On Saturday 22 October, UFC fans were treated to a fantastic fight card including pitting the reigning lightweight Charles Oliveira against the rapidly rising Islam Makhachev. Other much anticipated fights included up-and-coming star, Sean O’Malley against former bantamweight champion, Petr Yan. Not only did UFC 280 give fans a spectacle with some incredible performances from the fighters but O’Malley’s victory was perceived as controversial and divided fans while bringing into question the sport’s future.
The two victors of these bouts, Makhachev and O’Malley, represent contrasting ideals within the world of MMA and symbolise the fork in the road for UFC. Given the connection between Makhachev and Khabib as well as the comparisons made between O’Malley and Conor McGregor, it is hard not to draw parallels between this matchup and Khabib and McGregor’s rivalry; the flashy and confident against the humble and focused. While one makes for a more respectable competitor, there is no denying the effect Conor McGregor and his explosive personality had on the sport’s popularity, creating drama with the organisation as well as cementing rivalries in the history of the sport.
The main event of the night was the Oliveira and Makhachev fight, affirming Makhachev’s dominance as a fighter as well as the strength of his fighting style and his discipline, as a student of Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov and his son, Khabib, who dominated the division during his time. The fight both shocked and entertained fans as Oliveira unexpectedly submitted in the second round after a dominant performance from Makhachev. From the start until the end, Islam dominated Oliveira with an impressive takedown in the first round and excellent striking game in the second with a punch causing the knockdown leading to the hold in which Oliveira submitted. Not only was it surprising to see Oliveira take his first loss since 2017 but to lose by submission in the second round is truly a testament to Islam’s ability. After the fight, Oliveira vowed to come back stronger and as fans know all to well, he has done this successfully before, however, Islam’s dominance and focus is apparent as he sets his sights ahead. Dedicating his victory to his coaches Khabib and his late father, Islam showed great humility in his victory and emphasised that the values of Khabib and his father would be upheld and carried on within the world of UFC, through the way he carries himself. Although we should hesitate to write off Oliveira as a contender it appears that the sport is entering a new era, in which Islam Makhachev will reign.
The fight between Petr Yan and Sean O’Malley in the bantamweight division, although not a main event, was equally, if not more, entertaining than the main fight of the night. Filled with incredible moments from both fighters, the fight could have gone in either direction. Whilst Yan dominated on the ground, O’Malley’s striking game outmatched Yan’s, although not by a large margin. Ultimately, the split decision went in O’Malley’s favour dividing fans massively.
Prominent American UFC commentator, Joe Rogan excellently outlined the various points of debate, questioning how points are decided upon especially the debate around whether instilling little damage but having someone on the floor counts less than striking and landing hits, even if one is held down for prolonged periods. Throughout the fight, Yan kept up with O’Malley’s striking game for the most part despite appearing weaker in some moments. When it came to grappling, O’Malley was clearly outclassed, rarely gaining the upper hand against Yan. Despite his dominance on the floor, Yan was not able to capitalise on his advantage effectively and caused little damage nor was he able to get a submission from O’Malley. There is an additional layer to the divisions caused by this result, in that O’Malley is suspected of cheating throughout the fight. On multiple occasions, O’Malley grabbed onto the cage to hold his weight or prevent Yan from moving him, however, this was missed by the referee. More seriously, when grappling, O’Malley can be seen glove grabbing, digging his two middle fingers inside Yan’s glove when in a difficult position on the floor, preventing Yan from striking him. Again, the referee allegedly saw nothing. Thus, we return to the issue of who should have emerged victorious; perhaps if the referee had been more diligent, Yan would have been in a better position to capitalise on O’Malley’s weak groundwork. Ultimately, the results cannot be changed and certainly O’Malley fought well but the issue of cheating undermines his victory as well as bringing into question the intentions of the UFC as an organisation.
There has been much discourse regarding the direction the UFC is heading in, especially with the rise and fall of Conor McGregor. The UFC was known to treat fighters unfairly, often granting Conor concessions where other fighters would not be given the same liberties, such as the time were Conor was allowed to keep his belt despite remaining inactive. In this case, O’Malley is the rising star and perhaps he is treated leniently due to his potential to reach Conor’s level of fame, bringing in casual fans who are more interested in the cult of personality created around flashy fighters such a Conor than the competitive integrity of the championships. Thus, the UFC finds itself at a fork in the road, although going too far down either path runs the risk of either ostracising the massive amounts of fans that big personalities bring in or damaging the integrity of the sport itself by being lenient towards these fighters.