On Saturday night at UFC 262, Charles Oliveira finally broke through, claiming the UFC’s vacant lightweight title with a second-round TKO of Michael Chandler. It wasn’t easy for Oliveira who had to survive a first round that saw him nearly finished by the powerful punching of the former Bellator lightweight champion but “Do Bronx” proved his mettle and is now the UFC’s undisputed lightweight champion. And now the real work begins.
Through no fault of his own, Oliveira’s win puts him in arguably the most difficult position in MMA: Having to follow in the wake of Khabib Nurmagomedov. Nurmagomedov is widely considered to be the greatest lightweight of all time and was the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport when he walked away. That would be a tough act for any man, but for Oliveira it’s even more challenging, in part because there is the very legitimate question of whether he actually is the best active lightweight in the UFC right now.
Coming into his fight with Chandler, Oliveira was only ranked No. 3 in the division, and though many people felt he deserved a title shot, most fans envisioned it would be against the consensus best lightweight in the world since Khabib retired, Dustin Poirier. Instead (or unfortunately, depending on who you ask) Poirier decided he would rather pursue a trilogy fight with Conor McGregor and the financial incentives that go along with that than face Oliveira for the undisputed title. It’s hard to blame him, but it created the position where the third-ranked fighter in the division fought the fourth-ranked fighter to determine the champion, with the top-two fighters in the division, the ones you would assume would battle it out to determine the new champion, left on the sidelines. That is not the best way to instill legitimacy in the title of “best lightweight in the world.”
Adding into the difficult road ahead of Oliveira is his own history in the UFC. Memories can be long in this sport, and though Oliveira is currently on a nine-fight winning streak (the longest active streak in the division) and owns many UFC records, Do Bronx has also been on the receiving end of a number of highlight-reel losses. The fact that he has lost eight times in the UFC, and was nearly knocked out by Chandler in the first round, will only enhance the scrutiny he faces as the new lightweight standard bearer.
But even if Oliveira had never lost before and had beaten Poirier for the belt, Do Bronx would still face a daunting task in legitimizing his title. Nurmagomedov is one of the greatest fighters of all time and, given the unexpected nature of his exit, Khabib’s shadow will likely hang over the division for years to come. Unlike with Georges St-Pierre, where many people felt he lost to Johny Hendricks when he retired, Khabib barely showed any signs of weakness during his UFC career. At a perfect 29-0 with dominant victories over a who’s who of the division, Khabib achieved a nearly unprecedented level of mythology in the sport, and one that will be hard to overcome. Fortunately, there is a roadmap to do so, one that Khabib himself laid out: just keep winning.
It doesn’t get talked about much anymore but when Nurmagomedov won the vacant UFC lightweight title in 2018, it was under equally unenviable circumstances. Mythical champion Conor McGregor was not fighting and so the UFC put together a title fight between the two top contenders, Khabib and Tony Ferguson, but Ferguson was forced to withdraw and so Khabib won the belt with a decision win over Al Iaquinta. At the time, some fans accepted that Khabib was the best lightweight in the world any but many more questioned the legitimacy of his belt so he answered those questions by beating the brakes off of every other top contender and that is now the task at hand for Oliveira.
Fortunately, Oliveira has no shortage of those ahead of him. The new champion has already started lining himself up for a fight with the winner of Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor this summer which is the obvious next fight and would do an enormous amount to boost his credibility. Beyond that Justin Gaethje remains the second-ranked contender in the division and Beneil Dariush announced himself as a legitimate top contender. All of those are great fights for the new champion and all of them would help Oliveira carve out his own legacy as a UFC champion, out from under the shadow of Nurmagomedov’s greatness. And then of course there’s the specter of Nurmagomedov’s protege Islam Makhachev waiting in the wings. The coaches at American Kickboxing Academy have suggested Makhachev is actually a better wrestler than Khabib (which is a scary thought) and Khabib himself selected Makhachev to be his successor. Should Makhachev continue to win there would be no better way for Oliveira to put to bed the Khabib Nurmagomedov era.
It’s not fair, but at least for the time being, Oliveira will remain a very much disputed “undisputed” champion. But though Saturday night may not have definitively answered who the best non-Khabib lightweight in the world is, we finally have the UFC’s most important division rolling again, and Oliveira, though the win may not have been as grand as he imagined in his dreams, has now etched his name permanently into UFC history. Whether it will be as a placeholder champion or the next great lightweight, only time will tell.
UFC 262 Quotes
“Conor, since you’re so tough, first of all, you beat Dustin, and then come over to Brazil and I’ll put you on your ass.” – Charles Oliveira responding to Conor McGregor’s Tweet.
“I still feel like a featherweight. If Dana White gave me the opportunity to go back to the featherweight division and win, I’d take it.” – Charles Oliviera, on brand.
“I will be UFC champion by the time my career is up.” – Michael Chandler after his loss to Oliveira.
“How do you not tap to that heel hook? His knee popped, and it popped loud. I saw his face change for a second, and then he went back to normal, and he started kicking me in the body.” – Beneil Dariush applauding Ferguson’s toughness.
“It could just be that time gets us all.” – Dana White on Tony Ferguson’s third straight loss.
