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Is Khabib the GOAT? Charles Oliveira could jeopardize Nurmagomedov’s legacy at UFC 274

UFC 242 Press Conference Photo by Marc Atkins/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC

When Khabib Nurmagomedov defended his 155-pound title by defeating Justin Gaethje in the UFC 254 main event back in Oct. 2020, a victory that propelled “The Eagle” to No. 1 in the promotion’s pound-for-pound rankings, lightweight veteran Charles Oliveira wasn’t even ranked in the division Top 5.

Oliveira (32-8, 1 NC) may have been on the outside looking in, but “Do Bronx” was also the winner of seven straight — with all seven wins coming by way of knockout or submission. At the same time, the Brazilian’s level of (mostly) unranked competition was mediocre, at best, with his biggest victory coming at the expense of the struggling Kevin Lee at UFC Fight Night 170.

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CHAMPIONSHIP DOUBLE-DIP! Ultimate Fighting Championship (UFC) returns to “The Fight Mecca,” Madison Square Garden in New York, N.Y., on Sat., Nov. 12, 2022, featuring two highly-anticipated championship showdowns. In UFC 281’s pay-per-view (PPV) main event, Middleweight champion, Israel Adesanya, will look to settle the score with former kickboxing foe and No. 5-seeded contender, Alex Pereira. In the ESPN+-streamed PPV co-main event, women’s Strawweight champion, Carla Esparza, intends to defend her newly-won title for the first time against former champion and No. 2-ranked contender, Zhang Weili.

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Simply put, nobody was picketing the UFC compound and demanding an Oliveira title shot. In addition, “Do Bronx” was not part of the conversation when Nurmagomedov abruptly retired from mixed martial arts (MMA) with a perfect record of 29-0, citing a promise to his mother along with a lack of competition.

That was then. This is now.

Oliveira’s win streak recently reached 10 straight, thanks to three consecutive victories over Tony Ferguson, Michael Chandler, and Dustin Poirier, who were all ranked in the lightweight Top 5 at the time of their respective contests. Now the Brazilian has an opportunity to defend the lightweight title — which he secured when Nurmagomedov stepped down — by turning away Justin Gaethje in the UFC 274 pay-per-view (PPV) main event.

There’s more than just a title at stake on May 7 at Footprint Center in Phoenix. A commanding performance by Oliveira (and subsequent victory) is likely to weaken arguments that position Nurmagomedov as the greatest lightweight fighter of his generation. Maybe you can overlook the absence of Tony Ferguson, based on “El Cucuy’s” personal issues and competitive decline, but to ride off into the sunset without facing Ferguson and Oliveira casts reasonable doubt on the Dagestani’s legacy.

A win for Gaethje, however, is a win for Nurmagomedov.

Stopping “Do Bronx” will give the 23-3 “Highlight” victories over both Ferguson and Oliveira. It stands to reason that if neither fighter could get past Gaethje, 33, they probably would have fared just as poorly against “The Eagle.” Such reason requires us to lean on MMA math to some degree, but those are statistics that would prove difficult to ignore. Remember, we’re not arguing Nurmagomedov’s greatness, we’re trying to support (or diminish) claims that he walked away with nothing left to prove.

Keep in mind “The Eagle” called it quits at age 33 in what many would consider to be his athletic prime, demonstrating an equal balance of skill, physical prowess, and experience. Similarly, Oliveira turns 33 in October and like Michael Bisping before him, proved to be a late bloomer. With UFC 274 just around the corner, “Do Bronx” now stands at the precipice of lightweight immortality.

Would he surpass Nurmagomedov with a victory at UFC 274? That may depend on how much weight you put into Conor McGregor as a legitimate contender. “Notorious” — who fell to “The Eagle” at UFC 229 but has not (yet) faced Oliveira — is just 1-3 at 155 pounds and got stopped in all three losses, which is why the power-punching Irishman is barely holding on to a spot in the division Top 10.

The UFC 274 main event is an important fight for the careers of both Oliveira and Gaethje. It could also alter the way we later regard the division highs (and lows) of this era. It’s hard to believe the top spot in the promotion’s pantheon of lightweight heroes, once destined to be haunted by the ghost of Nurmagomedov, is suddenly up for grabs.

Regardless of the result, UFC is making history this weekend in “The Copper State.”

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