Sean O’Malley’s toughest test to date is this weekend at UFC 280 as he prepares to face top bantamweight contender and former champion Petr Yan.
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O’Malley, ranked #11 in the bantamweight division, has an opportunity to jump up the rankings if he manages to defeat Yan, who is currently ranked first behind champion Aljamain Sterling. But many fans, fighters, and pundits recognize that this certainly won’t be a simple task for O’Malley, and oddsmakers agree, having listed him as a +213 underdog against Yan, who is now a -285 favorite.
Yan vs. O’Malley will feature on the UFC 280 main card on Saturday. Fight fans in the United States can watch this fight live on ESPN+ PPV in the afternoon, as well as all other fights, including Charles Oliveira vs. Islam Makhachev and Aljamain Sterling vs. TJ Dillashaw.
Continue reading for our staff predictions and analysis of the Petr Yan vs. Sean O’Malley fight before UFC 280.
The fight is expected to go the distance with the over 2.5 rounds option available at -196 odds and the under 2.5 rounds selection providing considerable value at +152. Yan will enter as a big favorite.
Yan is one of the best strikers in the UFC. I specify strikers because Yan uses more of a Muay Thai striking approach with a full arsenal of attacks: punches, kicks, knees, and elbows. He tends to walk forward linearly, with a high guard, and force his opponent to commit and overextend. Once he forces his opponent to commit to a strike or a combination, Yan’s high guard keeps him safe. Then, he can land his own combination in return. As a fighter with linear movement, if an opponent forces Yan backward, he will often be backed into the cage rather than cutting an angle and circling out. In this instance, we’ve seen some of the most entertaining and vicious 50/50 exchanges in the division. Yan will typically shell up, absorb combinations, and then burst out of his shell with aggression and power. With his back against the cage, Yan has nowhere to go but forward, and he does so with high-level striking and the ability to put an opponent out cold. In instances where Yan moves forward, often after a heavy exchange or combination, he will then incorporate his wrestling. Yan has some of the best wrestling in the division and is able to explode without telegraphing shots from distance or from the clinch. By mixing in wrestling, especially following tight and powerful combinations, Yan forces his opponents to defend multiple attacks, even if one attack is only a threat. Opponents are forced to raise their guard to defend his strikes which leaves their hips exposed for Yan to land a takedown. If an opponent drops their hands to prepare for a possible takedown, their chin is then exposed for a malicious combination. In either case, when Yan is moving forward, his opponent is at significant risk. The way to beat Yan, much easier said than done, is to force him on his back foot. Since he moves linearly, high-level strikers can take advantage of his predictable movement and high-level wrestlers have a nearly stationary target for their shots.
While Yan is a high-level striker, O’Malley is a high-level boxer. O’Malley moves linearly and laterally with fluidity and intelligence. His stance switching ability, rhythmic movement, and physically long frame make him very difficult to hit cleanly. This is a problem for many opponents because while O’Malley is challenging to hit clean, he typically has no problem landing clean on his own. O’Malley’s hands might be the best in the division, purely from a boxing perspective. He has a lightning quick jab, from either stance, an ability to throw combinations from awkward angles, and a straight cross that can land on the button and turn the lights out in an instant. His boxing is as impressive as it is vicious. While, offensively, O’Malley is one of the best boxers in the division and defensively his footwork is top-tier as well, he is not without flaw on the feet. O’Malley is infamous for his thin legs and inability to take or check a leg kick. This flaw has been overblown, but is still a concern for “Suga.” His footwork, stance switching, lateral movement, and overall striking intelligence, all combine to create a mobile target difficult to hit. But, if an opponent can land a leg kick, O’Malley has shown that it can damage him physically and limit his mobility significantly. “Suga’s” wrestling is almost exclusively defensive. Because is striking is such levels above most competition, O’Malley does everything possible to keep the fight standing. His mobility makes timing shots a challenge, his length allows him to create a wide base and create a post that is hard to drive down, and the timing on his knee strikes makes shooting from distance a dangerous proposition.
Yan has the tools to win this fight and win it convincingly. His leg kicks can hurt O’Malley, his wrestling can successfully control him, and his overall striking, especially the pressure, should be on par with O’Malley’s. However, Yan’s linear movement plays right into O’Malley’s counter striking approach. Yan needs to fight a smart but still aggressive fight in order to win. Outside of a few moments against the highest level of competition, Yan has shown consistent ability to do just that. O’Malley’s pure striking talent and Yan’s sometimes poor decision-making could be a recipe for the upset, but I like Yan to mix in a full onslaught of attacks en route to a fun decision.
