UFC 299 takeaways: Sean O'Malley proves his title reign is no fluke, Dustin Poirier's still got it

For what feels like years now, Sean O’Malley has been telling us he’s a star. After his lopsided decision win in the main event of UFC 299 on Saturday night, it feels like people might be ready to believe him.

O’Malley didn’t just beat Marlon Vera in his first title defense as UFC bantamweight champion — he outclassed him. He picked Vera apart with speed and precision, testing every ounce of the toughness Vera is known for while also proving his own when required late in the fight.

Anyone who was thinking his title-winning performance against Aljamain Sterling last year was a fluke now has to admit that O’Malley is the champ for a very good reason. He might look like a skinny kid who’s more concerned with style than substance, but the dude can flat out fight. If you don’t think so, just look at the completely different shape Vera’s face had assumed by the end of the fight Saturday in Miami.

So now what?

O’Malley got on the mic after his unanimous decision win and called for a fight in Spain against newly crowned 145-pound champ Ilia Topuria. That would be an absolutely massive fight if the UFC decided to put it together. It would also be a very tough fight for O’Malley to win, though you can’t help but admire the guts and confidence it takes to be so eager to try. (History tells us that UFC champs are typically much more into those champ versus champ fights when it’s someone smaller coming up to meet them.)

MIAMI, FLORIDA - MARCH 09: Sean O'Malley reacts after his victory against Marlon Vera of Ecuador in the UFC bantamweight championship fight during the UFC 299 event at Kaseya Center on March 09, 2024 in Miami, Florida. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
Sean O'Malley evened the score with Marlon Vera on Saturday at the Kaseya Center in Miami with a 5-round shutout. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

The alternative is stay home at 135 pounds and face No. 1 contender Merab Dvalishvili, who O’Malley said he’d also be willing to fight if Topuria isn’t an option. In fairness, Dvalishvili deserves a title shot. And with this high-paced, wrestling-heavy attack, he’d present a new and very difficult challenge for O’Malley.

There’s also a good chance Dvalishvili would beat him, and then there goes the chance to make a megafight between two nascent stars in O’Malley and Topuria. Dvalishvili has been so patient on his relentless climb toward the top that it almost feels too cruel to ask him to wait while the champ jets off to another division. And yet, if we’re being honest? A superfight between two of the UFC’s newest young champs also seems too enticing to ignore.

Whatever comes next for O’Malley, he’s bringing a ton of eyeballs to any fight he’s in. This was one of the UFC’s most stacked pay-per-view cards of the year, and O’Malley seemed right at home at the top of it. Here he proved he’s not just some guy who looks good in pink. O’Malley is a legit UFC champ, and let no one doubt it now.

A few other notes on UFC 299 …

  • Whatever else they say about Vera, they’ll have to say he’s as tough as they come. O’Malley hit him with everything but a lawsuit and still he kept coming until the literal last second. He may not be able to unlock his phone using Face ID for a while, but no one will ever question his gameness or his ability to take a shot.

  • Dustin Poirier isn’t anybody’s stepping stone (at least not yet). This was a risky fight in every way for him. Benoit Saint Denis is a dangerous, hungry young fighter on the rise. The UFC likely made this fight thinking it would propel Saint Denis to the title conversation with a win. Oddsmakers looked at it and saw a rough night for the 35-year-old Poirier. Once again, the “Diamond” proves he’s too skilled, poised and resilient to ever be counted out.

  • That’s exactly the UFC debut we should have expected from Michael “Venom” Page. Which is to say, he did his best to entertain us in every possible way while also making sure the whole thing was just weird enough. Stylistically, there are obviously some bad matchups for him in this division. A good wrestler is probably going to be able to solve that puzzle and grind out a win. The fact that the UFC picked Kevin Holland as his first opponent suggests maybe matchmakers aren’t interested in that just yet.

  • Jack Della Maddalena snatched a victory from the jaws of defeat. Gilbert Burns was two minutes away from a decision victory, and he seemed to be solidifying his control on the mat in the third round. JDM had to find a way back to his feet, and on top of that he needed a finish. He got both basically on the basis of his athleticism and sheer will. His smooth, effortless striking is a real problem when he gets the space to use it. But if he gets his wish and ends up in a title eliminator with Shavkat Rakhmonov next, he’ll need to close those gaps in the grappling department very quickly.