The reality of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement will fully sink in when a new lightweight king is crowned at UFC 262 this weekend.
Months of limbo, with Dana White desperately clinging to every ounce of optimism that would linger on his dominant champion, were finally put to bed in March.
And so now a new era begins without the Russian’s vice-like grip on his 155-pound rivals.
Michael Chandler (left) and Charles Oliveira (right) will compete for the lightweight title
Oliveira has spent most of his career in the UFC with Chandler, mainly in Bellator
Michael Chandler vs Charles Oliveira for the lightweight belt is a fight you would have found extremely long odds a year ago.
But the tech-savvy Brazilian hits the horns with some good old American muscle in Saturday’s main draw.
One of them will raise their hand, have the belt wrapped around their waist and a guaranteed showdown with Dustin Poirier or Conor McGregor as their first title defense.
Chandler and Oliveira are chalk and cheese in almost every sense. Stylistically, their skill has been pushed into their face with a microphone, even the way they dress is opposite.
And if you consider the route of both men to the biggest fight of their lives, the ride has been very different.
Chandler, now 35, knows to make hay while the sun is out. Few fighters over his age manage to claim the title, especially in lighter classes.
Chandler won the lightweight title in Bellator with a KO win over Patricky Freire (left)
But so far he’s ticked every box. In January, he shared a stage with McGregor and Poirier in Abu Dhabi, looking great and speaking incredibly well.
You get the feeling that if the UFC could pick a winner on Saturday, Chandler would be their man.
He’s all American, looks like a champ, sounds like a champ, and has KO power. Tick, tick and tick.
The stunning UFC debut win over Hooker, a first round knockout, was hugely impressive and earned him this opportunity.
Hooker drove five brutal laps with Poirier and had previously racked up wins over Al Iaquinta, James Vick and Paul Felder, so for Chandler glaring past the Kiwi caused fans to stand up and take note.
Of course, many MMA enthusiasts already knew all about Chandler. He made a name for himself in Bellator, making his debut for the organization in 2010, the same year that Oliveira first fought in the UFC.
Chandler defeated Benson Henderson for a second time before moving to the UFC
He won his first nine fights with a mix of KO’s, submissions and decisions, winning the lightweight tournament.
But then came the first slip of his career, split-decision defeats by Eddie Alvarez and Will Brooks were followed by a TKO defeat to Brooks in their rematch.
Nothing but resilient, Chandler turned his fortune and reclaimed Patricky Freire’s vacant belt before defending it against Benson Henderson.
Another setback was just around the corner, and a doctor’s break against Brent Primus in New York four years ago saw the belt escape its grip again.
Undeterred, he won back from Primus the following year before Patricio Freire defeated him with a first round TKO in 2019. Chandler followed up his last defeat with victories over Sidney Outlaw and Henderson before the UFC called.
With each streak of wins punctuated by a disappointing defeat, fans had no idea what to expect from Chandler against the best of the best in the UFC.
Chandler knocked out Dan Hooker in January to make a statement about his UFC debut
Oliveira (left) and Chandler (right) are opposites in almost every way
So his KO from Hooker got a fascinating boost to his profile. He’s absolutely sure of the match with Oliveira, telling me MMA fights: ‘Oliveira is going to have his clock cleaned.
“I walk into a packed bullring in Houston, Texas, where 19,000 red, white, and blue-blooded Americans recite my name and root for me.
“I’m going out and I’m immediately in the face of Charles Oliveira and he will realize and feel it from the first exchange, of the pressure I put on him, he will immediately start guessing himself.”
Chandler continued, “He will immediately overreact. He will immediately start to worry about his legs. I go to his head. I’m going to his legs.
‘I’m going to his body. I’m going to mix it up. There is a bang, he is going to have his clock cleaned. ‘
But Oliveira got his education from hard school. He was only 20 when he first stepped into the famous octagon.
Oliveira was only 20 when he made his UFC debut and he is still going strong
There have been ups and downs for the Brazilian, who was submitted here by Anthony Pettis
After two wins, Oliveira’s mettle was put to the test for the first time, winning just two of his next seven encounters.
That kind of form has seen the UFC cut fighters from the roster before, but there was never any question about the young man’s ability. Choosing and sticking to a weight class was another problem.
The 31-year-old has missed weight in the UFC four times so far and therefore had to compete against a catch-weight.
In recent years, he seems to have fixed those issues and the last accident was in 2016.
After his poor run of two wins in seven, the rollercoaster continued for Oliveira, winning four before losing four to his next six between 2015 and 2017.
Oliveira has endured losing streaks and has improved as a hunter who is now entering his prime
Oliveira, pictured with Darren Elkins’ submission on his 2010 debut, is fantastic off his back
Then something clicked. The Sao Paulo-born fighter stormed to eight wins in a row, closing with wins over Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson.
He more than deserves his title shot after grafting hard and fought 27 times in the UFC alone.
Oliveira is unassuming outside of the cage and his glasses and slim frame make him look more like a creative bid at an ad agency than a world-class fighter.
But he’s a killer on the ground and spent his twentieth working relentlessly, catching the setbacks and overcoming them to get to this point.
And while Chandler is the antithesis of his opponent this Saturday, both men have overcome loads of adversity to get to this point.
It will be fascinating to see which of their trails ends with UFC gold.