This card is… (chef's kiss)
From top to bottom, UFC 280 is the best collection of matchups assembled all year; an intoxicating mix of championship bouts, title eliminators, and key tests across various divisions and tiers within those weight classes.
You want prospects? Muhammad Mokaev is arguably the best in the sport right now.
You want fights carrying a great deal of divisional significance and championship ramifications? The final four non-title tilts of the evening all fit that bill.
And then there are still two outstanding, highly competitive, stylistically enthralling pairings where UFC gold hangs in the balance on tap to close out the night.
This is the UFC equivalent of a 13-course tasting menu with wine pairings and I cannot wait to enjoy this feast of fighting excellence on Saturday.
Here's a closer look at each of this weekend's contests.
Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev
The best two lightweights on the planet finally meet inside the octagon, as Charles Oliveira (33-8 MMA, 21-8 UFC) and Islam Makhachev (22-1 MMA, 11-2 UFC) clash to determine who will be the next UFC lightweight champion.
Oliveira enters on an 11-fight winning streak that includes consecutive stoppage wins over Michael Chandler, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje. He was stripped of the title after missing weight by a half-pound ahead of his clash with Gaethje in May, but belt or no belt, there is no denying that "Do Bronx" has been the most dangerous and dynamic fighter in the division – if not the sport – over the last two years.
Makhachev sits one behind Oliveira in the consecutive wins department heading into Saturday's main event, touching down in Abu Dhabi having won 10 straight, the last four by stoppage. While some will question his level of competition after several opponents have been forced out with injuries leading to dates with late replacements, the standout from Dagestan has continued to handle his business and dispatch foes with alarming quickness on his way to challenging for the title this weekend.
In addition to this being a clash between the top two fighters in the division at the moment, it's also a fascinating stylistic battle, as Oliveira is most dangerous on the ground and in grappling situations, which is precisely where Makhachev wants to be, as well. They have very different styles, and the Brazilian is certainly the more fluid and explosive striker of the two, but it will be captivating to see how everything finally plays out when these two hit the octagon and close out UFC 280.
Is it Saturday yet?
Aljamain Sterling vs. T.J. Dillashaw
Aljamain Sterling (21-3 MMA, 13-3 UFC) looks to successfully defend his bantamweight title for a second time, while T.J. Dillashaw (17-4 MMA, 13-4 UFC) aims to make history as the first person to claim gold in the 135-pound weight class three times when they meet in the UFC 280 co-main event.
Sterling quieted some critics in April when he squared off with Petr Yan for a second time and collected a split-decision victory to retain the bantamweight title. The champion is a menacing grappler and nightmare to have on your back, plus stronger and more physical than most anticipate, which makes him a challenging assignment for anyone forced to share the octagon with him.
After more than two years on the sidelines, Dillashaw returned last summer to collect a split decision win over Cory Sandhagen in one of the most competitive, entertaining fights of the year. The two-time former champ was forced to deal with various injuries following the contest but returns here aiming to join Randy Couture as only the second man to win the same UFC title on three different occasions.
This is a classic "grappler versus striker" battle with "sprinter versus marathon runner" elements tied in for good measure.
Sterling showed in his rematch with Yan that he's able to take anyone down and impose his will on them long enough to salt away three rounds, but he was forced to hold on down the stretch. Now he faces Dillashaw, who has some wrestling skills in his back pocket, a wealth of experience preparing for and competing in five-round fights, and a clear edge if he's able to keep this on the feet.
Just like the main event, this is a fascinating pairing that will not only determine the direction of the bantamweight division going forward, but also contribute heavily to the legacies of these two phenomenal competitors.
Petr Yan vs Sean O'Malley
Before Sterling and Dillashaw battle for the bantamweight title, former champ Petr Yan (16-3 MMA, 8-2 UFC) faces off with rising star Sean O'Malley (15-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC) in one of the most intriguing matchups of 2022.
