UFC 299 takeaways: O'Malley shows another level; what's next for Poirier and MVP?

Sean O'Malley retains his belt in masterful win over Marlon Vera (1:40)

Sean O'Malley wins all five rounds to retain the bantamweight belt with a stellar performance to grab a victory over Marlon Vera. (1:40)

A 14-fight UFC 299 in Miami was headlined by a dominant title fight performance from Sean O'Malley. In the co-main event, Dustin Poirier reminded the world that he's still one of the pound-for-pound best in the sport, and Michael "Venom" Page put on a show in his debut in the promotion. But what were the biggest moments from UFC 299 and who should be next for the biggest standouts on the card? Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim offer their final thoughts.

MIAMI -- There have been a lot of questions regarding Sean O'Malley and how big of a star he is or could be.

The UFC has pushed him hard, there's no doubting that. The promotion pumped out his title-winning knockout of Aljamain Sterling at UFC 292 last August on all its social media channels, the idea being to get as many eyes on it as possible. O'Malley was able to wear custom pink fight shorts rather than the traditional black and gold. The list of ways the UFC has tried to get O'Malley over with the fans, to borrow a pro wrestling term, is a long one.

People can go back and forth on that stardom topic until their faces are as blue as the teal in O'Malley's cornrows Saturday night. O'Malley might not be the next Conor McGregor or anything even close. But he's unquestionably a great fighter -- better than many people give him credit for.

O'Malley's performance was masterful at UFC 299. He pieced Marlon "Chito" Vera up for five rounds, showing off beautiful footwork and timing. "Suga" landed punches and kicks from multiple angles, including a sniper-like power jab from a stance switch position. O'Malley's second-round knee up the middle cracked Vera hard and opened up a cut below his right eye.

If people didn't realize just how excellent a fighter O'Malley is after he knocked out Sterling sublimely seven months ago, it's hard to deny him after this weekend.

There's always this disconnect about skill level for those fighters who rise in popularity quickly and get the promotional rocket ship strapped to them by the UFC. They get called a hype train; critics say they're not nearly as good as the UFC wants people to believe. It happened to McGregor himself and to other big stars like Ronda Rousey. Many doubters sprout up, balancing out the fans who are getting behind the fighters en masse.

Even when McGregor knocked out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds to become the UFC featherweight champion, people said it was a fluke. McGregor still doesn't get the credit he deserves for being as great as he was. It wasn't until maybe the performance against Eddie Alvarez that McGregor's biggest critics had to acknowledge his quality.

Saturday wasn't necessarily an Aldo or Alvarez moment for O'Malley. But having done what he did against a very good fighter in Vera, combined with the knockout of Sterling last year, he has to get his flowers -- preferably pink -- for being a fantastic fighter.

Next big star or not. Next McGregor or not. O'Malley is the real deal, and people should start conceding that. -- Marc Raimondi

Okamoto: What's next for top stars after UFC 299?

Dustin Poirier grabs exhilarating KO victory over Benoit Saint-Denis

Dustin Poirer lands a barrage of strong punches to grab a win via knockout vs. Benoit Saint-Denis.

Sean O'Malley, bantamweight champion

Who should be next: Merab Dvalishvili

I appreciate the callout of Topuria, and if things continue to go well for both, that callout will be a nice piece of content for the sizzle reel. But it's not happening next, certainly not. I think even O'Malley knows that, which is why he hedged his bet and mentioned Dvalishvili by name in the Octagon. Even coming off this amazing performance, O'Malley is going to face some doubters when he takes on Dvalishvili, simply because Dvalishvili has a buzz saw of a style that feels like every fighter's kryptonite, not just O'Malley's. But O'Malley has been up to every task thus far, so doubt him at your own risk.

Wild card: Cory Sandhagen

I say this only because Sandhagen would be the backup weigh-in fighter for an O'Malley vs. Dvalishvili title fight. I think Sandhagen will end up taking on one more opponent before getting his shot, but if something unfortunate strikes the O'Malley-Dvalishvili matchup, Sandhagen would be first in line.

Dustin Poirier, lightweight

Who should be next: Max Holloway

If Holloway were to beat Justin Gaethje in next month's BMF title fight at UFC 300, it would be easy to ask him to stay at that weight, let Ilia Topuria take on another challenger at 145 in the meantime, and have Holloway defend the BMF belt against Poirier. They have already fought twice -- Poirier has won both -- but those were a long time ago, and one of them was at 145. If Holloway looks good at 155 and upsets Gaethje, the appetite will be there to keep him at lightweight, at which point it makes sense to do Poirier vs. Holloway 3.

Wild card: I'm not sure

That's the downside of fighting 30 times in the UFC. Eventually, you start to run out of opponents. If it's not Holloway, maybe Poirier looks at something at welterweight? The only thing left for him is winning the lightweight championship, but it's a foggy, potentially long path to get there. Not in terms of fights, but just time. And something tells me Poirier isn't going to want an extended layoff.

