UFC 299: O’Malley v Vera 2
Photo by Megan Briggs/Getty Images

Sean O’Malley still reigns supreme. Four years after his only MMA loss, “Sugar” avenged that setback in style, outclassing Marlon Vera with a pillar-to-post masterclass at UFC 299. O’Malley’s first defense of his UFC bantamweight title headlined an action-packed return to Miami’s Kaseya Center, which also included a statement win from a lightweight legend, the emerging of several new contenders, plus much more.

With so much to discuss, let’s dive right into our seven biggest takeaways from UFC 299.

1. Love him or hate him, Sean O’Malley continues to be a man of his word.

When the UFC bantamweight champ called his next shot after his two-round stunner over Aljamain Sterling, he promised his rematch with Marlon Vera would be the most lucrative bantamweight fight of all-time. Not only was he correct, but he actually undersold how big it would really be — UFC 299 drew the fourth-highest live gate in UFC history. The only three higher? All headlined by a guy named Conor McGregor. That’s impressive however you want to slice it. When O’Malley promised to right the wrongs of his past and turn Vera into a punching bag, not only was he correct again, but he actually undersold that one as well. The 230 significant strikes he racked up on Saturday tied for the eighth-most ever landed in a UFC fight. His significant strike differential of 141 (230-89) amounted to the second-best bantamweight mark of all-time (behind only the 160 he slapped up on Kris Moutinho) and even clocked in as the fourth-largest striking differential ever seen in a UFC title fight.

In other words, the man put beating on “Chito” in a way few have throughout UFC history. Major credit to Vera for gamely sticking in there, somehow eating a knee delivered straight from the depths of hell that would’ve knocked out a rhinoceros, and ultimately turning it into a dogfight down the stretch, but that was a masterclass of technique and precision.

But let’s also get real: UFC 299 was always going to be the warm-up for “The Sugar Show” era. Vera was here for the storyline, not because he deserved to skip the line.

But now? Oh, now the real challenges begin.

I have zero interest in seeing Ilia Topuria vs. O’Malley in 2024. There are far too many deserving challengers in both divisions, and Merab Dvalishvili in particular has more than earned his shot. He’s already tied for the longest UFC win streak in the history of the division. Not only that, but he implausibly got over with the fan base by turning Henry Cejudo into his own personal grappling dummy. Champ vs. champ fights should mean something special, and throwing two dudes in there who own one combined title defense is simply not it. O’Malley wants big fights, I get it. But if he beats the boogeyman of his weight class, the clear-cut No. 1 contender who’s almost universally seen as his stylistic kryptonite? He’ll rocket to a different level of superstardom while still doing his duty as champ.

Give me O’Malley vs. Dvalishvili next and let the meritocracy reign.

Even Topuria agrees.

2. “This is the s*** that makes you a f****** legend.”

I don’t always agree with Dana White, but when a man’s right, a man’s right.

Dustin Poirier vs. Benoit Saint Denis is the type of fight we simply don’t get in the lightweight division. That’s why everyone was so genuinely shocked when it was made. Lightweight has long been MMA’s most talent-rich class, but it’s also the foremost division of ranking squatters. Once you claw your way into that top tier, you’re incentivized to almost never fight anyone else but fellow top-tier guys for the rest of your prime. It’s why many of the best lightweights only compete once or twice a year — they’re locked into a perpetual game of rock-paper-scissors, beating up on one another while shutting out the next generation. And you can’t blame them. With so much talent abound at 155 pounds, one loss to a periphery name could derail your title dreams for years. Ask Beneil Dariush. The risk vs. reward just isn’t there.

That’s why White’s words ring so true: Under no circumstance did Poirier need to fight Saint Denis at UFC 299. Word could’ve leaked that Poirier turned down the offer and no one would’ve batted an eye, because of course the aging No. 3 lightweight fresh off a knockout loss isn’t going to fight the No. 13-ranked ex-Special Forces killer who’s leaving a trail of broken bodies in his wake. Win three more, young fella, and then maybe we’ll have a chat.

