former champion TJ Dillashaw via TKO at 3:44 of the second round in the co-main event of UFC 280 on Saturday in Abu Dhabi. Sterling retained the UFC bantamweight title with the victory, though there were some other circumstances at play that were out of his hands.
Dillashaw's left shoulder popped out of its socket early in the first round, was put back in by coach Duane Ludwig in between rounds and then came out again in the second round. Sterling kept the pressure on, took Dillashaw down and used big punches and elbows from back control to get the TKO.
Lightweight: Beneil Dariush (22-4-1, 16-4-1 UFC) def. Mateusz Gamrot (21-2, 4-2 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Gamrot aggressively came forward with a left kick. Dariush countered perfectly with a straight left hand, landing to the jaw and sending Gamrot down to the canvas.
That was the story of this important lightweight fight. Gamrot did a lot of good things. He was more athletic and had more success at times in the wrestling and grappling department. But Dariush, the wily veteran, picked his spots and walked away with a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28). He now has won eight straight.
Coming in, ESPN had Dariush ranked No. 5 in the world at lightweight, while Gamrot was ranked No. 9. There has been talk that featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski could get the next lightweight title shot, but Dariush believes he has earned it.
"The thing is I don't have the answer to this," Dariush said when asked what he has to do in order to get a title shot. "I will tell you one thing: I'm not a beggar. I've done everything I needed to do.
"I don't care if I have to win another 10 fights to get to that belt. I'll do it."
Gamrot had a great first round, implementing his wrestling- and grappling-heavy game plan. His pace was excellent and while Dariush largely held his own on the ground Gamrot had his most success there. Dariush gained momentum in the second round with his striking, specifically counters with straight lefts, left head kicks and knees up the middle. That left hand in the third round that dropped Gamrot was the most significant of the fight for either man. And Dariush had a few more good strikes in the third, as well, all the while defending Gamrot's wrestling.
Dariush, 33, has not lost since getting knocked out by Alexander Hernandez in March 2018. The Iranian-born fighter, who lives and trains out of Kings MMA in California, has just two losses since 2016, a 10-2-1 clip. His 16 UFC lightweight wins are the third most in division history, behind just Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone. Gamrot, a 31-year-old from Poland who trains at American Top Team in Florida, had a four-fight winning streak snapped.
Women's flyweight: Manon Fiorot (10-1, 5-0 UFC) def . Katlyn Chookagian (18-5, 11-5 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Over the last six years, the only women that have defeated Chookagian include two champions and two title challengers. Now add Fiorot to that list.
Fiorot, of France, out-landed Chookagian in total strikes 99 to 76, en route to unanimous 29-28 scorecards. The flyweight fight was closely contested, but it was Fiorot who landed the heavier punches, between a steady stream of kicks to the legs and body. Fiorot joined an esteemed list of women to have bested Chookagian in the UFC, which previously consisted of Valentina Shevchenko, Jessica Andrade, Jessica Eye and Liz Carmouche.
Chookagian usually holds an edge in standup fights that go the distance, but Fiorot stayed a small step ahead of her. She landed several hard right hands early, which were probably the most significant shots of the fight. She also secured one late takedown, although failed to turn it into much offense.
Fiorot is now 5-0 in the UFC, with two finishes. She was the UFC's No. 6-ranked flyweight going into the contest, while Chookagian was ranked No. 1. Fiorot could certainly find herself in title contention against Shevchenko in 2023, as the champ has already defended her title against four of the top five ranked flyweights.
Welterweight: Belal Muhammad (22-3 1 NC, 13-1 1 NC UFC) def. Sean Brady (15-1, 5-1 UFC) by TKO (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Belal Muhammad hands Sean Brady his first career loss with a flurry of punches in a TKO victory.
The UFC got itself another top contender in the 170-pound division, maybe two.
Muhammad is the obvious one after his stirring knockout, which ended a back-and-forth fight with a barrage of more than a dozen unanswered punches on a wobbled Brady. The finish came at 4:47 of Round 2 when the referee jumped in, enabling the 34-year-old from Chicago -- No. 6 in the ESPN welterweight rankings -- to run his unbeaten streak to nine fights in a row.
The ninth-ranked Brady, who came in undefeated, never went down despite being pummeled. That is a symbol of both his toughness and his promise. At just 29 years old, he will be back.
Brady gave as well as he took during the fight, evident by swelling the area around Muhammad's right eye. But he took a steady stream of right hands to his face, and when he tried to change the rhythm of the fight with a takedown, he could not. Brady was 0 for 4 on takedowns -- this was the first time during his five-fight run that he did not secure a takedown.
Middleweight: Caio Borralho (13-1, 3-0 UFC) def. Makhmud Muradov (25-8, 3-2 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Borralho's momentum as an up-and-coming 185-pound fighter continues.
With a steady diet of grappling and submission attempts, Borralho pulled out a unanimous decision (30-27, 30-27, 29-28) win over Muradov. He was never able to get close to finishing Muradov, but earned mount several times and had Muradov in bad positions.
Muradov shot in for several takedowns and had some success in top position in the second round. But Borralho showed himself to be a slicker grappler, using a guillotine submission attempt three times to sweep and get on top. From there, he passed to mount. Muradov defended well in those spots, he just couldn't get his own offense going.
