UFC 280, one of the most competitively matched fight cards of the year, is upon us. The Etihad Arena in Abu Dhabi, with the larger 30-foot Octagon, will host the event. Fights kick off in prime time Saturday in Abu Dhabi (9 a.m. ET/6 a.m. PT), which is more proof of the global growth of the UFC. Lightweight and bantamweight titles will be up for grabs to go along with 11 other fights.
Fighters will be competing in front of a voracious pro-Russian and Muslim crowd, which could affect judging if there are any close decisions.
Last week, Jacob Malkoun (+ 120) displayed his mettle by defeating Nick Maximov in decisive fashion. Lou Finocchiario’s totals in 2022: 24-13 (+ 12.64 units with an average price of + 107).
Odds are from DraftKings (unless noted) as of Wednesday night.
Islam Makhachev (-190) vs. Charles Oliveira (+ 160)
Lightweight title fight (155 pounds) | Main event
Total in this fight: 2.5 rounds (Under -170)
Lou Finocchiaro: Russian vice grip Islam Makhachev comes from the Khabib Nurmagomedov camp. His wrestling/sambo grappling is on a world-class level, to say the least. His striking, though effective, is still developing along with perhaps the biggest area of needed improvement for the forward pressing Russian: his footwork and fluidity of movement.
Statistically, he sports dynamic strike defense, though I believe it’s his unwillingness to engage and his memory that drive that stat. Makhachev wrestles; he doesn’t fight. Remember, he was KO’d in his debut years ago and that drives him to stay the course, which is strictly wrestling- and sambo-rooted.
Champion Charles Oliveira will have a vast advantage in experience as well as level of competition faced. Oliveira will have a 4-inch reach advantage which, coupled with his athleticism and striking abilities, will provide him a substantial edge while this fight remains on the feet.
A third-degree black belt in BJJ, Oliveira will pose certain challenges that will force Makhachev to be somewhat measured in his approach. Any minimal error from an incoming Makhachev could easily result in an unwanted nap via submission, so Makhachev must remain cautious when he attempts to gain the inside because Oliveira is a master.
Oliveira will carve up Makhachev on the feet — both men know this — so how Oliveira handles the forward pressure Makhachev exerts is key. Makhachev’s singular point of focus here is to clasp onto the champ, force him to the fence and then the floor.
Oliveira is deadly from the mat but must avoid bottom position as Makhachev’s dominance comes from top position, so the game on the canvas should be fascinating as well as telling.
Oliveira’s advantage comes from the fact that he is a complete, well-rounded offensive fighter. His keen balance of striking, grappling, footwork and cardio provide him tremendous momentum after going through such high-caliber title defenses already. Throw in the ruse that was his weight miss in his last fight against Justin Gaethje and I can guarantee we’ll see the absolute best Oliveira has to offer Saturday.
When this bout does go to the mat, and it will, Oliveira must manipulate positioning in order to encourage the eager Russian to make a mistake. Makhachev’s path to victory is from ground position, and more precisely from top position. Oliveira can win this fight from the floor or from the feet but his best path to victory is to catch the Russian coming in with a strike.
Based on Oliveira’s experience, his three recent, dynamic finish wins against legitimate top-five talent (Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler) and the fact that his opponent has yet to compete against any top-flight lightweight talent, I have an easy time siding with the current champion in this bout.
The “ ’Bout Business Podcast” released Oliveira + 195 at open and readers should watch closely as his price may rise as we near the opening bell.
Pick: Oliveira + 160 or better
Reed Kuhn: The main event features two successful grapplers with opposing styles. With a wrestler versus a submission ace, the question boils down to “will he or won’t he” with respect to Oliveira locking in a submission.
Oliveira’s success with submissions could be why his takedown defense is below average, often willing to work from his back. That means Makhachev will have no trouble getting this fight to the ground but will have to remain vigilant and conservative in his attacks and position, especially early on.
The opposing wild-card factors make the matchup tricky, and prices are unlikely to diverge. The lean is for Makhachev but not enough for a big play.
Aljamain Sterling (-175) vs. T.J. Dillashaw (+ 150)
Bantamweight title fight (135 pounds) | Co-main event
Total in this fight: 4.5 rounds (Over -195)
Lou Finocchiaro: The MMA world disregarded Aljamain Sterling in his title defense against Petr Yan in April. Sterling reacted by standing tall and defeating the Russian convincingly. Sterling fights out of Serra-Longo in New York and spends time in Las Vegas at the UFC Performance Institute under the tutelage of Xtreme Couture’s Eric Nicksick, so he arrives prepared.
Sterling now faces ex-champion T.J. Dillashaw, who has used banned substances to enhance his performances. Sure, Dillashaw, 36, is now being well tested by USADA, but in the world of cheating, if one is so inclined then one can find a way to remain one step ahead of the testing. Many believe this is the case with Dillashaw. Sterling himself has voiced that opinion.
Juiced or not, this fight comes down to Sterling being able to force Dillashaw into the later rounds, where it’s my take that the champion will hold advantages in cardio, strength and grappling. Sterling’s only 33 and has been very active, while Dillashaw arrives after time away to heal from shoulder surgeries as well serve his suspension for banned substances.
This should be a high-paced, competitive fight, but Sterling’s youth, speed, cardio and the fact that he’s competing in his prime all provide him an advantage over an extremely skilled fighter in Dillashaw, who understands that this is his final chance at regaining the bantamweight championship (for a third time) and has proven to go to any length to capture that belt.
