UFC 280: Can Former Champion Yan Cancel O’Malley’s Suga Show?

Petr Yan and Sean O'Malley, UFC 280
ABU DHABI, UNITED ARAB EMIRATES - OCTOBER 21: (L-R) Opponents Petr Yan of Russia and Sean O'Malley face off during the UFC 280 ceremonial weigh-in at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Sean O’Malley has been lauded as the potential next generation superstar for the UFC, but he must overcome his toughest test in the returning former champion Petr Yan at UFC 280.

If setbacks are the source of great comebacks, then perhaps the best is yet to come for former champion Petr Yan.  In April, “No Mercy” was widely favored to regain his title after the controversy of the year prior in which he landed an illegal blow that cost him the belt.  Instead, a brilliant performance from Aljamain Sterling that ruled the day and it was Yan who was left to return to the drawing board.  It was a rare sight, as Yan had only tasted defeat without controversy once in his career up to that point and had looked like an unstoppable wrecking ball in recent bouts.

Perhaps most disappointingly was that the loss came at a critical point of turnover in the division.  Both Marlon “Chito” Vera and Merab Dvalishvili have a case for the next title shot, and former two-division champion Henry Cejudo could re-enter the running.  This leaves Yan, who looked like a world-beater in performances against José Aldo, Cory Sandhagen, Urijah Faber, and Jimmie Rivera, in a must-win simply to stay in the hunt for the belt that many predicted he would’ve held onto longer than he did.

For Sean O’Malley, Saturday is being seen as the put up or shut up moment of his young career.  Since arriving to the UFC as a 22 year-old in 2017 through Dana White’s Contender Series, O’Malley has been groomed as the next great prospect of the promotion.  Through his performances and successful branding outside the promotion, he has become one of the most recognizable fighters in the UFC.  He has also benefitted from the success of DWCS as the program has become a franchise in-and-of itself.  The show has become the premiere place for prospects around the world who wish to enter the big show and the UFC proudly points to O’Malley as an example of the heights one can reach through the platform of DWCS.

But while he has made smart personal decisions to grow his career efficiently, it has at time conflicted with his persona.  Like countless fighters, he is not above taking a jab at the highly ranked contenders in his division when he’s on the microphone or on social media.  However, he has publicly stated that he is not interested in pursuing the elite unless he is compensated as such.  Thus, a disconnect has at times been created as “Suga” steps up the elite with bravado online but has largely only signed fights against more unsung competition.  As he should be, Petr Yan represents a huge leap compared to opponents such as Raulian Paiva, Kris Moutinho, and Eddie Wineland.

Stylistically, the shorter and more compact Yan must put things together early.  O’Malley’s speed and range will be the most obvious weapons to overcome, and Yan must counter them with a multi-faceted attack that sees him target the younger upstart at multiple points.  The biggest question regarding the entire matchup is how O’Malley will approach the bout.  His typical approach that sees him seemingly eschew efficient fighting in favor of a potential highlight reel finish is one that is has largely been expected to change as he takes on tougher competition.  Though not conductive to another high volume assault as per his usual, a conservative approach that sees less powerful combinations as to avoid staying in the pocket is expected to be O’Malley’s most effective route to a victory assuming he can’t stop the notoriously tenacious Yan.

Considering his popularity and the prospect of having a DWCS alum potentially when the world title ahead of another season next summer, it is difficult to see O’Malley not get the title shot with any sort of victory on Saturday.  Yan’s resume would warrant a shot at the belt as well should he get his hand raised, but contenders like Vera, Dvalishvili, and Cejudo could all leap ahead of him.  This is particularly true should Aljamain Sterling retain his title in the night’s co-main event.  Thus, another bout against one of the top five is likely before another title shot materializes for Yan.