Pick: Yan to win by decision
While no longer champion, Petr Yan is one of the most talented fighters on the UFC roster and is arguably a top 10 pound-for-pound fighter right now. The reason why someone as talented as he is lost the belt is not due to lacking physical traits, but instead, a culmination of poor in-fight decisions accompanied by simply having an off night. The former, of having poor fight IQ at times, is not as big of a concern as it sounds, given the mental hiccups he made in the octagon against Aljamain Sterling were quite minor, but, given Sterling is elite, the minor flaws cost him the belt. What is scary to note is that while Yan had mental errors coupled with looking to be just slightly not himself, he still managed to nearly beat Sterling, and for some scoring the fight, he did.
The reason why Yan can just about beat a world-class fighter on his off night is that he is simply that talented. On the feet, Yan employs a predominate Muay Thai style of striking, meaning he has an incredibly high and tight guard that makes it difficult for his opponent to land significant blows against him; moreover, this style allows Yan to seamlessly blend elite boxing with snappy leg kicks and dangerous close range strikes such as slicing elbows and up-the-middle knees. Add the fact that Yan throws with extreme quickness, precision, and underrated power, and the result is him being the leading candidate for the best bantamweight striker in the UFC.
One would presume that being the best striker would mean contention for the best grappler is out of the question. And, while Sterling perhaps is unquestionably best at the moment, followed by Merab Dvalishvilli, Ricky Simon, Umar Nurmagomedov, and others, Yan can more than fairly be lumped into the conversation as his wrestling is simply that good – he has a 61% takedown rate which is quite good and a 90% takedown defense throughout his UFC tenure which is simply elite. So, while Yan has, at times, deviated away from wrestling implementation given his elite striking coupled with his natural affinity for violence, he is more than capable to dominate a fight on the ground if he so chooses.
Where Yan has lacked mental awareness, Sugar Sean O’Malley is perhaps one of the most self-aware and intelligent fighters on the roster. Beyond the mental understanding of distance and range, O’Malley’s intelligence shines through outside the octagon, as he is the best self-promoter not named Conor McGregor the UFC perhaps has ever seen. Moreover, his intelligence extends directly to this fight, as he, ranked 12th in the bantamweight division, agreed to fight the most dangerous bantamweight, Petr Yan. The reasoning for his agreeing to fight Yan now extends beyond the fact that with a win, he will earn a title shot; instead, O’Malley understands that to fight for the belt, he will have to go through Yan at some point in his career, and at what better point to do so then when Yan is fighting out of his element – a 3 round fight. Fighting Yan at three rounds greatly benefits O’Malley, given traditionally, Yan is a slow starter who is willing to give away a round to gather data, and then, dominate the fight. O’Malley, being as smart as he is, recognizes that if Yan gives away round 1 in a 3-round fight, then he simply needs to win 1 of 2 to beat the most dangerous bantamweight and earn himself a shot at the title.
The other reason why O’Malley is as smart as he is boils down to choosing Yan to fight compared to an alternate top 5 killer. After all, the name Sugar Sean, with a win over any top 5 opponents, would likely net him a crack at the title. Knowing this, Sean likely looked at the top 5 and identified the fighter most likely to fight a standing bout as in fact Petr Yan. This benefits Sean as it is no secret that he is a full-blown striker in the octagon. Specifically, Sugar uses his naturally large frame and elite footwork to keep the distance in the octagon and piece his opponent up from the outside. What is interesting for him is that while other fighters point fight from range, he looks to end the night quite quickly and can do so given the end of punch power he has is perhaps unmatched in the bantamweight division.
Knowing that Sugar likes to fight far away, where he can land his elite boxing from the outside, opponents often look to slow the movement and then grapple. I will preface this by stating while the intention is this, the effectiveness of successfully implementing the stated game plan is often nonexistent. Regardless, the on-paper method of defeating Sean O’Malley is there, as his movement allows his elite boxing to find success, and while he is competent on the mat, he is far from elite, especially when compared to the elite of the division.
Sugar Sean O’Malley is “that dude,” and this means he can certainly find the upset and earn himself a title shot. While I fully believe O’Malley is a top 5 talent and will likely find a shot at the belt in the future, I do not believe UFC 280 will slingshot him there. The reasoning for this boils down to believing Yan, similarly to Weili Zheng’s second fight against Joanna, will treat the 3-round bout as a sprint, fully knowing he has the cardio to do so. If done, Yan has the skills to match Sean on the feet – in my opinion, surpass Sean, – and can easily wrestle his way to victory. Because Yan has the experience, striking acumen, grappling advantage, cardio, and durability to win, I am confidently taking him in this fight while giving tip-of-the-cap credence to O’Malley having special power and special talent.
Bet: Petr Yan to win