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UFC 280 picks: Finding winners in the promised land of this historic event

MMA Bobbleheads CEO and creator Dave Manley offers up his selections for Saturday's pay-per-view event in Abu Dhabi.

We've done it boys and girls: We've made it to the promised land of mixed martial arts. No not the United Arab Emirates – I'm talking about the octagon specifically being built for the imminently historic title fight that is Charles Oliveira vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov's protege' Islam Makhachev. Maybe this card was designed to showcase the second coming of a Dagestani king, but we won't let that business bias kick our mood. Noted combat sports writers are calling this the MMA card of the year, so let's get right into it.

 1. Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev

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If I were looking at these guys on paper for the very first time, what jumps out to me is the difference in record. Charles (33-8 MMA, 21-8 UFC) has been through the gauntlet, finished by some of the most notorious grinders UFC lightweight history has to offer. Contrastingly, Islam (22-1 MMA, 11-2 UFC) has mostly ran through his competition. That being said, Charles is the elder statesman with infinite wisdom on the pitfalls that lead to losing and has used his experience to net 11 wins in a row, the last four of which were against very serious contenders on their own brilliant streaks. Islam is the shiny new sports car winning every race, he has suffered but one infinitesimally small dent, not even visible to the naked eye. Does this new prototype have the fight IQ to finish Charles from full guard with ruthless ground and pound? Does he have the ability to sit back on a go-for-broke heel hook and come up smelling like roses? 

We honestly have very little idea. He's won his last 10 fights, but he's never fought anyone with jiu-jitsu even close to the veteran level of Charles. Keep in mind that Islam trains with grappling savages. The team at AKA and their affiliates reek of grappling talent, but that doesn't substitute for in-fight experience on the world's stage. The best modern MMA grappler he has fought is probably Arman Tsarukyan, former UFC title challenger Dan Hardy described that contest perfectly, "we may see another contender emerging here in this division, just based on how 50-50 this is." In a "Fight of the Night" performance, Islam ultimately won by decision, securing the third round with relentless takedowns and a superior gas tank. For all that fight showed us, we didn't see Islam have to fight off significant submission attempts, at least not on the level of speed and creativity that Charles has to offer. Most noteworthy is the record Charles holds for most submissions in UFC history ... ever. Also, does Charles' crisp boxing and 3.5 inch reach advantage give him any advantage on the feet? We will find out on Saturday. 

Hardcore History: Charles grew up in the favela of Guaruja, an impoverished shanty town within Sao Paulo, Brazil. He wanted to play soccer from a very young age, but was sidelined with rheumatoid arthritis and heart murmurs. After much medical treatment and years of hospital ridden recovery, he was introduced to and started training jiu-jitsu at just 12 years old. He trained for nine hard years before earning his blackbelt at 21 years old. Just two years before that, he won his first MMA fight. That later evolved into a 12-fight win streak on the regional scene, followed by back-to-back submission wins in his first two UFC fights. He made his UFC debut in San Diego and won that fight by armbar in 41 seconds.

Islam Makhachev also grew up in poverty, having been born in Makhachkala and growing up in the remote village of Burshi, which in modern day is part of the Republic of Dagestan, Russia. Like many Russian MMA fighters, Islam started his competitive sports journey with sambo, a grappling based combat sport. He made his professional MMA debut at 18, was promoted to M-1 less than three years later and eventually made his UFC debut in 2015. He won his first fight in the promotion via second round rear-naked choke, but got knocked out in his second bout. Shortly after that, he was booked for his third UFC fight, before that got canceled due to a failed drug test, he tested positive for meldonium, a drug designed to treat lack of blood flow but also commonly used to enhance your stamina and increase energy. 

Dave's Pick: Islam is a -200 favorite, with Olivera coming back at +160. I don't know if I've ever seen a fighter – a champion – on an 11-fight win streak come into to next match as the underdog. These are uncharted waters, and it's because most people believe Islam is THAT GOOD. But I'm not a buyer in Islam at this price. In fact, I don't think Islam should be the favorite at all. IMHO, the odds should be completely flipped. 

