UFC 280 boasts one of the most exciting cards of the year so far, with the vacant lightweight title-bout main event between Islam Makhachev and Charles Oliveira taking centre stage in Abu Dhabi.
It is not the only title fight on the card, however, with bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling facing off against former champion TJ Dillashaw for the belt at 135lbs. The co-main event promises much, with both men having provided some of the most entertaining fights the division has seen in recent years.
What is on the line for each man?
“Funk Master”’s reign over his division has been both divisive and controversial in the eyes of many fans. The Jamaican-American won his belt via disqualification after an illegal knee from then-champion Petr Yan at UFC 259. The rematch, at UFC 273, saw the tightest of split-decision wins for Sterling, with UFC president Dana White slamming the judges for “blowing” the decision, which he scored in favour of the Russian.
Saturday’s fight, against an experienced former champion in Dillashaw, therefore represents a chance for Sterling to legitimise his kingship with a clean, convincing and crucially uncontroversial victory against a top contender. Such a victory could see many fans discard the fog of contentiousness surrounding his premiership and begin to accept (and respect) Sterling as bantamweight champion.
For Dillashaw, it is a very different proposition. The American returned to the cage in July 2021 after a near two-and-a-half year lay-off due to a drugs ban, after recombinant human Erythropoietin (also known as EPO) was found in his system following his defeat by Henry Cejudo at UFC Fight Night 143.
The build-up to his eventual comeback fight was dominated by discussion around his drug use, with Dillashaw keen to face his critics, using the opportunity in front of the world’s media to apologise to the UFC, the sport and his fans for “making a deal with the devil”.
The UFC 280 co-main event offers Dillashaw not only an opportunity to win the bantamweight title for the third time, but also to clear his ledger, move on from past mistakes and prove himself as the exceptional mixed martial artist he was once viewed as, with no doubt around performance-enhancers.
How does the fight play out?
Both men boast impressive records (Sterling: 21-3; Dillashaw: 18-4) and crucially offer different ways of winning fights.
The champion, 33, has already proven himself formidable on the ground, with eight wins coming by way of submission, outlining that Dillashaw will need to ensure that he establishes control when using what is probably his greatest asset: wrestling.
“Funk Master”’s unorthodox movement and style have caused problems for many of the division’s top fighters and will be tricky to prepare for. Dillashaw has faced similar stylistic awkwardness before, tasting defeat against Dominick Cruz in 2016, but beating Cory Sandhagen in his most recent bout.
Dillashaw’s confidence will be boosted when looking back at his experience in title fights, of which he has competed in seven and impressively won five. Aljo cannot afford to underestimate this hardened championship veteran, who looked very dangerous in what was nothing short of a brutal comeback fight against Sandhagen last July.
Most encouraging for Dillashaw, 36, was that he was still able to grind out a victory despite the “Sandman” stuffing 17 of his 19 takedown attempts, proving his well-roundedness and versatility. Make no mistake; neither of these fighters are one-trick ponies, making it such an intriguing match-up as there is no clear or obvious path to victory for either man.
The biggest talking point after Dillashaw’s comeback match was the severity of the knee injury he sustained, which has kept him out of the Octagon for nearly 15 months – a factor that could outweigh his title-fight experience here, especially against this calibre of opponent. It is true that he came in ‘cold’ against Sandhagen and got the job done in impressive fashion, but we are yet to see the impact of such a bad injury on a fighter who relies so much on explosivity and durability. Perhaps more concerning is that the UFC 280 co-main event will stand as just the second fight in nearly four years for Dillashaw.
One thing is for sure: The fight promises to be an entertaining one, with both men having given fans a litany of great bouts to watch over the years. Oddsmakers give Sterling (-160) a comfortable edge over the underdog Dillashaw (+140), yet compelling cases can be made for either fighter to take the edge, and the belt, come Saturday night.
Which other fights should I look out for?
One need look no further than the bout preceding the co-main event. Former bantamweight champion Petr Yan will face Sean O’Malley in what marks the biggest test to date for the “Suga Show”.
Yan is surely one of the most intimidating men to face off against inside of a locked cage, and many were surprised to see O’Malley given such a vast jump in opponent, given the UFC’s fairly careful handling of their latest rising star to date. Expect a striking-heavy affair, with both men likely to be keen to showcase their fearsome and varied skills on the feet. That being said, Yan, the No 1 contender at 135lbs, can also utilise tricky trips and unforgiving ground-and-pound if required.
Elsewhere, Mateusz Gamrot has a great opportunity to continue his meteoric rise at 155lbs against the sixth-ranked Beneil Dariush. Fans can also expect fireworks from the opening fight of the main card, with No 1-ranked women’s flyweight Katlyn Chookagian getting her chance to face down Manon Fiorot after various pull-outs and much rescheduling.
From the prelims, be sure to tune in to Nikita Kryov vs Volkan Oezdemir, which has the potential to provide great viewing at 205lbs, while Belal Muhammed faces another tough test at welterweight in the form of Sean Brady.
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