UFC 280 might be the deepest card the promotion has put on so far this year — as it features essential fights in two of the best divisions: lightweight and bantamweight.
In the main event, the vacant UFC lightweight title will be decided in a fight between former champion Charles Oliveira and dominant contender Islam Makhachev, who is trying to bring the title back to Dagestan like his coach and former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Oliveira (33-8, 1 NC) defeated Justin Gaethje in his last fight, at UFC 274 last May, but he missed weight before the bout and was stripped of the belt. Makhachev (22-1) will have Nurmagomedov in his corner — it was always the plan of Nurmagomedov’s late father and trainer, Abdulmanap, to have Makhachev take the UFC lightweight torch from Nurmagomedov.
There is a deep undercard here, too, highlighted by two fantastic bantamweight matchups:
Aljamain Sterling defending his 135-pound belt versus former champ TJ Dillashaw and Petr Yan, another former bantamweight champ, trying to hold off the wildly popular Sean O’Malley.
Oliveira and Makhachev are, without question, the top two lightweight fighters in the world. Some can poke holes in their résumés, but realistically both are unbelievable talents in their primes. Oliveira has won 11 fights in a row and would be the lightweight champion right now if not for his missing weight before a first-round TKO victory over Gaethje at UFC 274 in May.
Makhachev has won 10 consecutive and hopes to take the torch from his longtime teammate and current coach, Khabib Nurmagomedov, the former dominant UFC lightweight champion.
O’Malley, who has a chance to become one of the biggest stars in the UFC with a win, has never been challenged like this. Yan is a former UFC bantamweight champion, has significant power on the feet and a good ground game. He was on his way to beating Sterling in their first fight last year before an ill-advised illegal knee caused a disqualification.
Yan vs. O’Malley is polarizing in a way, too. UFC president Dana White has stated publicly that he didn’t think 27-year-old O’Malley was ready for the caliber adversary that Yan represents. But matchmakers Sean Shelby and Mick Maynard talked White into it and O’Malley seems comfortable with the step up in competition.
It’s easy to make the storyline here about O’Malley because he already has a big fan following and can take things to a new level this weekend. But let’s not forget Yan, who remains one of the world’s top two or three best bantamweight fighters. It would not be out of the question to see Yan getting a Sterling trilogy fight if he defeats O’Malley — and he might be favored over the Sterling vs. Dillashaw winner. Yan himself is only 29 years old.