After the wild ride that was UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi last weekend, there are still plenty of unanswered questions.
Will Sean O’Malley challenge for a title next year? Or does “Suga” Sean need another fight or two against the likes of TJ Dillashaw or Merab Dvalishvili to prove he’s worthy of being the No. 1 contender at 135 pounds?
Speaking of Dillashaw, what should we make of his injury situation after his loss to UFC bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling on Saturday?
With a new year quickly approaching, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim answer these UFC questions and more.
Will the winner of Alexander Volkanovski vs. Islam Makhachev become the pound-for-pound No. 1?
Wagenehim: Yes, of course. Volkanovski already owns that spot, and a win over Makhachev to become a two-division champion would trump anything that anyone below him in the top 10 might do. And if Makhachev were to beat “Alexander the Great,” after having finished No. 2-ranked Charles Oliveira as well, that 1-2 punch would surely elevate him to the peak of the mountain. Any pound-for-pound voters who deny the new lightweight champion the No. 1 spot at that point should have to go have a sit-down with Khabib Nurmagomedov to explain themselves. And defend themselves at all times.
Okamoto: It’s hard to say. Middleweight champ Israel Adesanya fights in November, and the result of that could have an impact on this discussion. But most likely, yes. I have Volkanovski as my pound-for-pound No. 1, and I’ve had him there since July. I imagine Makhachev will be around the top five of most people’s rankings after this last performance. Volkanovski will be taking a risk in fighting a bigger man, but he’ll be taking less risk because his title is not up for grabs. Bottom line, the winner of this fight will probably be considered the best in the world.
Raimondi: It depends on what happens between now and then, particularly with Adesanya and Alex Pereira at UFC 281. If Adesanya wins, he’ll have 13 straight UFC middleweight wins and six successful title defenses. The only fight he has lost in his career was outside his division, a light heavyweight title bout against Jan Blachowicz. Can Makhachev leap over Adesanya and that impressive résumé with just one title defense if he beats Volkanovski? I’m not sure about that.
Volkanovski, meanwhile, is already the current pound-for-pound king. If he beats Makhachev and wins the title, we’ll talk about where he stands on the all-time best fighters list, let alone the current pound-for-pound list. But Makhachev will need to do more. If somehow Pereira beats Adesanya and Makhachev beats Volkanovski — neither of which is out of the question — then a case could be made for Makhachev.
Should TJ Dillashaw have been allowed to fight on Saturday?
Okamoto: Whose responsibility is it to prevent that? As Dana White noted at the postfight news conference, Dillashaw didn’t look injured. Even if the commission had been aware of a shoulder injury, there’s no guarantee it would pop out. It seems likely, given the information we know, but there’s no guarantee. And most likely, the commission wasn’t aware of the injury. If Dillashaw didn’t disclose it, how will the commission know it has been slipping out? That’s a difficult thing to identify and then grade concern on. His team knew and went along with the fight. Fighters sometimes go in with undisclosed injuries, and there’s no way to prevent that completely. And sometimes, it works out and they still win. There are examples of that. As a spectator, you probably want to see Dillashaw pull out of that fight, but as a competitor, I understand why he didn’t.
Wagenehim: No way. The two most essential jobs of an athletic commission are to protect the integrity of the competition and to ensure fighter safety. Allowing this fight to go on was a dereliction of those duties, and the blame falls squarely on the UFC, which serves as a de facto commission when its fights occur in jurisdictions without one. Dana White said afterward that Dillashaw did not disclose his injury to the UFC, but maybe the company president should have checked with his people before passing the buck. In his postfight interview, Dillashaw said that he had informed referee Marc Goddard backstage before the fight — and the referee works for the commission, in this case, the UFC. I’m no betting man, but I’d be plenty peeved if I had put money on a compromised fighter.
Raimondi: No, of course not. That type of thing should never happen. Dillashaw apologized to the rest of the division after the fight for knowingly going in with an injury, but more questions must be asked. No one wants to wait even longer for a title shot, but if you know you’re not going in 100% — not even close to it — why take the risk? Wouldn’t Dillashaw want his best possible chance at Aljamain Sterling and the title? No one knows better than him what it takes in title fights — he has been bantamweight champ twice before. But maybe the competitor in him wouldn’t give in, or maybe it was something more tangible, like he needed the payday.
In any event, that’s one of the reasons athletic commissions exist, to make sure fighters are competing on an even playing field and not going into bouts at any disadvantage (or advantage), especially with an injury that could lead to them taking undue punishment. In the postfight news conference, UFC president Dana White said Dillashaw should have disclosed the injury. He’s right, of course. But these are fighters we’re talking about here. They are not risk averse, which is why regulatory bodies exist. The UFC acts as its own in overseas places like Abu Dhabi, and that’s a conflict of interest.
Fact or fiction: Sean O’Malley will be a champion in 2023.