There have been bigger fights, more prestigious fights, but this one has a different type of appeal to it, as Yan is a known commodity with championship bona fides, while O'Malley has been the most hyped competitor in the UFC for the last several years but is taking a major step up in competition.
Yan enters off his split decision loss to Sterling in April, having bested Sandhagen in a five-round bout last October in Abu Dhabi to claim the interim title before that. Meanwhile, "Suga" comes in after his top 10 entrance exam against Pedro Munhoz ended early and anticlimactically after the Brazilian could not continue following an accidental eye poke.
This is the top tier matchup everyone has been wanting to see O'Malley in for the last couple years, and now it's time to see if the breakout star from Dana White's Contender Series is ready to be a championship contender or not.
Beneil Dariush vs. Mateusz Gamrot
Just as Yan and O'Malley is a quality prelude to the bantamweight title fight that follows, Beneil Dariush (21-4-1 MMA, 15-4-1 UFC) and Mateusz Gamrot (21-1 MMA, 4-1 UFC) serve as a potential title eliminator in the lightweight division ahead of the night's championship headliner.
Dariush has been the odd man out in the championship picture over the last couple of years, piling up victories while failing to land a date with one of the marquee names in the division. When he was tabbed to face Makhachev in February, the Kings MMA representative was forced out of the matchup due to an ankle injury.
Nonetheless, the 33-year-old contender enters on a seven-fight winning streak, and he could very well establish himself as the next challenger for the lightweight title if he's able to find success this weekend.
Gamrot arrived in the UFC as an undefeated former two-division champion in KSW and one of the top lightweights competing outside of the octagon. After suffering a split-decision loss in his promotional debut, the 31-year-old has proven himself to be one of the best in the sport, following stoppage victories over Scott Holtzman, Jeremy Stephens and Diego Ferreira with a hard-fought unanimous decision win over Arman Tsarukyan in one of the best fights of 2022 in June.
There are no guarantees that the winner "has next," but a dynamic performance from either man to extend their respective winning streaks would certainly put them on the short list of potential title challengers heading into next year.
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Manon Fiorot
The clash between Dariush and Gamrot isn't the only bout on Saturday's fight card that may establish a future title challenger, as Katlyn Chookagian (18-4 MMA, 11-4 UFC) and Manon Fiorot (9-1 MMA, 4-0 UFC) open up the main card in a fight that could determine Valentina Shevchenko's next dance partner.
Chookagian has established herself as the best fighter in the flyweight division outside of the champion, entering this weekend's event on a four-fight winning streak and boasting a 7-2 mark over her last nine fights. She's earned victories over Jennifer Maia and Amanda Ribas already this year, and now gets the opportunity to back up her declaration that "that French girl can get it" she made following her victory in May.
A winner of nine straight overall and all four of her UFC appearances to date, Fiorot has already shown she's a top 10 talent in the division; now it's just a matter of figuring out just how far up the divisional ladder she's capable of climbing. Fiorot has been the stronger, more imposing fighter in each of her first four UFC outings, so it will be interesting to see if that carries over to this fight, where she's giving up both height and reach to the rangy Chookagian.
One interesting element from an "if you think previous experiences are impactful" standpoint is that Chookagian's last loss came in Abu Dhabi, against Jessica Andrade, while Fiorot is 4-0 while competing in the United Arab Emirates, including winning her UFC debut on Fight Island.
No matter who emerges victorious here, they will have a very good case for challenging for UFC gold in 2023.
Belal Muhammad vs. Sean Brady
Muhammad deserves huge props for taking this assignment, as he enters on a three-fight winning streak, unbeaten in his last eight, and coming off a unanimous decision win over Vicente Luque in April. He's 11-1 with 1 no contest in his last 13 fights and has done enough to merit fighting forward in the division, but that option wasn't available to him here, and so he's banking on being able to impose his will on Brady and keep his run of success intact through the weekend.
