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The Great Divide: After UFC 262, will the real lightweight champion please stand up?

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MMA Fighting

The Great Divide is a recurring feature here at MMA Fighting in which two of our staff debate a topic in the world of MMA – news, a fight, a crazy thing somebody did, a crazy thing somebody didn’t do, or some moral dilemma threatening the very foundation of the sport — and try to figure out a resolution. We’d love for you to join in the discussion in the comments below.

This Saturday, we will finally have ourselves a new UFC lightweight champion. Historically the most stacked roster in all of MMA, the UFC has been without an official lightweight titleholder since the indomitable Khabib Nurmagomedov announced his retirement last October. True, the UFC continued to recognize “The Eagle” as the champion for months and Dana White pursued a Nurmagomedov comeback to the bitter end, but several worthy lightweights have been waiting for their chance to claim the crown.

And now, it comes down to either Charles Oliveira or Michael Chandler, who fight for a vacant title in the main event of UFC 262. Nice and simple, right?

If only.

Even putting aside that Nurmagomedov never dropped the title, the lightweight division is so overloaded with talent that there are numerous names who could have made a case to be part of the vacant title bout (or in Dustin Poirier’s case, not be part of the vacant title bout in favor of a more lucrative trilogy bout with Conor McGregor). And then there’s the fact that Chandler lost his most recent championship opportunity in Bellator to Patricio Pitbull.

So it falls upon MMA Fighting’s Alexander K. Lee and Jed Meshew to sort this mess out and decide whether the man who has his hand raised in this Houston headliner is the true lightweight king or if this debate will continue to rage on for the foreseeable future.

UFC 262 DECIDES IT

Lee: Listen, I’m the last guy that will tell you that the UFC is the be-all, end-all when it comes to saying who the best of the best are in MMA. But there’s no question that the majority of the top fighters in the world compete there and in the case of this Saturday’s main event, that both of the men competing for a vacant lightweight championship have a legitimate case to be recognized as the best in the world at 155 pounds.

Before we start comparing cases, let’s take a moment to appreciate how Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler got here.

Look, Oliveira doesn’t have the strength of schedule of some of his peers. For years, he’s been on the outside looking in as the Tony Fergusons and the Justin Gaethjes and the Dustin Poiriers of the world scrapped it out at the top. He wasn’t getting the matchups he needed to break into the upper echelon. So what did he do with the matchups he was given? Absolutely shredded them.

Whether breaking wills with his submission skills or stunning opponents with his always-improving striking, “do Bronx” did the one thing that always keeps you in elite company: he finishes fights. Seven straight from 2018-2020, with only Kevin Lee making it to the third round against him. He is tied for the most finishes in UFC history with Donald Cerrone (16) and holds the record for the most submissions (14). If merit means anything at this level, then it’s absurd to argue that Oliveira doesn’t have the accomplishments of a champion.

Chandler’s case looks more suspect when you consider that UFC 262 marks only his second appearance for the promotion. But man, has he done everything you can do to put yourself into position for a title shot. He not only took out Dan Hooker, he made it look easy, then he dropped a catchy promo afterwards that justified the excellent job that the UFC had done of promoting Chandler since he was signed on as a backup fighter for UFC 254.

That said, let’s address the first elephant in the room: Patricio Pitbull. He beat Chandler and took his Bellator title, that’s a fact. But can one really argue that he’s a more accomplished lightweight than Chandler? Don’t get me wrong, to be the man you’ve got to beat the man and that’s exactly what Pitbull did, but until Bellator champ-champ actually defends that belt, I’m reluctant to crown him as the best lightweight in the world even if Chandler beats Oliveira. Body of work has to count for something and Chandler has a fine one.

He held the Bellator lightweight title on three occasions and successfully defended it six times. That’s twice as many times as any UFC lightweight champion. He’s only lost to Pitbull, Brent Primus (a loss he avenged in convincing fashion), Will Brooks, and Eddie Alvarez (after shocking Alvarez in their first fight). If you want to poke holes in the Bellator roster, that’s fine, but any way you slice it that’s an outstanding run at 155 pounds.

Then there’s the other, even bigger elephant, a titanic trilogy bout between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor coming up at UFC 264 in July. Some dummy even argued a few months ago that Poirier-McGregor 2 could have been for the lightweight title in the first place, which would have saved us all a lot of time debating this issue. However, those two have chosen to move on from the championship pictures for now, perhaps wisely, which for me temporarily removes them from the equation. And let’s be honest, McGregor, shouldn’t factor into it at all given that he has one (ONE!) win in the UFC at 155 pounds. Get those numbers up, champ.

Which brings us back to what it means for Oliveira and Chandler to be the best in their division. It means Khabib Nurmagomedov (the real lightweight king, let’s be honest) isn’t around anymore, so someone has to take up that mantle. It means being rewarded for shutting up and doing your job and fighting whoever you’re asked to fight, no questions asked. It means wearing a shiny belt in the deepest division in the number one MMA promotion in the world.