But Poirier is a f****** legend, as White so aptly explained, and so he threw himself into the fire in the most high-risk way possible, if only to find out if he’s still that dude.

And y’all, Dustin Poirier is certainly still that dude.

We’ll save the résumé talk until Poirier decides he’s done for good, but just know that the sheer breadth of what he continues to pull off is starting to reach a plain few lightweights can match from an all-time perspective. More importantly now, for our purposes, is that Poirier may have just improbably gilly-jumped his way back to the front of the lightweight pecking order, if only because of how badly the UFC mucked up this division with its short-term planning. Think about it. Islam Makhachev is likely going to defend his title on the Saudi Arabia card on June 22. Every lightweight who has a better claim than Poirier is already set to complete on April 13 at UFC 300. What are the chances any of Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira, Arman Tsarukyan, or even Max Holloway escape that bloodbath of a card healthy enough to turn around and fight again in two months?

I’ll answer that question for you: Very unlikely.

That leaves Poirier — already the biggest star in the division — as the most obvious leftover name to swoop in and fill that summer spot. The timeline works out too well and the UFC would be thrilled to give a beloved fan-favorite one last chance to win the belt.

Is Poirier the most deserving? Probably not. But don’t be surprised if it happens.

UFC 299: Poirier v Saint Denis
Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

3. Speaking of divisions awash in ranking squatters, welterweight has essentially been a less fun version of lightweight over the past few years with all the retreads and matchup stalling we’ve seen at the top. But I wrote after UFC 296 that Colby Covington’s flaccid final hurrah should signal an end to the old guard’s stranglehold over the conversation, and UFC 299 was just the latest example of that playing out in real-time. On Saturday, two new — and very fun — contenders arrived to the mix: Jack Della Maddalena and Michael Page.

By obliterating Gilbert Burns with one of the most perfect knees humanity has ever seen, Jackie Three Names rinsed the stink off his past two performances and separated himself from the crowded middle pack of the 170-pound ranks. I have concerns about how he’ll fare against the elite wrestlers of the division after watching Burns take him down seven times and control him for long swathes of that fight, but then the madman went and called out Shavkat Rakhmonov — and good lord, let me tell you, take all of my money. I don’t think that’s a wise fight for him, but kudos to “JDM” for demanding a date with the reaper.

And then there was Page, who lived up to his showman reputation by slowly sucking the soul out of Kevin Holland over the course of 15 increasingly dispiriting minutes. Would less antics and more finishing urgency have left a bigger impact? Sure. But Holland looked completely demoralized by the end of that fight, and I don’t blame him — “MVP” pretty much did whatever he wanted in there. Book the Stephen Thompson bout next and let’s watch either the most boring or most electric karate showdown available in modern MMA.

Either way, the future of welterweight remains brighter than it’s been in a long while.

You love to see it.

4. I present to you example No. 457 of why records don’t tell the full story in MMA: Petr Yan.

The former UFC champ may have been flirting with a four-fight losing streak heading into Saturday night, but anyone who understands how to look beyond a Wikipedia page knew his was the most dubious of skids imaginable. Yan came within a single round on a single scorecard of beating the past two UFC champs back-to-back, Aljamain Sterling and Sean O’Malley (and overwhelmingly won the media scoring against O’Malley by a staggering 25-1 tally on MMA Decisions). If only by the law of averages, you’d assume at least one of those two hotly contested split decisions would go his way. And then? Yeah, sure, Yan got stunted on by Merab Dvalishvili — but many, including myself, consider Dvalishvili to be the best bantamweight alive in 2024. There’s no shame in losing to that man. Ten consecutive professional fighters (and three former UFC champions) have done exactly that.

All of which is a long-winded way to reiterate that all losing streaks are not created equal. Yan is still only 31 years old, so it was always premature to write off a talent who just two years ago was being hailed as the next great UFC bantamweight champ, as some did.

