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"Suga" Sean O'Malley proved he belongs among the elite in the bantamweight division on Saturday following a disputed split decision win over former champion Petr Yan at UFC 280 in Abu Dhabi

Next stop: a shot at the 135-pound title.

O'Malley (16-1, 1 NC) rallied to cut and hurt Yan with a flying knee in Round 3 that may have been the difference in a razor-thin fight inside Etihad Arena, which featured a too-close-to-call opening round. The rising star O'Malley, 27, took home identical judges' scores of 29-28, while the third judge had it the same for Yan (16-4). CBS Sports also had it 29-28 for the native of Russia. 

"I didn't know, honestly [if I had won the fight]. I thought it could have went either way," O'Malley said. "I will have to rewatch it, but this fight is the craziest sport in the world. I had to go somewhere I have never been before and that's what happens when you fight the No. 1 guy in the world."

UFC president Dana White announced during fight week that this featured 135-pound tilt would produce the next title challenger. The bout exceeded expectations in terms of action and drama as O'Malley did well to silence the critics who questioned his toughness following a 2020 TKO loss to top contender Marlon Vera. 

Given O'Malley's commercial appeal and large following outside the cage, he was presented with an opportunity to cut the line in the sport's deepest division after improving to 4-0 (1 NC) since the lone loss of his pro career. 

The post-fight statistics largely fell in O'Malley's favor after outlanding Yan 85 to 76 in total strikes and 69 to 51 in significant strikes. Yan, 29, got the better of the action on the ground, converting six of 13 takedown attempts. 

"I was a little surprised [Yan chose to wrestle]," O'Malley said. "I was hurt more than I have ever been in a fight, considering I don't always get hit. But I was rocked."

O'Malley, who entered with advantages of 3.5 inches in height and five inches in reach, ate a pair of left hooks and a takedown slam from Yan in a close opening round. But the former champion, who worked a steady diet of calf and body kicks throughout, then responded to being stunned by a left cross in Round 2 by winding up for a left-hand haymaker of his own seconds later to rock O'Malley. 

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The final round saw O'Malley raise his level of urgency as a jumping knee badly cut the right eye of Yan, who spent the final half of Round 3 compiling more takedowns. 

Although O'Malley came away victorious, he seemed somewhat torn when asked if he's ready for a shot at the winner of the Aljamain Sterling-TJ Dillashaw title bout that immediately followed his victory.

"Honestly, I really want to watch the fight back and decide after that. I don't know," O'Malley said. "I think the people would love to see me be the bantamweight champion so let's give the people what they want."

The loss was a heartbreaker for Yan, who fell to 1-3 in his last four fights, including a disqualification loss to Sterling in 2021 that cost him his 135-pound title just as it appeared he was on his way to victory.

In the end, all three judges scored the final round for O'Malley. Two of the three also gave O'Malley the opening round to produce the split decision.