UFC 280: Fights to make next as Islam Makhachev ascends and Sean O’Malley steps up



While there are a number of big names at the top end of the lightweight division, Makhachev’s first challenger looks set to come from the weight class below.

Featherweight champion Volkanovski has been dominant at 145lbs and has spent much of this year expressing a desire to challenge for the lightweight belt. He even served as the back-up fighter for the UFC 280 main event, and the UFC will seemingly reward the Australian by giving him the first shot at Makhachev.

That would make for an intriguing bout, with Volkanovski (25-1) seen by most fans as the UFC’s pound-for-pound best fighter, while Makhachev (23-1) would hold the advantage of competing in his own weight class. Volkanovski, 34, would enter the fight on a stunning 22-bout win streak, while Makhachev has won his last 11.

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Another fun wrinkle would form if Makhachev vs Volkanovski were to take place in the latter’s home country – something hinted by Khabib at UFC 280 – when the promotion travels Down Under in February.

Aljamain Sterling vs Sean O’Malley

Some would say Sterling can’t catch a break. Although the bantamweight champion was impressively dominant against one of the division’s greatest ever fighters on Saturday, the main story ended up being Dillashaw’s dislocated shoulder; and after Sterling won the title via disqualification last year then retained it this April with a close decision, the last thing the Jamaican-American needed was for people to add an asterisk to his most recent contest.

In any case, Sterling (22-3) did everything right in the ring and will move onto his next defence, which could come against O’Malley. The UFC had been building the American carefully before suddenly pairing him with Yan, the man who lost the belt to Sterling and almost regained it from “Funk Master” this spring.

Most expected the Russian to beat O’Malley – some thought the former champion would do so convincingly – but the latter ended up winning a controversial decision. Regardless, “Sugar Sean” fought tremendously and even had Yan in trouble on a couple of occasions, proving he belongs at the top of the division. Why not capitalise and put him in the Octagon with Sterling next?

UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling (left) and Sean O’Malley

Marlon “Chito” Vera will feel that he himself should be the next challenger, and the Ecuadoran does hold a victory over O’Malley (16-1, 1 No Contest), but it feels as though the moment is now for “Sugar”. Vera could partake in a No 1 contender’s bout next, potentially setting up a title fight and rematch with O’Malley in one fell swoop. We have an idea of whom Chito could take on next, and we’ll get to that shortly.

Charles Oliveira vs Beneil Dariush

Oliveira’s 11-fight win streak came to an impactful halt on Saturday, as the Brazilian was submitted by Makhachev in Round 2 without having really shown what he’s capable of. “Do Bronx” said after the main event that he is intent on getting back the lightweight belt, and considering his recent in-ring history, the former champion may only need one or two victories to earn another shot at the gold.

Oliveira (33-9, 1 NC) has already beaten – and in fact stopped – Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje, meaning Beneil Dariush is the only top-five lightweight that the 33-year-old hasn’t fought.

Dariush (22-4-1) took on rising contender Mateusz Gamrot at UFC 280 and upset the odds with a decision win, recording an eighth straight victory and taking another step towards an elusive title shot. The lightweight landscape will likely dictate that the Iranian-American needs one more win to challenge for the belt, and matching him with Oliveira is the natural move.

Former lightweight champion Oliveira is set on regaining the belt

Petr Yan vs Marlon Vera

If Yan had gotten enough nods from the judges at UFC 280, he would likely have been paired with Sterling once more to round out a championship trilogy with his rival.

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While Yan (16-4) was not a winner on the scorecards on Saturday, most observes believe that he beat O’Malley, so his stock has hardly fallen. The 29-year-old’s outing will no doubt be against another top contender, and Vera (20-7-1) is as good a pick as any.

The winner of such a clash should be next for whomever has the bantamweight belt by then. If Sterling is champion, we may be in for that trilogy fight with Yan; if O’Malley holds the gold, a rematch against either Yan or Vera would make for plenty of excitement.

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