ABU DHABI: Islam Makhachev has always moved like a champion and on Saturday at UFC 280 the Russian became one, dethroning the man who had previously been considered the lightweight king, Charles Oliveira, via second-round submission.
Makhachev poured the pressure on from the bell, landing a huge straight left in the first and working his way into control once the fight went to the ground.
The end came after the Brazilian was knocked on to his back by a right hook and Makhachev slipped in a triangle choke that brought the tap at 3min16sec in the second round.
“I have trained so hard for this moment,” the 31-year-old Makhachev said. “All my life, (since) when I was a kid I have been ready for that moment.”
Makhachev’s 22-1 career has been finely tuned by fellow Russian Khabib Nurmagomedov — arguably the greatest fighter the sport has seen — and the now-retired star was beaming at a performance that mirrored many of his own across an unbeaten 29-0 record.
Makhachev handed his man the belt afterwards — while honoring his father Abdulmanap Nurmagomedov, the coach who guided both their careers before passing away in 2020.
“Many years ago he told me ‘You are going to be champion,’” Makhachev said.
Oliveira had been stripped of the lightweight title for failing to make weight in his clash — and eventual win — against American Justin Gaethje back in May.
In the night’s other title bout, bantamweight champion Aljamain Sterling overpowered fellow American — and former two-time champion — TJ Dillashaw.
Dillashaw entered the fight with left shoulder issues and then could do nothing much as it bizarrely seemed to keep popping out of its socket.
It was just a matter of time before Sterling took Dillashaw down, and took full mount, and a flurry of unanswered blows brought the TKO call at 3:44 of the second.
The 12-bout UFC 280 card was all about deciding who was going to be champion right now and who might be champion next as Makhachev and Sterling lifted their respective belts while, earlier, two rising stars in France’s Manon Fiorot and American Sean O’Malley laid down their title credentials.
The 32-year-old Fiorot opened the main card in a catchweight bout against the number one-ranked flyweight American Katlyn Chookagian and took a unanimous points decision that now likely sees her taking over that ranking.
It also probably put her just one more win away from a title shot against the incumbent champion Valentina Shevchenko.
It wasn’t pretty — Chookagian’s constant movement has always made the 33-year-old a hard target to find. But Fiorot showcased her tactical nous, landing an early and huge right hook before closing the distance and finding her range as the fight wore on.
“I really wanted to win by knockout but it is what it is,” Fiorot said afterwards.
“I think (now) I’ll take everybody in the division and afterwards I will talk about Valentina.”
Things weren’t quite so clear-cut when it came to O’Malley’s split decision win. The 27-year-old has long claimed he’s the UFC’s next big thing and the organization threw the 11th-ranked fighter to the wolves Saturday, with a match-up against the top-ranked former bantamweight champ in Russian Petr Yan.
The pair battered each other over three epic rounds that saw Yan seemingly land the heavier strikes — and definitely land the most takedowns — despite the Russian bleeding profusely from cuts around his right eye as O’Malley came home hard in the third round. The judges saw it 28-29, 29-28, 29-28 to O’Malley.
After the toughest fight of his career, he said: “Honestly, I thought it could have gone either way. Fighting is the craziest sport in the world.”