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The Bottom Line: Much to Lose, Much to Gain


Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Not every Ultimate Fighting Championship title is created equally. We assess championship reigns based on a variety of factors: length, number of defenses, strength of competition, nature of victories and so on. Anderson Silva and Germaine de Randamie are both former UFC champions, but they share significantly less in common as UFC champions than two NBA championship teams or two Wimbledon winners. Why? Because the UFC has much more flexibility in determining how championships are contested than the formal annual tournaments held in most other sports.

Two factors in particular can work against the perception of a UFC champion: winning a title after a dominant previous champion of the division vacated without losing and capturing a title that the company created without matching the two top fighters in the division. The fighter has no control over either, but they still loom large in consideration of his or her title reign. Unfortunately for UFC lightweight champion Charles Oliveira, both designations apply to his title run and it leaves him still working to prove himself despite nine straight wins, the most finishes in UFC history and a thrilling title win over Michael Chandler.

The first issue for Oliveira and all other lightweights is of course the still towering presence of the great Khabib Nurmagomedov. His retiring as an undefeated champion of the top promotion in the sport at 29-0 is literally unprecedented in MMA history. If he stays retired, it is hard to envision anyone duplicating the feat. Moreover, Nurmagomedov is still only 33, making it easy to imagine him stepping right back in and winning back his title. Oliveira to his benefit never fought Nurmagomedov, preventing a direct comparison, but if they signed to fight in 2022, Nurmagomedov would almost certainly be a heavy favorite.

The only way to escape Nurmagomedov’s shadow—assuming the Russian does not return—is to keep winning. That was the struggle in the welterweight division, where no 170-pound fighter was able to string together enough wins for years to make fans forget about Georges St. Pierre. That Kamaru Usman was finally able to move the division past GSP is heartening; that it took him many years and a 15-0 UFC record to do so is dispiriting. Either way, there’s little that Oliveira can do in the short term to move past Nurmagomedov if “The Eagle” stays retired. However, there is more that Oliveira can do to move past the circumstances of his title win.

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Chandler is a worthy opponent for anyone to compete against in a championship bout. The three-time Bellator MMA champion is a proven winner at the highest levels over the course of an impressive career. With that said, Chandler-Oliveira even by the UFC’s own rankings system was the No. 3 contender taking on the No. 4 contender. Even putting aside Nurmagomedov, it was going to be hard for the winner to be perceived at a level above the rest of the division, given that neither man held that status going into the bout.

At times, the UFC has matched contenders for a title bout simply based on availability, with Ciryl Gane-Derrick Lewis being a recent and particularly egregious example. Chandler-Oliveira was arguably even more problematic, because it came about as a result of the top contender preferring a different fight. That top contender was Dustin Poirier, and he elected of course to fight Conor McGregor instead. That was a perfectly logical decision given how much more money there was to be made in the McGregor fight, but it does not bolster the prestige of the title that Oliveira now holds.

If Poirier comes back after defeating McGregor and takes Oliveira’s title, the Brazilian’s run as champion will not be remembered in any meaningful way. The fledgling champion thus has much to lose. However, he likewise has a tremendous amount to gain, as a victory over Poirier would serve as his championship coronation likely to a greater degree than his win over Chandler when he formally won the title. Oliveira is not an interim champion, but his UFC 269 main event with Poirier on Saturday resembles Gane’s forthcoming January fight with Francis Ngannou significantly more than Glover Teixeira’s first defense of his light heavyweight title in 2022. There is something left to prove.

It’s not as if a win over Poirier would settle the matter, either. There is still the presence of the No. 2 contender when No. 3 and No. 4 fought for the gold: Justin Gaethje. The former World Series of Fighting champion has only improved his standing since then with an electric win over Chandler at Madison Square Garden, and he waits in the wings for the winner of Oliveira-Poirier. Oliveira has some serious challenges ahead of him in his quest to firmly establish himself as the best fighter in a deep and talented division. That’s the blessing and the curse of trying to make it to the top in a post-Nurmagomedov world. Advertisement
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