Borralho, 29, has won his first three UFC fights and 10 straight overall. The Brazilian-born fighter earned his way into the UFC with a first-round TKO finish over Jesse Murray last year on Dana White's Contender Series. Muradov, a 32-year-old Tajikistan-born Uzbek fighter, has dropped two straight following a three-fight UFC winning streak.
Light heavyweight: Nikita Krylov (29-9, 10-7 UFC) def. Volkan Oezdemir (18-7, 6-6 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
As this meeting of top-10 205-pounders began, it appeared that Krylov might not make it out of the first minute, much less the full three rounds.
Blasted with punch after punch by Oezdemir and wobbled in the opening seconds, Krylov hung tough before eventually turning the tide and seizing control.
By late in the third round, it was looking like Krylov might be the one getting the finish, as he had an exhausted Oezdemir in deep trouble, but the fight went the distance and Krylov took the clear decision (30-27, 29-28, 29-28). It was just the second decision among his 29 career wins.
Krylov, a 30-year-old from Ukraine, won his second in a row after dropping three of four.
Oezdemir, who is 33 and from Switzerland, had strong moments beyond the fast start, but as the fight wore on, the No. 10 light heavyweight in ESPN's rankings slowed down and appeared increasingly drained. He has lost three of his last four fights.
Welterweight: Abubakar Nurmagomedov (17-3-1, 2-1 UFC) def. Gadzhi Omargadzhiev (13-2, 0-2 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Nurmagomedov, of Dagestan, picked up his first win of 2022 behind judges' scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 29-28.
The fight was competitive, but Nurmagomedov, cousin of Khabib, was more aggressive and the better wrestler. According to UFC Stats data, Nurmagomedov racked up 7:55 of control time, mostly in top position. He ate a hard upkick from Omargadzhiev in the second round, but he wore the shot well and went back to controlling the Russian fighter on the ground. He dropped Omargadzhiev with a right hand on the feet in the third round.
This was Nurmagomedov's first appearance since he picked up a win against Jared Gordon in March 2021. He is 2-1 overall in the UFC.
Omargadzhiev falls to 0-2 since earning a contract on Contender Series last year.
Middleweight: Armen Petrosyan (8-2, 2-1 UFC) vs. AJ Dobson (6-2, 0-2 UFC) by unanimous decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Petrosyan was the one wearing damage on his face at the end of three rounds, but looks were deceiving as the former kickboxing world champion controlled the fight from the get-go to win all three rounds (30-27, 30-27, 30-27) for his third victory in his past four fights.
Petrosyan, who is 31 and fights out of Armenia, maintained proper distance for much of what turned out to be a striking contest nearly from start to finish. Dobson did get three takedowns over the first two rounds, but seemed content to mostly stand and trade.
The problem for Dobson, a 30-year-old from Powell, Ohio, was that he didn't trade enough. He bloodied up Petrosyan and landed the more telling punches, but his punches and kicks were relatively few and far between. Dobson threw less than half as many strikes as Petrosyan.
As a result, Dobson lost for the second straight time since joining the UFC last year off of Dana White's Contenders Series.
Men's flyweight: Muhammad Mokaev (9-0, 3-0 UFC) def. Malcolm Gordon (14-7, 2-3 UFC) by third-round submission (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Muhammad Mokaev gets Malcolm Gordon to tap in the third round with an armbar.
Mokaev's quest to become the youngest champion in UFC history is still in play, although it nearly took a disastrous turn in this fight.
Mokaev, who fights out of England, submitted Gordon with an armbar with just 34 seconds remaining in their 125-pound contest. The finish came after Mokaev himself was nearly forced to tap to a rear-naked choke in the second round. Gordon took the 22-year-old phenom's back and threatened with the choke as the second round expired.
Gordon, 32, suplexed Mokaev in the third round and was in great position for an upset, but Mokaev found the finish late. He improves to 3-0 in the UFC, with all three wins coming this year.
MY MAN @muhammadmokaev PHENOMENAL 💪 #UFC280— Mark O. Madsen (@MarkTheOlympian) October 22, 2022
"There's a 10-year difference [in age] between me and this guy," Mokaev said. "I'm 22 years old. This is my third fight in the UFC in six months. The weight cut is hard, but I have the best team."
To become the youngest champion in UFC history, Mokaev will have to win the title by March 2024. He would beat the current record by Jon Jones if that happens.
Women's bantamweight: Karol Rosa (16-4, 5-1 UFC) def. Lina Lansberg (10-7, 4-6 UFC) by majority decision (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Rosa absorbed a hard right hand to the face in the fight's opening minute -- and it contributed to her winning the bout. The 27-year-old from Brazil, who came into the fight with twice as many knockout wins as submissions, took the fight to the canvas shortly after being stung by that punch from Lansberg, a two-time Muay Thai world champion and multiple-time medalist.
Rosa immediately recognized that getting away from standup fighting was her smartest route to victory. And that's what Rosa proceeded to do, taking down Lansberg three times over the first two rounds to control the bout and win (29-27, 29-27, 28-28) for the seventh time in her past eight fights. Rosa had a point deducted in Round 2 for a knee to the face of her grounded opponent.
Lansberg, who is 40 years old and from Sweden, has lost three fights in a row.