Lightweight is historically the division of change.
The title has never been defended more than three times. In fact, that record is shared by four men (Benson Henderson, Frankie Edgar, B.J. Penn and Khabib Nurmagomedov). It’s such a fiercely competitive division that an extended reign of dominance is difficult. Even Nurmagomedov, who held onto his belt the longest — a record admittedly aided by UFC’s weird stance on his retirement — saw two men rise to the role of interim king.
All this variation is seemingly due to the face that everyone at Lightweight is really damn good. There are unranked contenders who, on a good night, could give anyone in the Top 5 a good run. Instead, they fight their fellows, hugely talented would-be contenders on the undercard.
It’s tough to build momentum or win streaks when there are no easy fights.
Michael Chandler vs. Charles Oliveira, which takes place at UFC 262 this weekend (Sat., May 15, 2021) in Houston, Texas, is therefore an appropriate bout for the vacant title. Sure, Dustin Poirier deserves another shot at undisputed gold, but he opted to chase the McGregor money, and he has a belt at home already — he’ll be okay. Instead, both “Iron” and “Do Bronx” are perfect examples of the division’s mercurial nature and how quickly fortunes can change at 155 pounds.
A year ago, Chandler was signed to Bellator, one fight removed from a knockout loss to (an extremely good) Featherweight. He had knocked out Sydney Outlaw to rebound, but few expected the 34-year-old to cross over into the Octagon after a decade of teasing the move.
It simply seemed too late.
Fortunately, Chandler knew himself well, timing the move masterfully. One UFC fight later, and Chandler is a fairly obvious choice for the vacant belt. Besides his opponent and Poirier, he’s the only man in the Top Five coming off a win — sometimes, it’s that simple.
Oliveira was looking good one year ago, showcasing improved firepower and comfort in bad positions. However, fight fans were not yet sold. After all, “Do Bronx” has been on the UFC roster a long, long time. In his decade-plus UFC career, there have been great win streaks and signs of improvement.
Historically, they end badly. Oliveira fights a durable foe, and he ends up on the wrong side of a stoppage loss.
Times have changed.
Oliveira took on two elite Lightweights in Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson, and quite frankly, he spanked them. At no point did Oliveira seem in trouble. Rather, the more mature finisher remained composed, methodically working his way towards the victory.
Both athletes have experienced devastating losses that disrupted the upward trajectories of their career. For athletes not named Khabib, that’s natural in such a talent-rich environment. What matters here is that each man came out the other side more experienced, and seemingly more determined to push towards the top.
What’s equally interesting is just how much luck and timing matter in securing Lightweight gold. Consider someone like Paul Felder, who very arguably beat Dan Hooker (Chandler’s title shot-earning win) and did in fact knock Oliveira himself unconscious. On another timeline, perhaps it’s “The Irish Dragon” who scored his victories at the optimum time and found himself in the title picture.
Another notable non-obstacle: Khabib is gone. With the Dagestani retired, unlikely heroes like Chandler and Oliveira have a much better chance at scoring UFC gold. It may suck to miss “The Eagle,” but at least Lightweight has returned to its usual state of volatile fun.
Remember that MMAmania.com will deliver LIVE round-by-round, blow-by-blow coverage of the entire UFC 262 fight card right here, starting with the early ESPN+ “Prelims” matches online, which are scheduled to begin at 6:15 p.m. ET, then the remaining undercard balance on ESPN/ESPN+ at 8 p.m. ET, before the PPV main card start time at 10 p.m. ET on ESPN+ PPV.
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