I know Henry Cejudo wants Brandon Moreno now, but that makes no sense unless Cejudo is dropping back to flyweight. Give me Yan vs. Cejudo next, or throw Yan against the winner of UFC 300’s Deiveson Figueiredo vs. Cody Garbrandt scrap. Either sounds delightful.

5. You know how we all have those random fighters we just can’t seem to quit, even when they give us reason after reason to do exactly that? Mackenzie Dern is perpetrator No. 1 for me on the women’s side (one day she’ll figure out a takedown … one day). But on the men’s side? It’s unquestionably Curtis Blaydes. I’ve long maintained — often to my detriment — that Blaydes carries the ideal mix of size, blue-chip athleticism, wrestling dominance, and sheer gameness to one day own the UFC heavyweight division. Up until this point, he’s repaid that faith by repeatedly creeping to the precipice of title contention then totally crumbling once the lights are the brightest, often in baffling and inexplicable ways. (I’m still waiting for someone to explain why boxing with Sergei Pavlovich was the game plan.)

But sequences like the one we saw on Saturday night? Lordy lordy. That’s exactly why I’ll be holding onto my Blaydes stock until the end of time. The man is a destructive force when his head is screwed on right. And if there’s ever a moment when his bad luck may finally break right, it’s now. With Jon Jones and Stipe Miocic sidelining the belt for the foreseeable future, and the UFC badly in need of championship main events, Tom Aspinall will soon be called upon to defend his interim strap (ahem, the *real* UFC heavyweight title).

What better B-side for Aspinall than the only heavyweight who technically owns a victory over him in his UFC run? Aspinall vs. Blaydes was the right fight to make in 2022 when it ended before it began, and it’s once again the right fight to make two years later as the heavyweight division drifts aimlessly in the void. There’s no one else who makes sense.

Yes, the time has finally arrived for that elusive Curtis Blaydes title shot!

Book Aspinall vs. Blaydes 2 for UFC 301 or UFC 302 and let’s see if heavyweight’s ultimate hard-lucker can finally break through. The (interim) champ is already in.

6. Confession time: I adore Michel Pereira.

He’s best kind of lunatic.

If even 20 percent of fighters in this game were as unique and ridiculous as him, MMA may actually be one of the most popular sports in the world.

(Also? If he’s actually been begging to do a choreographed walkout this entire time and it took until now to get cleared, that’s an indictment on everything that’s wrong with the UFC today. We need more personalities in this sport, not less. When in doubt, always remember the age-old adage: What would Pride FC do? Abide by that and you’ll never go wrong.)

But I digress. Our boy Pereira may have sneakily blossomed into a legitimate contender right under our nose! That’s seven UFC wins in a row now after his utter destruction of Michal Oleksiejczuk. He’s learned to perfectly toe the line between bananas shenanigans and reigned-in brutality. If there’s one thing I want most in 2024, give me Pereira against a real middleweight contender and let’s see if we have something unexpected here.

7. Look, I have no idea how far Robelis Despaigne can take this. He’s already 35 years old and still very green. But also? Few humans are capable of bonkers sequences like this.

That right there? That’s the second-fastest knockout for a debuting heavyweight in UFC history, behind only the immortal Todd Duffee. It also lasted long enough to push the average time of Despaigne’s past four knockouts up to nine freaking seconds. Sure, no one will ever confuse Josh Parisian with Tom Aspinall, but Despaigne is a comically large man (6-foot-7, 87-inch reach) with legitimately good striking credentials (2012 Olympic bronze medalist in Taekwondo), who waltzed into his big-show debut with a bevy of expectations on his shoulders and still styled on a durable 10-year veteran with ruthless efficiency.

Is Despaigne’s prediction of a four-fight run to the belt overly ambitious? Probably. Did he arrive to MMA a smidge too late to do significant damage at the highest levels of the game? Most likely. But this man is already must-see television, and if I’m Mick Maynard in the UFC offices this week, I’m doing everything in my power to grant his wish and find him a warm body to wreck for UFC 300. Only the blood gods know what kind of weirdness and brutality will unfold as this literal giant moves up the ranks, but I’m already locked in to find out.

Author: Staff

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