The six storylines you need to know ahead of UFC 299

“17-0.”

That was the tweet. Nothing more, just that one line. That one lie.

Sean O’Malley was not 17-0 when he posted on X last March about supposedly having an unblemished professional fighting record. At the time, he was actually 16-1 with a no contest. But hours after seeing the past opponent who was responsible for his “1” — Marlon “Chito” Vera — lose a UFC fight, “Suga Sean” felt inspired to jump on social media and rewrite history.

MMA, perhaps more than any other sport, is a game of delusion. Fighters are always trying to convince the world — and themselves — that they are invincible. Such sleight-of-hand self-trickery is understandable, given what this combative sport demands of its athletes, especially mentally. Imagine walking into a cage in front of a blood-thirsty arena crowd, hearing the steel door lock behind you and then looking across at a trained killer who can’t wait to put their hands on you. Anyone in that situation might feel a need to talk themselves into the belief that they belong in there.

O’Malley certainly does belong. When he put out the “17-0” delusion a year ago, he was not yet the UFC men’s bantamweight champion, but he was only months away from reaching that glorious destination. He won the belt in August with a second-round TKO of Aljamain Sterling, and he will defend it for the first time Saturday in the UFC 299 main event against none other than “Chito” Vera (ESPN+ PPV, 10 p.m. ET).

What a sport, right? MMA perpetually pulls us into a soap opera plotted out with “As the World Turns” melodrama. In this weekend’s episode, “Suga Sean” looks to remain undefeated inside his own twisted headspace.

O’Malley has been playing these mind games ever since the 2020 TKO loss to Vera. Shortly after the fight, he consoled himself with a sideways look into the two fighters’ shared future. “OK, let’s look at his career in five years, let’s look at mine,” O’Malley said on his “Timbo Sugar Show” podcast. “I’m gonna be f—ing world champ, he’s gonna be a journeyman.”

Now, one might question the wisdom of calling someone who knocked you out in less than a round a journeyman, but O’Malley did have his finger on the pulse of where he and the 135-pound division were headed. In less than three years from that prediction, O’Malley claimed UFC gold, while Vera lost his next fight to Jose Aldo and dropped another one a year ago to Cory Sandhagen. But “Chito” didn’t fade into oblivion. He’s won five of his past six bouts, and now he’s challenging for the title.

What a journey, man.

Saturday’s main event is just the final act in a UFC 299 lineup that’s brimming with intriguing collisions and backstory. Here are six storylines to watch for.

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1. Feels like the very first time? In reality, no

Men’s bantamweight title fight: Sean O’Malley (c) vs. Marlon Vera 2

He can spin a fanciful narrative all he wants, but O’Malley (17-1, 1 NC) knows in his soul that he lost a fight to Vera 3½ years ago. He felt the leg kick that numbed his right foot and sent him to the canvas. He felt the elbows to the face that finished him.

More importantly, Vera (23-8-1) felt all the feelings as well. He felt the impact of those elbows on O’Malley, felt the hands of the referee pushing him away, felt the emotional lift of the ref raising his hand. “Chito” remembers what really happened the first time he and O’Malley tangled, and that emboldens him for the rematch with real-world confidence.

The belt is an incentive driving both men, but there’s more at stake for O’Malley. The UFC is auditioning for its next megastar, and the bantamweight champ has a cupboard full of the necessary ingredients. Even in the Vera loss, O’Malley was leading the dance right up until a well-placed kick rendered him unable to two-step anymore. “Suga Sean” has shown himself to be who he says he is. On Saturday, he needs to remind us — for real.


2. Who are you calling a gatekeeper?

Lightweight: Dustin Poirier vs. Benoit Saint Denis

A little over two years ago, Poirier was fighting for the lightweight championship for the second time. He had also just finished beating up Conor McGregor two times in a row. “The Diamond” was glimmering among the leading lights of the 155-pound division.

Now he’s being tasked with guarding that thin-air territory against an ambitious climber.

It’s a precarious position to be in, fending off the rise of Saint Denis. The Frenchman is 13-1 with a no contest, and he has delivered finishes in every one of his wins. Poirier poses a higher-level challenge than any he’s yet faced, but this is the fight Saint Denis asked for. And Poirier is willing and eager, at age 35, to prove himself once again.


3. First time walking in the door of the funhouse

Welterweight: Kevin Holland vs. Michael ‘Venom’ Page

What a delightful one-man welcoming committee the UFC has lined up for Page. I mean, imagine what MVP thought when he started studying video of Holland.

Wait, did he just knock out Jacare Souza while lying on his back?

Did he just ask fighter-turned-broadcaster Daniel Cormier for mid-fight wrestling advice?

Page might have an idiosyncratic style once the bell rings, but Holland just has an idiosyncratic style in his being. Masterful matchmaking.


4. Inevitably, the climb gets steeper

Welterweight: Gilbert Burns vs. Jack Della Maddalena

Della Maddalena has won 16 in a row, which is the kind of run that makes you must-see. It started early in his six-fight UFC run, when he looked like the next big thing. As he kept winning and the UFC started putting bigger hurdles in front of him, his victories became harder won, impressive in a more nuanced way.

Yet none of those beaten opponents have the pedigree of Burns. If Della Maddalena isn’t tripped up by this next step up, he’s going places.

Burns needs to get moving as well. At age 37, he could really use the instant career surge that derailing a hype train might bring. He’s 2-2 in his past four fights, 3-3 in his past six. Not bad, but one step forward and one step back is getting him nowhere.


5. Comings and goings at the crossroads

Men’s bantamweight: Petr Yan vs. Song Yadong

In March 2021, Yan was the men’s bantamweight champ and looking untouchable. Then, while in the midst of fully controlling a title defense against Sterling, he was disqualified for landing an illegal knee, costing him the belt. Yan lost the rematch as well, and then dropped two more fights after that. But all of these defeats came against championship-level opponents, and two were split decisions, so it’s unclear whether Yan, at 31, is fading or just skidding.

Song will serve as a measuring stick. He has won five of his last six, and the one loss was against a top guy, Cory Sandhagen. Song has had the label of “potential” attached to him for years, and now he has a chance to trade it in for “contender.” If in need of a confidence builder, he can look at the event poster depicting the two fighters in the headlining title bout. Song owns a win over Vera.


6. Big battle for ground control

Heavyweight: Curtis Blaydes vs. Jailton Almeida

Almeida, the winner of 15 fights in a row, has already done enough to warrant a title shot, but he’s stuck in line behind interim champion Tom Aspinall, who’s inexplicably stuck in line behind former champ Stipe Miocic. By the time the 32-year-old Almeida reaches the front of the queue, he could be 41, like Miocic.

So Almeida seeks to bide his time by solidifying his place. He’ll be put to work in a fight that should be a grappler’s delight — if there’s any justice in the MMA world and these two don’t just stand there and throw hands. Twelve of Almeida’s 20 career wins have come by submission. And Blaydes’ wrestling has made many an opponent’s night miserable. But Blaydes hasn’t fought since a TKO loss to Sergei Pavlovich nearly a year ago. Who’ll bring the bigger grind?

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