When Khabib Nurmagomedov defended his 155-pound title by defeating Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 254 in October 2020, a win that propelled ‘The Eagle’ to No. 1 in the promotion’s pound-for-pound rankings , veteran lightweight Charles Oliveira was not even ranked in the Top 5 in the division.
Oliveira (32-8, 1 NC) may have been on the outside, but ‘Do Bronx’ has also been the winner of seven straight matches – with all seven wins coming by knockout or submission. Meanwhile, the Brazilian’s (mostly) unranked level of competition was mediocre at best, with his biggest win coming at the expense of struggling Kevin Lee at UFC Fight Night 170.
Simply put, no one was picketing the UFC grounds and demanding a title shot from Oliveira. Also, “Do Bronx” wasn’t part of the conversation when Nurmagomedov abruptly retired from mixed martial arts (MMA) with a perfect 29-0 record, citing a promise to his mother as well as a lack of competition. .
That was then. It is now.
Oliveira’s winning streak recently reached 10 fights, thanks to three straight victories over Tony Ferguson, Michael Chandler and Dustin Poirier, all of whom were ranked in the Top 5 lightweights at the time of their respective contests. The Brazilian now has the opportunity to defend the lightweight title – which he got when Nurmagomedov resigned – by turning down Justin Gaethje in the main event of UFC 274 pay-per-view (PPV).
There’s more than one title at stake on May 7 at the Footprint Center in Phoenix. An impressive performance from Oliveira (and subsequent victory) is likely to weaken the arguments that position Nurmagomedov as the greatest lightweight fighter of his generation. Maybe you can ignore Tony Ferguson’s absence, based on personal issues and declining competition from ‘El Cucuy’, but to go off into the sunset without facing Ferguson and Oliveira casts reasonable doubt on Dagestan’s legacy.
A win for Gaethje, however, is a win for Nurmagomedov.
Stopping “Do Bronx” will yield “Highlight” 23-3 wins over Ferguson and Oliveira. It stands to reason that if none of the fighters had been able to get past 33-year-old Gaethje, they probably would have fared just as badly against ‘The Eagle’. Such a reason requires us to rely on MMA math to some extent, but these are statistics that would be hard to ignore. Remember, we’re not disputing Nurmagomedov’s greatness, we’re trying to back up (or belittle) claims that he walked away with nothing left to prove.
Keep in mind that “The Eagle” called him at 33 in what many would consider his athletic peak, showing an equal balance of skill, physical prowess and experience. Likewise, Oliveira turns 33 in October and, like Michael Bisping before him, has proven to be a late bloomer. With UFC 274 fast approaching, “Do Bronx” now stands on the precipice of lightweight immortality.
Would he surpass Nurmagomedov with a win at UFC 274? It may depend on how much weight you give to Conor McGregor as a legitimate competitor. “Notorious” — who fell to “The Eagle” at UFC 229 but hasn’t faced Oliveira (yet) — is just 1-3 at 155 pounds and has been stopped in all three losses, that’s why the mighty Irishman barely holds onto a Top 10 spot in the division.
The main event of UFC 274 is an important fight for the careers of Oliveira and Gaethje. It could also change how we later view the highs (and lows) of division from that era. It’s hard to believe that 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 outcome, the UFC is making history this weekend on “The Copper State.”