Fighting for the first time since last November, Brady is 15-0 as a pro and 5-0 in the UFC, climbing into the top 10 in the welterweight division on the strength of his unanimous decision victory over Michael Chiesa last time out. The Philadelphia native has looked outstanding to this point in his UFC run and showed new elements of his game and competitive makeup each time out, but Muhammad is a tricky matchup for anyone, and it will be interesting to see how Brady approaches this contest on Saturday.
Few fighters operate with the pace and relentlessness of Muhammad, and it will be up to Brady to force the Chicagoland native to reconsider his perpetual forward motion. Currently stationed at No. 5 and No. 8 in the rankings, respectively, the winner of this could be staring down a No. 1 contender bout in the first quarter of 2023.
Makhmud Muradov vs. Caio Borralho
Muradov hasn't competed since having his 14-fight winning streak snapped by Gerald Meerschaert last August, having been forced to withdraw from a pair of bookings due to injury in the time between that contest and this one. "Mach" won each of his first three UFC appearances and earned finishes in his second and third showings, only going to a decision twice during his extended run of success, all of which adds up to his being the most experienced and dangerous opponent Borralho has faced thus far.
A member of the DWCS Class of '21, Borralho has followed up his tandem wins last season on the UFC president's annual talent search show with consecutive victories inside the octagon earlier this year. He's battled fellow Contender Series alums Gadzhi Omargadzhiev and Armen Petrosyan – both of whom compete earlier in the night on Saturday – collecting decision wins over each, but now takes a step up in competition against the 33-fight veteran.
Will Muradov get back to his winning ways and slow Borralho's rise in the division, or will the Brazilian keep rolling and collect the biggest win over his career at UFC 280?
Volkan Oezdemir vs. Nikita Krylov
Oezdemir has settled in as a tough out just outside the top 5 in the 205-pound ranks, entering his assignment opposite Krylov off a unanimous decision win over Paul Craig, where he showed excellent Fight IQ by repeatedly refraining from engaging with the Scottish submission ace on the canvas. All 11 fights of Oezdemir's UFC career have come against ranked competition, including two champions and two title challengers, and while he's just 6-5 inside the octagon, you'd be hard pressed to find many fighters that have faced a tougher 11-fight slate.
Krylov made the mistake of hanging out on the ground with Craig two fights back and paid for it, getting stuck in a triangle choke when the two met in London in March. He returned to the English capital in July and collected an emphatic first-round stoppage win over returning former title threat Alexander Gustafsson, moving him to 9-7 under the UFC banner and 28-9 overall.
These two were previous slated to meet two years ago, but Oezdemir was forced out with an injury and the bout wasn't rescheduled until now. Each looked sharp in their respective victories in London this summer, and it will be curious to see who will have the upper hand when they face off this weekend in Abu Dhabi.
Zubaira Tukhugov vs. Lucas Almeida
Zubaira Tukhugov (20-5-1 MMA, 5-2-1 UFC) and Lucas Almeida (14-1 MMA, 1-0 UFC) meet in a preliminary card clash in the featherweight division with the potential to set the bar for "Fight of the Night" honors.
Tukhugov has competed in Abu Dhabi each of the last three years, going 1-1-1, with a victory over Kevin Aguilar in Auckland, New Zealand mixed in for good measure. Last time out, the 31-year-old holdover put forth his best performance in years, dominating Ricardo Ramos to collect a unanimous decision win at UFC 267.
Almeida competed on Season 5 of Dana White's Contender Series, but landed on the wrong side of the scorecards in his clash with Daniel Zellhuber. He responded from that setback – the first of his career – with a quick win on the regional circuit, and then collected a third-round knockout win over Mike Trizano in his promotional debut in June.
Each of these men like to come forward and let loose with their hands, and if they stay true to form, they should pair up to deliver an absolute barnburner that sets the tone of the remainder of the evening.