Michael Page, welterweight

Who should be next: Kamaru Usman

I just don't see a reason to mess around with Page. Let's find out what he is. I know some were disappointed in this debut. I wasn't. Page landed some fantastic shots. A lot of them. Holland's chin just held up. Page's style worked as intended -- it visibly frustrated and confused Holland for three rounds. When Page needed to counter-wrestle and stay on his feet or get back to his feet, he did it for the most part. What do we really need to see him against in the division other than the top? I don't need to see if Page can "hang" in the UFC. I'd like to know if he can hang with the very best. And Usman is in a spot where there aren't obvious opponents for him. This would be a huge fight and beneficial for both.

Wild card: Stephen Thompson

This feels like the obvious matchup for obvious reasons, but the two are friendly with one another and would prefer not to fight each other. I think there are other options for Page who interest me as much as Thompson, and I don't have to see this fight next if they don't want it, but if the UFC feels this is the matchup the fans are asking for, history suggests they will pursue it.

Jack Della Maddalena, welterweight

Who should be next: Shavkat Rakhmonov

This isn't the first time Della Maddalena has called out Rakhmonov. He's got a habit of it, frankly. And you have to respect him for it. It would be a big jump in the rankings, but why not? He's the only one calling Rakhmonov out, and Rakhmonov might be waiting for a bit if he's trying to sit things out until he gets a title fight. Rakhmonov would be favored, but Della Maddalena has shown a ton of finishing power, and this win over Burns shows his ability to rise under adversity. If he can escape a potential back take against a fighter like Burns in a do-or-die situation, is it so wild to think he could beat Rakhmonov?

Wild card: Ian Machado Garry

I've been asking for this fight for over a year, and nothing has happened to lessen its appeal. At this point, maybe the UFC will continue to delay this matchup because booking them against each other means you're guaranteeing one of them a loss, but my take on that has always been these two are young enough that a loss wouldn't set them back too far. I don't know who wins between Della Maddalena and Machado Garry, and I'd like to find out.

Petr Yan, bantamweight

Who should be next: Henry Cejudo

Cejudo has called for Brandon Moreno on Mexican Independence Day, which I like. That's a good fight for that event. But honestly, it doesn't make much sense for the division. This fight makes sense for the division. Yan was a pound-for-pound candidate as a champion before he went on a skid. Same with Cejudo (retirement and a skid). Both recently lost to Merab Dvalishvili, but they don't look done. Cejudo has talked about retirement, but if he beats Yan, he's still not that far off from a title fight. A win over Yan means more than a win over Moreno at 135 pounds. This is the one that makes the most sense.

Wild card: Kyler Phillips

This one is out there. But Yan is coming off a skid, and many of the top of the division are tied up in fights that are already booked or highly likely. There's not an obvious opponent for him near the top, other than Cejudo. Phillips looked great at UFC 299. It would be an entertaining fight, I can promise you that. Does it make the most sense in terms of rankings? Perhaps not, but it's also not out of left field. You can justify it, and I don't see many other options that I like better.

Wagenheim: Rising contenders take their title contender tests

Jack Della Maddalena lands huge knee that leads to KO win vs. Gilbert Burns

Jack Della Maddalena lands a huge knee and then throws a flurry of punches to grab a knockout win over Gilbert Burns.

The main event always gets the spotlight, but sprinkled on every fight card are undercard bouts featuring those auditioning to be future stars. These fights are the lifeblood of the sport, and UFC 299 overflowed with them. There was a run of four straight fights, bridging the prelims and the main card, that each featured a fighter on the rise facing a test.

Their success rate was mixed. A couple of fighters made advances into the lofty world of contenders. Others had the gate slammed in their faces. The most shocking success story was Jack Della Maddalena's. The 27-year-old Australian was on the verge of losing to Gilbert Burns, who had back control midway through the final round and was fishing for a submission. Even if Burns, a onetime welterweight title challenger and a grappling ace, maintained ground control, it appeared to be his fight. But Della Maddalena somehow escaped to his feet, and as soon as the fighters came toward each other, the Aussie landed a knee to the face that led to a finish -- Della Maddalena's 17th straight win. That's how contenders are made.

Maycee Barber also had success, although hers was a bit more muted. The 25-year-old won her fight against onetime women's flyweight challenger Katlyn Ceminara, but she absorbed too many punches and kicks from Cerminara, who is not known for her power. Defensive lapses could cost Barber as she moves up the rankings. But at least she's moving up.

A couple of others appeared to be on the road to success but ended up in a ditch. Jailton Almeida landed nine takedowns in the first round against top-five heavyweight Curtis Blaydes and controlled the elite wrestler on the canvas for nearly the entire five minutes. Then he came out for Round 2, went for another takedown -- and Blaydes defended by landing a hammerfist to the side of the head. And another and another, until Almeida was turtled up, defenseless, and the referee jumped in.

Song Yadong also had early success, but he was in with a former champion, Petr Yan, and that was an education. Yan kept coming at him, opened cuts on Song's face, and took over the second half of the fight. Song, 26, still has a future, as does Almeida, who is 32, but as a heavyweight, he is in a division where contenders skew older.