With wins over Gaethje, Poirier, Chandler (in the LAST three) we know what Olivera is capable of. We've seen him battle tested. Can we say the same thing about Islam? No. No, we can't. With Islam's last three victories against Bobby Green, Dan Hooker and Thiago Moises, I just don't don't think that we've seen enough to call Islam the -200 favorite. In fact, not even close. I'm taking Charles Olivera at +160. Guys, we know what Islam is coming with. Can that one special thing that he does be enough to put Charles away? My money is on a HARD "NO."

2. Aljamain Sterling vs. T.J. Dillashaw

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There is a solid chance we were never supposed to get this title fight, with many analysts picking against Aljamain Sterling (21-3 MMA, 13-3 UFC) in his last title defense against Petr Yan, which ultimately was a very close fight. And after T.J. Dillashaw (17-4 MMA, 13-4 UFC) was suspended two years for testing positive for EPO, he found himself in a very close first fight against Cory Sandhagen (in which I believed that he lost). Nonetheless, we have arrived and boy, is it sweet. 

These are two very skilled grapplers with more than sufficient experience in the big show. In five rounds, we can expect many ups and downs, possibly very similar to their last fights. Sterling spent three of five rounds trying to take Yan's back, narrowly edging out the fifth en route to a split decision. While Dillashaw spent three of five rounds expending every ounce of energy to control Cory inside the octagon. T.J. also could only takedown Cory twice out of 19 attempts, but gaining eight-plus minutes of combined control time with those takedowns. He similarly edged out the fifth round (with 40 recorded significant strikes landed to Cory's 38) and won his fight by split decision. 

All that to say, we may have another very close fight on our hands. Dillashaw may have the edge when mixing his striking with takedown attempts, as we saw in his wins against UFC veterans Raphael Assuncao and Cody Garbrandt. Although Sterling is no slouch, as he showcases decent speed and variety on the feet, as seen in his wins against UFC veterans Pedro Munhoz and Jimmie Rivera. The mystery wild card is if Aljo gets taken down he can scramble with the best of them, but if he gets it to the ground, his back control is some of the best ever seen in the division, and it will be infinitely curious to see if T.J. can defend that.  

Hardcore History: The champion Sterling grew up in Uniondale, New York, with at least 19 full and half-siblings. To avoid the gang life around his hometown, some of which involved a few of his siblings, he took up wrestling at his local high school. Even with just four years of experience and sub-par grades, he made the NCAA Division III squad, amassing a record of 87-27 once his wrestling career was finished. He briefly met former UFC light heavyweight champ Jon Jones during his freshman year at college before transferring to a different college his sophomore year to continue wrestling. After his college campaign, he was invited to train with Jones and his local team in Ithaca, New York. That was short lived, as "Aljo" left the Bomb Squad after his second MMA fight to join the team he now calls home, Team Serra-Longo in Long Island, New York. He earned his black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu under former UFC welterweight champion Matt Serra

As for his opponent, Dillashaw, he also wrestled in high school and eventually in college for Cal State Fullerton. Former UFC veteran Mark Munoz was a Cal State wrestling coach at the time and invited T.J. to come train with his team at Reign Training Center once he finished college. T.J. trained there for about 18 months before joining Team Alpha Male in Sacramento, California, as their gym was closer to his hometown. He spent the next six years at TAM before joining Duane Ludwig in Colorado.

Dave's Pick: Too many boxes to check in the favor of "Aljo." Speed. Youth. Grappling. Consistency. Not coming back from getting caught doping. These are some of the reasons I'm taking the champion to retain the belt. At -160, it's a good, fair price here. Aljamain wins. He most likely will win by decision. 

 3. Petr Yan vs. Sean O'Malley

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If you could put a weaponized missile, the rage of the Mongols, and the patience of a tiger stalking its prey into a cocktail shaker and birth a real life MMA fighter, it would be Petr "No Mercy" Yan (16-3 MMA, 8-2 UFC). This is the imagery of chaos that flooded the minds of hardcore fans when the UFC announced his next fight would be against Sean O'Malley (15-1 MMA, 7-1 UFC). 