Charles Oliveira: Not only did Oliveira set a record by becoming the person with the most UFC fights before winning a title, he also proved he’s more durable than many believed. And, you know, he won the belt.
Beneil Dariush: That last two men to thump up Tony Ferguson like that, Justin Gaethje and Charles Oliveira, have both won lightweight titles.
Edson Barboza: Barboza’s run at featherweight has been excellent but for a bad decision against Dan Ige in his debut. The sports most dangerous kicker added another highlight to the reel and is set up to make a title run at 145.
André Muniz: The man submitted Jacare Souza. Enough said.
Andrea Lee: Lee needed a big win to stop her three-fight losing skid and she got it, knocking off the champion’s sister by showing power in her hands and a clear edge on the mat.
Tony Ferguson: Since fighting Justin Gaethje, Ferguson’s career has been in free fall. El Cucuy is still as tough as they come but his reactions are noticeably slower and he seems incapable of defending takedowns. An ignominious fall for the former interim champ.
Ronaldo Souza: Not only did Jacare lose, he got his arm snapped in the process. Like Ferguson, Jacare seems to have finally lost the battle to Father Time.
Antonina Shevchenko: The elder Shevchenko sister has been totally unable to get any momentum built in the UFC, alternating wins and losses throughout her career and she seems to be settling in as gatekeeper to the top-10.
Charles Oliveira has his named etched all over UFC history at this point.
Aside from setting the record for most appearances in UFC history before winning the title, Oliveira added to a number of other accolades on Saturday. He now tops the list of most finishes in UFC history with 17 and of course he already owns the title of most submissions in UFC history at 14. The KO of Chandler also bumped him up to an 89.47% finishing percentage, which is good for fifth all-time in company history. Also, in winning Performance of the Night on Saturday, Oliveira remains second in UFC history in overall post-fight bonuses at 17, one behind Donald Cerrone and he extended his lead for in most Performance of the Night bonuses to 11, four more than the glut of people second on the list. Finally, Oliveira also continued to climb the all-time wins leaderboard, moving into a tie for 8th with Rafael dos Anjos, Dustin Poirier, and Diego Sanchez.
Not bad for a kid who was once told he may never walk again.
Fights to Make
Charles Oliveira vs. the winner of Dustin Poirier-Conor McGregor III: Dustin Poirier is the clear top fighter at 155 until someone beats him. To legitimize Oliveira’s belt, he has to fight the winner here.
Michael Chandler vs. Justin Gaethje: Gaethje is the odd man out and that sucks, but this is a good fight and should Gaethje win it, he gets the winner of the above fight.
Beneil Dariush vs. Islam Makhachev : Dariush is even even more of an odd-man out than Gaethje because he probably doesn’t have the juice to get the loser of Poirier-McGregor. And honestly, if he beats Makhachev that’s probably the biggest win he can get. (I’m aware Makhachev has a fight booked against Thiago Moises which I assume he will win.)
Tony Ferguson vs. Rafael dos Anjos?: Honestly, there are not a lot of good options here for El Cucuy as most of the top guys in the division seem like they would run over him at this point. At least there’s a story here because of the previous fight. Honestly, I think Demian Maia would make the most sense, but Maia is set to retire against Belal Muhammad.
Katlyn Chookagian vs. Alexa Grasso: Chookagian called out Grasso following her win and that works for me.
Viviane Araujo vs. Andrea Lee: Some people had Araujo winning against Chookagian so she doesn’t need a big step back and Lee deserves another shot at the top-10.
Edson Barboza vs. Giga Chikadze: Let there be kicks.
Final Thoughts and Reflections
- If it’s possible for a fighter to impress you while also making you think he’s not as good as advertised, Charles Oliveira rode that line on Saturday. Oliveira showed toughness and savvy surviving the first round and a great read that led to the KO, but he also left me thinking there are a handful of guys at 155 that would beat him.
- Oliveira’s team should do everything in their power to duck Justin Gaethje for as long as possible. If the lunging power shots of Michael Chandler gave him issues, Gaethje might take his head off.
- What is Oliveira’s best win in the UFC? Surely that wasn’t it, right? Previously I’d have said Tony Ferguson but Ferguson is so done that win is aging like milk.
- You’ve got to think Chandler is regretting his decision to stay grappling with Oliveira at the end of the first round. When you get a guy hurt, go back to the well, don’t afford him time to recover.
- Tony Ferguson was never the man who was going to beat Khabib Nurmagomedov. Still a shame the fight didn’t happen, but it could not be more clear how that fight would have gone.
- I’m disappointed that Dariush took the smart approach to fighting Ferguson. Clearly the right call for him personally, but I was hoping for Dariush to engage in a wild brawl as he is wont to do.
- Shane Burgos is one tough dude. He ate a bevy of shots that should have put him down and then damn near shook off a KO shot that literally made his body implode, all through sheer force of will. Unreal.
- Mad respect to Katlyn Chookagian who continues to put in work and has no qualms about fighting women ranked lower than her.
- It’s time for ‘Jacare’ to hang them up. Four losses in a row, a snapped arm, and 41 years old, he had a very good career and will unfortunately go down as probably the best UFC fighter to have never earned a title shot.
- Yes, there was a lot of truly inexplicable judging on Saturday. But at this point, that’s par for the course.