The UFC and its fans have finally, reluctantly been forced to accept the fact that Khabib Nurmagomedov is serious about retiring in the prime of his career.
The two men first in line to take the unbeaten Russian’s place atop the lightweight division are eager to show they’ve got what the UFC is now missing at UFC 262 on Saturday night in Houston.
Michael Chandler (22-5) is the long-reigning Bellator champion who has marched straight into a UFC title shot in his second bout with his new promotion. Charles Oliveira (30-8) is a well-traveled Brazilian who has run off eight consecutive victories in three years to earn his own shot at the belt vacated by Nurmagomedov last year.
Their meeting in the main event at a sold-out Toyota Center promises action and excitement for another live crowd eager to experience the best of mixed martial arts again. It’s also an opportunity for two long-serving veterans of the sport to earn their crowning achievement.
“It feels like this is the way it was supposed to be scripted the entire time,” said Chandler, who held the Bellator title three times over the past decade. “A lot of ups. A lot of downs. Every road led me here. … I believe what I said for the last decade: That I’m the best lightweight on the planet. And on Saturday night, I get to prove that.”
Chandler’s skills have been recognized throughout the sport for many years. Oliveira’s career improved along with his overall fighting skills, particularly on the ground: He’s now recognized as one of the best jiu-jitsu practitioners in the game.
Oliveira was overmatched by the UFC early in his 11 years with the promotion, but he has turned around his fortunes with hard work and steady improvement.
“I never had a doubt,” Oliveira said through an interpreter. “I always knew I would get this opportunity someday. … It’s about legacy. I have the most submissions and the second-most bonuses, but now I want to prove I can handle any of these guys.”
Oliveira’s jiu-jitsu skills are formidable, but Chandler — a former All-American wrestler at Missouri — has seen nearly everything a grappler can throw at him in a cage. Both fighters are capable strikers with exciting skills, but Chandler’s combination of pressure fighting and punching power is formidable.
Chandler’s UFC debut was a 2 1/2-minute demolition of veteran Dan Hooker last January, but he is jumping the queue in a deep UFC division to take this title shot. Chandler is confident he has earned the right to fight for the lightweight title.
“These days, ‘deserve’ is a hard word to quantify,” Chandler said. “I’ve been in this sport for over a decade. My resume does speak for itself. I have dismantled two former UFC champions. … I came in right away and kicked down the door and said, ‘Yes,’ to every opportunity. And now I’m here.”
UFC 262 is coheadlined by former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson’s bout with Beneil Dariush.
Ferguson (25-5) was booked to fight Nurmagomedov five separate times during their careers, but every bout was called off due to injuries or postponed. When Ferguson fought again for the interim title last May, he was stopped by Justin Gaethje in his first loss since 2012.
Oliveira then roughed up Ferguson in a one-sided decision victory last December, but Ferguson’s voluminous flow of trash talk hasn’t slowed in the slightest as he prepares to face Dariush (20-4-1), who has won six straight fights over the last three years.
“It wasn’t meant for me to have the title,” Ferguson said. “I would’ve given everybody the chance. These guys are going to try to keep the title away as much as they can. … Now I’ve just got to come in here and do what I need to do for these fans.”
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