Raimondi: Fiction. I mean, he looked terrific against Petr Yan on Saturday, but the vast majority of people watching thought Yan should have won the fight. Many even had Yan winning all three rounds. I hate the term “robbery,” and there were close rounds in the fight, but few could blame Yan and his team for being upset. If Yan gets the nod here, this isn’t even a discussion. O’Malley would still have more work to do.
None of this is to say O’Malley can’t go in and beat Sterling (or someone else) for the belt. He’d have the advantage on the feet over almost anyone he’d face in a title bout. It’s possible he even gets the next title shot against Sterling, though White made mention of Henry Cejudo in the postfight presser. But Yan’s wrestling and grappling gave O’Malley some issues; Sterling’s wrestling and grappling are even more dominant. It would be no cakewalk for O’Malley. I will say that Suga Sean is a lot closer to the UFC bantamweight title now than he was 72 hours ago, proved many people wrong and is a legitimate contender. Can’t take that away from him.
Okamoto: I’ll lean fiction here. Another thing that’s so hard to predict. Which fights will happen in 2023, how will they go, and what will the timing look like? I’ll say that I don’t get the impression O’Malley is in any rush right now. He knows that he’s in a great position whenever he fights next. Does he need to run to accept a title fight in a few months? No, he doesn’t. Not if he believes it would be in his best interest to rest a little bit after a busy second half this year. This division has plenty of options at the top. And let’s not forget the stylistic matchups at the top will be tough for O’Malley. He’s a great talent, but asking him to keep up with the wrestling pedigree of Sterling or Cejudo, would be a challenge. A challenge he can meet for sure, but if we’re talking about 2023, he’s an underdog to win a title.
Wagenehim: Fiction. But do not interpret that as a slam on Suga Sean, who passed the biggest test of his career with a poised and resilient performance that should silence any doubters — and I’ll include myself in that show-me crowd. To me, that was the takeaway from O’Malley’s victory, not whether he’s on the verge of a title shot and not even whether he should have had his arm raised in the first place. (I scored the bout for Yan, but as O’Malley acknowledged in his postfight interview, the decision could have gone either way. Social media judges claiming robbery are fools.) After being impressed by O’Malley, why do I pooh-pooh the idea that he’ll win the belt in 2023? Because O’Malley doesn’t sound like a man in a rush. He’s 27 and just proved he belongs. He has plenty of time to take over.
Wagenheim: Can I say Conor McGregor? I offer that smart-aleck answer to shine a light on the UFC’s misguided practice of rewarding opportunity based on star power over accomplishment. That has affected the careers of Muhammad and Dariush, as neither has the flair that enables someone to leapfrog up the ranks. Dariush has had to win eight fights in a row even to be mentioned in connection with a title shot. Muhammad has had to go unbeaten in nine straight. Both are now in strong positions, but it seems to me that Dariush is closer. While Muhammad is stuck behind three big-name contenders at welterweight — Kamaru Usman, Colby Covington and Khamzat Chimaev — Dariush could have a clearer path to a lightweight title shot, at least once Makhachev gets done defending against a featherweight, champ Volkanovski. Yeah, as always, it’s complicated.
Okamoto: Dariush has a more clear path at the moment. If Volkanovski weren’t moving up in weight, Dariush would probably be getting a title shot right now. The timing is unfortunate for him because you’ve got a UFC pay-per-view event in Australia and Volkanovski is the No. 1 pound-for-pound champion. Dariush is great, but he can’t compete with that in terms of picking Makhachev’s next opponent. My guess is Dariush is one win away from a title shot now. For Muhammad, it’s far less clear. You have the Leon Edwards vs. Usman trilogy that needs to happen. Chimaev is possibly facing Covington, and Gilbert Burns is possibly facing Jorge Masvidal. That’s a lot of competition for future title shots. Muhammad is in a good spot, but he’s also much more at the mercy of which fights come together and when than Dariush.
Raimondi: Both should get title shots in 2023, but who knows? I’m inclined to say Dariush for several reasons. Neither one will get the next shot. Makhachev seems very likely to go to Australia in February and defend the UFC lightweight title against Volkanovski in a superfight. That leaves Dariush waiting in the wings. Then, there’s the welterweight belt. Edwards will almost certainly be going into a trilogy fight with Usman, the man he beat for the championship, in early 2023. Muhammad will have to wait for that.
Many things can happen before Makhachev vs. Volkanovski and Edwards vs. Usman 3. But the welterweight division has at least one contender the UFC might give the nod to before Muhammad, and that’s Chimaev. The UFC wants him against Covington next and if Chimaev wins, he’d be all but locked into a title fight. In the case of lightweight, there are several contenders, but most have blemishes outside Dariush. Plus, Makhachev’s manager is Ali Abdelaziz of Dominance MMA. He also manages Dariush. One would expect Makhachev vs. Dariush to be in the offing, as long as Makhachev defends successfully against Volkanovski. So, I’ll say Dariush has the best shot at getting a title opportunity first.