What can we take away from a fascinating slate of title fights and marquee matchups at UFC 280? Marc Raimondi and Brett Okamoto offer up their thoughts from a highlight-packed event in Abu Dhabi.
It’s lazy, but I have to quote the great Nate Diaz on this one: “I’m not surprised …”
To an extent, I understand why so many people thought O’Malley was going to be way out of his league against Petr Yan — after all, Yan, a former division champ, is mean, violent and seasoned. Far more so than O’Malley.
Even though O’Malley hasn’t been fighting a supremely high level of competition, his skills and athleticism were always apparent. And, the biggest indicator of his skill that has always been apparent to me is his intelligence. He understands this game. He’s honest with himself, and he’s fine with the rest of his team being honest with him.
It probably sounds funny for me to suggest that O’Malley has no ego — his persona is built around the perception of ego — but he doesn’t have one. He’s doing the work and he’s doing it smartly. He had some stylistic advantages over Yan that I think some were blind to because all they saw was the step up in competition. O’Malley is the real deal, and there was always evidence of that. And he’s promising himself he’ll stay dedicated for the next 10 years. If he does that, maybe he’ll even surpass what Conor McGregor did in terms of popularity and accomplishments. It’s at least possible, right? — Okamoto
During bizarre title reign, all Sterling can do is stay the course
Sean O’Malley beats Petr Yan via split decision after an explosive third round.
Aljamain Sterling won the UFC bantamweight title last year when Petr Yan was disqualified in a fight against Sterling due to landing a fight-ending, illegal knee. Sterling then retained the title via a close split decision in a rematch against Yan back in April. Now, in Sterling’s second title defense, he stopped an injured TJ Dillashaw via second-round TKO.
Dillashaw’s left shoulder popped out during a Sterling takedown early in the match, and it remained out the whole first round while Sterling outgrappled Dillashaw. Coach Duane Ludwig was able to get the shoulder back in during the period between rounds, but it came out again in the second round. Dillashaw could not defend himself properly, and Sterling did what he had to do: finish the fight dominantly with ground-and-pound.
It has been a genuinely odd 19 months for Sterling. Yes, he is the UFC bantamweight titleholder — indisputably. But his process of getting the belt and retaining it has been unorthodox, to say the least. What can Sterling do? He’s an excellent fighter, and all those unforeseen circumstances have been entirely out of his control. This will likely be another win that some fans don’t give him full credit for, but it’s not his fault that Dillashaw was injured, never spoke up about it and the shoulder issue wasn’t caught in prefight medicals. Sterling took care of business and defended the title for a second time.
By the way, that second consecutive title defense has Sterling tied for the longest defense streak in UFC bantamweight history with Dillashaw himself, Dominick Cruz and Renan Barao. Since Cruz’s first title reign spanned WEC and the UFC — UFC bought the promotion and absorbed its fighters and titles — the 135-pound belt has been a veritable hot potato. The fact that Sterling has more title defenses in the division than anyone since 2015 is a super interesting statistic, given the circumstances.
Sterling has nothing to be ashamed of. He was criticized for how he handled winning the title last year via DQ, puffing out his chest even though Yan was winning the fight before the foul. But you know what? More power to Sterling. This is a wild sport, and Sterling is just riding the wave while simultaneously being an elite fighter. You can’t take a thing away from him. He didn’t throw an illegal knee; he didn’t hide a significant injury. Sterling keeps winning fights, and at the end of the day, what more can we ask of him? — Raimondi
Muhammad is an unlikely, yet legitimate, top welterweight contender
When Belal Muhammad‘s UFC career started, few people outside him and his team could envision he would be what he is now: one of the best welterweight fighters in the world. Muhammad went 1-2 in his first three UFC bouts, with the only win against Augusto Montaño, someone who never earned a UFC victory in his career. Muhammad was exciting in losses to Alan Jouban and Vicente Luque, the latter a knockout loss, but at the time, many pegged him as little more than a journeyman or gatekeeper.
But Muhammad got back to the gym — first at Roufusport in Milwaukee, then Valle Flow Striking and now with Khabib Nurmagomedov‘s team with others — and just kept improving. Muhammad was a wrestler in high school under coach and MMA fighter Louis Taylor. Muhammad got with Taylor, a close confidant and coach, and went back to basics. With wrestling and grappling as his go-to strategy, Muhammad is on a nine-fight unbeaten streak following a TKO finish over top up-and-coming fighter Sean Brady at UFC 280.
For Brady, Muhammad trained with Nurmagomedov and his team, first in the United States and then over the past few weeks in the United Arab Emirates. Nurmagomedov and his fighters are known for their wrestling. Muhammad used wrestling against Brady, but only to defend Brady’s wrestling. Muhammad shrugged off several takedown attempts from the rising star to keep things on the feet. His pressure and combinations eventually wilted Brady in the second round with punches.
Muhammad is not the most overwhelming athlete but always had durability and cardio. He has worked tirelessly over the past six years to mix those attributes with impeccable technique and an excellent fight IQ. In a world where MMA prospects like Khamzat Chimaev start hot and shoot right to the top, Muhammad had to earn every step in his journey, making adjustments and improvements along the way. It has been highly entertaining — and impressive — to watch him get to this point: right on the cusp of challenging for the UFC welterweight title. — Raimondi