Abubakar Nurmagomedov vs. Gadzhi Omargadzhiev
Despite being a member of the roster since 2019, Saturday will only be Nurmagomedov's third appearance in the octagon. After losing to David Zawada in his debut, he rebounded with a unanimous decision win over Jared Gooden in March 2021, but has been out of action since, as matchups against Daniel Rodriguez and Phil Rowe failed to materialize for different reasons.
After debuting with a loss to Caio Borralho at middleweight, Omargadzhiev moves down a division to square off with Nurmagomedov this weekend in his sophomore showing. More of a finesse grappler and patient striker, the 29-year-old was unbeaten prior to his bout with Borralho in April and will look to make an expeditious return to the win column by turning back Nurmagomedov on Saturday.
This should be a competitive, entertaining scrap between two well-rounded Russians looking to claim their spot in the welterweight hierarchy.
Armen Petrosyan vs. A.J. Dobson
Members of the 2021 graduating class from Dana White's Contender Series, Armen Petrosyan (6-2 MMA, 1-1 UFC) and A.J. Dobson (6-1 MMA, 0-1 UFC) meet here, with each man looking to bounce back following a setback last time out.
Petrosyan started the year and his UFC campaign with a hard-fought, split decision win over Gregory Rodrigues in February, but couldn't keep that momentum going through his clash with Borralho in a little over four months later. The kickboxer will be aiming to keep this one on the feet and keep Dobson outside, but there are sure to be moments where his takedown defense is going to be tested.
After pushing his record to 6-0 with a first-round stoppage win over Hashem Arkhagha to earn his UFC deal, Dobson landed on the wrong side of a one-sided contest against Jacob Malkoun at UFC 271. The Ohio native has an experienced team of coaches and teammates around him that should help him deal with his first professional setback, but it'll be on him to show more when he steps into the octagon for the second time this weekend.
Can Petrosyan hand Dobson a second straight loss while collecting his second UFC victory of the year or will it be Dobson getting his hand raised for the first time while Petrosyan feels the sting of a second consecutive setback?
Muhammad Mokaev vs Malcolm Gordon
Mokaev made the walk each time the UFC touched down in London earlier this year, winning his first bout in under a minute against Cody Durden before going the distance with Charles Johnson last time out in July. The 22-year-old is one of the more complete and skilled prospects on the roster and it feels like only a matter of time before he lands in the rankings and starts making a push towards the top of the division.
After suffering stoppage losses in each of his first two UFC appearances, Gordon rolls into Abu Dhabi on a two-fight winning streak. The 32-year-old outlasted Francisco Figueiredo two fights back before taking the fight to Denys Bondar prior to the newcomer suffering an arm injury early in their bout in February, and now is tasked with trying to delay the inevitable ascent of Mokaev in the 125-pound weight class.
This is another good test for the undefeated prospect and a chance for Gordon to make some waves and earn another step up in competition next time out. Mokaev has the potential to grow by leaps and bounds between each appearance, but he's never faced anyone as well-rounded and experienced as Gordon, so it will be interesting to see how this one plays out.
Karol Rosa vs. Lina Lansberg
Brazil's Rosa had her six-fight winning streak snapped by Sara McMann last time out, as the American wrestler put her on the canvas for long stretches in all three rounds to grind out a decision win. Prior to that, the 27-year-old looked like an ascending talent, having earned victories in each of her first four UFC appearances while displaying greater aggression in her 2021 wins over Joselyne Edwards and Bethe Correia.
Lansberg got wrestled into oblivion by McMann two fights back before pressing pause on her career to welcome her first child with her partner, former UFC featherweight Akira Corassani. She returned to action in April, facing off with Pannie Kianzad, losing a clear, but competitive, decision to the ranked competitor.
The middle of the bantamweight rankings are wide open, and a dynamic performance from either woman in Saturday's opening bout could put them in line to face an established competitor with a single digit next to their name next time out.
This story first published at UFC.com.