Reed Kuhn: This matchup pits two of the best wrestlers in the division in a fight that could ultimately be decided on the feet. Having supported both men as big underdogs in their most recent matchups, we’ll have to turn our backs on one here in a tightly competitive fight.
Both men have wrestling roots but have won rounds on their feet of late. Sterling has developed a busy, high-pressure attack that mixes in a lot of body kicks, while Dillashaw prefers boxing. Despite Dillashaw offering more power, Sterling will have the range and kicks to keep Dillashaw at bay on the feet. And at least in the last few years, Sterling has shown more on the ground than the former Team Alpha Male fighter.
Pick: Sterling to win; Over 2.5 rounds for parlays
Petr Yan (-265) vs. Sean O’Malley (+ 225)
Bantamweight (135 pounds)
Total in this fight: 2.5 rounds (Over -205)
Lou Finocchiaro: Petr Yan was defeated by Aljamain Sterling in April and he’s focused on one thing: Earning a title fight. Yan is a well-rounded fighter. Terrific wrestling/grappling, striking, cardio and toughness. He’s spent the duration of this camp in Phuket, Thailand, training at Tiger Muay Thai, which is pretty standard procedure for him.
Sean O’Malley steps way up in class for this challenge. “Sugar” will have a 4-inch advantage in height and 5 in reach, and, with the large cage, stands to be supplemented by the extra room to help him utilize his fluid movement to foil the advances of the aggressively incoming Yan.
Yan, who has a tendency to start slow, cannot afford a slow start Saturday. He must immediately take O’Malley’s movement away by utilizing the Pedro Munoz plan of attacking the pencil-thin legs, then, once slowed, Yan can utilize his 61.5% takedown ability to get the taller striker to the mat. From there it’s to top position to ground and pound and force O’Malley into utilizing his energy to get back to his feet.
Yan is most effective in the last five minutes of any fight, which is the key to this bout as I believe this gets to the third round.
For O’Malley, he must control space and keep the incoming Russian at distance and therefore at the end of his volume-based strikes, elbows and flamboyant kicks.
O’Malley must address his shortcoming, which has been conditioning, and fight his best five minutes in the third round if he is to get his hand raised. Cardio late in fights is something he’s struggled with, so his best plan is to finish Yan early or be prepared for a frenetic pace in the last seven minutes of this bout.
The drama is set. Now how does it go?
Yan opened -380 and O’Malley money has been pouring in.
Sean Brady (-140) vs. Belal Muhammad (+ 120)
Welterweight (170 pounds)
Total in this fight: 2.5 rounds (Over -280)
Lou Finocchiaro: Belal Muhammad is ranked fifth in the division. His wrestling, forward pressure, determination and confidence are at an all-time high after winning his last eight bouts.
Muhammad, 34, has had 16 UFC bouts and won 12 (nine via decision). In fact, 16 of Muhammad’s 21 overall wins came via decision, which is indicative of how wrestling reliant he is, which comes at the expense of his striking, a skill still very much in development.
Muhammad has shown efficiency and effectiveness against striking-based opponents but has not really faced anyone with the grappling/wrestling/striking balance of Sean Brady.
Brady enters this fight 15-0 and 4-0 in the UFC, so the 29-year-old is giving away advantage in level of competition faced as well as experience. What Brady does possess is a high level of athleticism, deep determination, dynamic grappling ability, unusual strength and power striking.
Brady’s striking is more developed than Muhammad’s and he’ll have no issue competing on the feet. With that said, Brady ain’t coming at Muhammad on Saturday with the intention of striking with him for 15 minutes. He’s coming into this fight with the vision of competing with Muhammad everywhere and displaying his wares.
I see this bout as a clash between the more experienced, deliberate, meticulous, premeditated and singularly versed Muhammad against a highly athletic, younger, faster, stronger, more well-rounded fighter in Brady.
Lastly, these two guys hate each other. Brady must control his emotions, which will be more challenging for him than for the old, cagey vet.
I released Brady -120 a few weeks ago on the “ ’Bout Business Podcast” and will release all final positions for UFC 280 on that show Friday afternoon.
Pick: Brady -140
Nikita Krylov (-175) vs. Volkan Oezdemir (+ 150)
Total in this fight: 1.5 rounds (Over -140)
Reed Kuhn: Nikita Krylov hasn’t been able to put together a winning streak since returning to the UFC for his second stint, but he’s also been facing a slew of champs and contenders and generally has held his own. Most of his losses have come against seasoned wrestlers or submission grapplers, and that’s not what we’re getting in Volkan Oezdemir.
Oezdemir has similarly hung in there with highly ranked opponents, but after a brief run of quick knockouts in favorable matchups, his cumulative striking metrics no longer look so dominant. In fact, his career knockdown rate is now below the UFC average, despite competing at light heavyweight and possessing a kickboxing base.
But even if Oezdemir is still dangerous as a striker, Krylov has stood in the pocket with strikers before and remained competitive. Despite poor defense, he’s been dropped only once in the UFC, and that was nearly a decade ago in a fight he went on to win.
Krylov could also test Oezdemir’s chin at times, which combined with more likely takedown attempts and submissions makes him a dual threat. At current prices, there’s value in supporting Krylov as a justifiable favorite.
Pick: Krylov -175