We all thought O'Malley was the teacher's pet, designed to only receive fights favoring his growth. Then this booking dropped in our lap and we haven't been able to make heads or tails of it. O'Malley is 5-1 with one no contest in his last seven bouts, with the loss being a TKO as he injured his leg (again). The no contest resulted from a very close fight in which he probably lost the first round and poked Pedro Munhoz in the eye in the second. Up to that point, he had never fought anyone in the top 10, besides Marlon Vera who he lost to. We have almost no way of knowing if he can tango with the top 5 at bantamweight, least of all the terror that is Yan. 

Yan is 11 and "Aljo" in his last 13 bouts, with half of those wins coming by brutal TKO stoppage. The most recent loss was a split decision in which he was heavily outwrestled by Sterling for two rounds, and the only other loss before he fought "Aljo" was also a split decision that literally could have gone either way. Suffice to say, unless O'Malley gained expert grappling skills overnight, he might be in for the beating of a lifetime. Luckily this is only a three-round affair. There is a slight possibility that Yan has an off-night, and we have all seriously underestimated O'Malley. Seeing as this fight is in front of what you might consider a "home crowd" for Yan, I can't personally predict that. Yan is known as one of the most fiercest strikers in UFC history, especially for his division. Prepare for fireworks. 

Hardcore History: Yan was born in Dudinka, Krasnoyarsk Krai, Russia. His father is of Chinese and Georgian descent, and his mother is of Russian descent. Despite the popularity of grappling sports in Russia, Yan wanted to be a striker and took up taekwondo around age 11, before following his older brother's foot steps into the world of boxing. He trained boxing for eight years, gaining the title "Master of Sport" at 64 kilograms (141 pounds). 

Unrelated to his competition, but interesting to note, he also earned his college degree in "physical culture and sport" from Siberian Federal University. Supposedly "it is the first federal university in Russia that attained the highest category of Russian educational and research institutions." That sounds pretty good on paper, even if I did just get that testament from the SibFU Wikiwand page. Don't you dare judge me.

Anyway, Yan started his pro MMA career at 21 and finally joined the UFC at 25. O'Malley on the other hand? He's popular on the streaming app Twitch, says degrading things on his podcast and, as often as he can, publicly professes his love for Mary Jane. You already know who he is, the young kid who rebels against the comfortable linear nature of suburban life – very counter culture. A story we've seen a million times. He dropped out of high school his sophomore year, was expelled from his alternative high school. Earning his own additional side note, O'Malley's own dad was quoted saying "at 12 years old, Sean thought UFC fighting was disgusting." Now he fights for cash. Gotta love it. 

Dave's Pick: OK guys, truth be told, O'Malley may be in over his head here. I don't care what he says about the height difference, and I don't care about the length and reach difference that he's gonna have. I don't like his chances to win at all – but I'm also not a fan of laying 3 to make 1 either. In fact, not only do I think that he's not gonna win, but I believe that he won't make to to the third round. 

Sean's path to victory is to walk through the fire. Swing hard and swing fast. Keep this thing standing at all costs. He's not going to outpoint Yan, and he's certainly not going to beat Yan on the mat. The way that he will win is by some sort of flurry of strikes in which one makes it through and he can follow up with some more damage. Ain't gonna happen against Yan. Not here, not now. Never. Yan is going to maul O'Malley. It could be ugly, and I wouldn't be surprised to see O'Malley leave the cage on his own two feet (again). With that said, the under 2.5 rounds at +180 looks very attractive. 

Fun fact: In Sean's last seven fights, five have gone under 2.5 rounds. I think this one will too. I'm going under 2.5

Good luck! 

BTW, I'm adding some T-shirts to my site later next week! Releasing my newest bobblehead very soon! Stay tuned! 

Dave Manley is the creator and CEO of MMA Bobbleheads, a California-based company making handmade, high-quality, high-artistry bobbleheads of your favorite MMA personalities. A 25-plus year fan of MMA, Manley saw a need for high-end, handcrafted memorabilia for fans and decided to create the best bobbleheads that have ever been made for any sport. Learn more on Twitter and Instagram.