UFC 280 from Abu Dhabi looks like arguably the card of the year, with two title fights, two former champions looking to get back into the title picture, and contenders looking to move up the rankings.
If he isn’t already guaranteed a place in the UFC’s Hall of Fame, a win on Saturday night will surely see Charles Oliveira punch his ticket.
But in his way is arguably his toughest test, in Islam Makhachev, and that’s despite Oliveira putting together a 10-fight win streak which has included stoppage wins over the likes of Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler and Tony Ferguson.
At 13/10, Oliveira will have to upset the odds to regain his UFC lightweight title, though it wouldn’t be the first time. He was the underdog against Poirier and Ferguson, and even Kevin Lee when they fought back in 2020.
Oliviera has always relied on his Brazilian jiu-jitsu, which so few of his opponents have been able to deal with, but he also possesses terrific power in his hands. Both Gaethje and Chandler – owners of two of the best chins in the UFC – have been sat down by Oliveira.
Makhachev however may well be the true heir to Khabib Nurmagomedov’s throne. Both men were combat sambo world champions and Makhachev was even trained by Nurmagomedov’s dad, and now Khabib himself.
There have been question marks over Makhachev’s defensive abilities, but he's been tipped for a long time as a future UFC champion, and with an unbeaten streak stretching to seven years, and Saturday night may well be the 31-year-old’s coronation.
At a near-silent UFC Apex in March 2021, Petr Yan was well on his way to retaining the UFC bantamweight title. Aljamain Sterling simply couldn’t live with the Russian’s precise striking, and the gas tank looked empty.
Yan then inexplicably kneed the grounded Sterling in the head, disqualifying himself, surrendering his title.
It took another 13 months to get the pair back in the Octagon, but Sterling narrowly out-pointed Yan in slightly controversial fashion – UFC president Dana White claimed the judges got that one wrong.
Sterling doesn’t scream someone who’ll hold the belt for the next few years based on how he’s won it and retained it, but is 10/17 favourite against TJ Dillashaw.
We still don’t quite know what we’ll get from former champion Dillashaw. A somewhat contentious loss to Dominick Cruz in 2016 is Dillashaw’s only defeat at bantamweight in his last 10 fights. But having served a ban on the back of back-to-back wins over Cody Garbrandt, he may have denied himself two of his best years.
A close split decision over Cory Sandhagen marked Dillashaw’s return, but if we see the Dillashaw of old, the 7/5 about him becoming a three-time bantamweight champion may appeal.
In the years to come, Petr Yan’s record won’t note his performances or whether he deserved to win both fights with Aljamain Sterling; it will merely note that he lost both, and he can ill-afford a third defeat in four fights.
The Russian will feel that he should be fighting about 30 minutes later on Saturday evening with a belt around his waist, but he must earn his shot once more, and is 4/11 to win.
There’s no question of Yan’s talents. He’s a top-class boxer whose striking is a danger for any opponent, but the performance in the second defeat to Sterling – while disputed – wasn’t as dominant as we’d become accustomed to.
In Sean O’Malley, we have an eye-catching fighter in every sense of the word. Yan is a huge step up in class for the 27-year-old, and the fight may have come too soon. But a win on Saturday will catapult him straight into the title picture.
In the UFC’s most stacked division, Beneil Dariush finds himself as perhaps the best of the outsiders. The five fighters ranked above him have all been champions or contenders, and with that in mind, Dariush can’t afford a misstep if he wants a shot at the strap in the next 12 months.
A Brazilian jiu-jitsu specialist who possesses one-punch knockout power – both Drakkar Klose and Scott Holtzman were rendered unconscious in the blink of an eye – Dariush should present a test to Mateusz Gamrot, but the Pole, whose record reads 21-1 heads into the fight as 8/15 favourite.
Gamrot’s grappling perhaps supersedes Dariush’s and if the fight is stopped inside the distance, Gamrot by submission may well be the way.
The women’s flyweight division’s No.1 contender Katlyn Chookagian is surely one win away from a rematch with champion Valentina Shevchenko.
But standing in her way is France’s Manon Fiorot, who’s won nine straight fights since losing in her professional debut.
Amanda Nunes looked like the only woman capable of stopping Shevchenko, but Talia Santos forced her all the way to a split decision, which is the closest anyone not named Amanda Nunes has come to beating the Ukrainian in more than a decade, and Fiorot, 1/2 to win, will be desperate to put herself in the picture with a win on Saturday night.