If you want to argue for someone else, have at it, but don’t tell me that the winner of the UFC 262 main event doesn’t have a legitimate claim to be the best. They’ve put in way too much work to be discredited like that. It’s not like they’re a couple of charity cases, as I’ve outlined above, their resumes are airtight. To quote Poirier, whoever wins that title will have “earned this in blood. Paid in full.”

There will always be room for interpretation as long as there is no crossover between major promotions. That said, when it comes to putting together my own lightweight rankings, I’ll have either Oliveira or Chandler at the top of the list come Sunday morning.

THE TRUTH IS OUT THERE (AND IT AIN’T IN HOUSTON)

Meshew: In the words of Robin Williams: ‘F*ck no!’

First, let’s take a second to appreciate exactly what the UFC lightweight title is supposed to be: the most prestigious belt in the sport of MMA. Lightweight is by far the best division and the UFC champion should almost by definition be one of the best fighters—if not THE best fighter—in the world if for no other reason than he is the best fighter in the best division. And for the last two and a half years, that was true. Khabib was the best pound-for-pound fighter on the planet, and now the UFC is declaring his successor by having the No. 3 and No. 4 guys in the world fight for his title. That belt might as well be made out of f*cking cardboard.

No disrespect to Chandler or Oliveira but seriously, what rational argument is there for anyone to believe that a fight that does not include EITHER OF THE TWO top-ranked lightweights in the world can determine the top lightweight in the world? It’s like if you’re trying to get the roof repaired and you don’t want to pay for the most expensive options so you just pick the guys one price tier down and then try to convince your wife you got the best guys. Or, more succinctly, it’s like 2+2= Fish.

I wrote about this when the title fight was first announced and my single biggest issue with this fight being for the belt was that it undeniably would not determine the true best lightweight in the world. Khabib Nurmagomedov is the best lightweight on Earth. If alien invaders had us choose a 155-pound champion to fight for the fate of the planet, Khabib would be that dude. Him retiring from the sport doesn’t change that fact. In a fistfight, he wins. Period. But in his absence. Dustin Poirier is quite obviously the next best guy and basically everyone agrees on this point. So to have a title fight that doesn’t include the best active dude boggles the mind.

Things would be slightly more palatable if Poirier was just holding out or whatever and Oliveira and Chandler were the next best options but BY THE UFC’S OWN RANKINGS THERE IS ANOTHER GUY MORE DESERVING. Justin Gaethje is universally held to be the second-best lightweight behind Poirier and the only reason he was not given a title shot is because... he lost to the best lightweight ever? What kind of backwards-ass pageantry is that? The fact that Gaethje got to fight the best-ever is literally a greater accomplishment than either Oliveira or Chandler have ever had and yet he’s left out in the cold because: reasons.

I know this has all been very negative and I’m not trying to dump on the fight because it’s a very good fight but it in no way determines the best lightweight on the planet. In fact, there’s a solid argument that depending on how the next few months play out, the winner of this weekend’s main event will not even be in the top-5 lightweights in the world. Follow my logic:

  • Khabib is clearly still the tops.
  • Poirier undoubtedly deserves that title over either winner.
  • Gaethje undoubtedly deserves that title over either winner.
  • If Conor McGregor beats Poirier in their trilogy fight, then by virtue of beating the next best guy, he would legitimately deserve the title over Oliveira or Chandler.
  • If Chandler wins, Patricio Pitbull bolted that dude two years ago and would 100 percent deserve to be considered above either man.
  • If A.J. McKee beats Pitbull, even at featherweight, my man has a legit claim to being a better lightweight than Chandler, should Chandler take the strap.

And none of that even mentions guys like Max Holloway and Alexander Volkanovski who may very well beat up many of the dudes on the above list, or Islam Makhachev who is Khabib’s own chosen successor. And if we’re being super honest, if Chandler wins the belt on Saturday that opens a Pandora’s box of people who could handle that dude.

This is not at all hard to figure out. Just because you hold a UFC title does not mean you are the absolute best. Jorge Masvidal owns the “BMF” belt, is he really the baddest motherf*cker? No, he for sure is not. He’s just a dude who was in the right place at the right time and got a shiny object from the UFC because it fit their agenda on that particular day. The same will happen this Saturday when either Oliveira or Chandler gets 12 pounds of false promises wrapped around their waist. Meanwhile, the true lightweight champion will be sitting at his home in Dagestan, thinking about how easy it would be for him to thump the guy holding his belt.

Poll

Who has the strongest claim to the title of best lightweight in the world?

This poll is closed

  • 30%
    Oliveira-Chandler winner
    (429 votes)
  • 46%
    Poirier-McGregor winner
    (644 votes)
  • 10%
    Patricio Pitbull
    (143 votes)
  • 12%
    Other (leave comment below)
    (181 votes)
1397 votes total Vote Now