Over the last few years, former Bellator lightweight champion Will Brooks has done his best to establish himself as the best lightweight in the sport outside of the UFC and as one of the best 155-pound fighters in the world overall. With an 18-1 record and two huge wins over Michael Chandler, who held the claim as the best lightweight fighter outside of Zuffa before Brooks, “Ill Will” has been one of the most dominant fighters on the Bellator MMA roster in terms of producing in the cage and in the headlines. However, his recent falling out with the company led to his release and the stripping of his title earlier this week. Suddenly, all signs seem to point to Brooks making his way to the Octagon sooner rather than later. After already proving himself as one of the top lightweights outside of the UFC, it only makes sense for Brooks to want to prove himself on the big stage.
If Brooks does end up under the Zuffa banner, it will provide a lot of answers as to how good the talent truly is outside of the UFC. Former Bellator champions like Eddie Alvarez, who will be competing for a UFC belt this summer, and Hector Lombard have made successful transitions over to the UFC roster over the past few years and proved that legitimate talent does still exist outside of the Octagon. However, both men have had their struggles inside the Octagon as well, especially early on. Due to not having quite the same amount of buzz around him as a free agent like Alvarez or Lombard did, Brooks is going to have to avoid those problems if he ends up signing with the UFC and wants to keep his reputation intact.
There’s a common term for fighters underperforming in their first UFC bout: Octagon jitters. While not everyone is affected by the bright lights and the big stage, enough fighters have been hampered by the scenario, including Alvarez and Lombard, that it’s rarely ignored at this point. While it’s not a bulletproof excuse, it’s become a simple way to explain away the struggles of a highly touted fighter upon their UFC arrival. While it does give a fighter a bit of leeway, nothing can erase a bad performance from the minds of fans. The fighters that truly walk into the UFC and make a splash seem to rise above the jitters and make things happen immediately.
Conor McGregor, Sage Northcutt and Paige VanZant come to mind as fighters who have taken the MMA world by storm by blasting through expectations in their debut. While Brooks doesn’t quite have the same amount of intrigue — he’s a known commodity, after all — an impressive performance from the jump would make a huge difference going forward. After Alvarez dropped his UFC debut to Donald Cerrone and Lombard lost an extremely lackluster decision to Tim Boetsch, Brooks is going to have to buck a minor trend of former Bellator champions looking unprepared for the Octagon. If he’s able to do this, then he could find himself in a top spot much faster than many anticipate.
The lightweight division is frequently called the deepest division in all of MMA, but unlike in past years where there was a clear hierarchy at the top of the rankings, the 155-pound weight class has been blown wide open over the past few years. Former champion Benson Henderson is now competing in a different organization, and the man that beat him, Anthony Pettis, has dropped three in a row. Top guys like the aforementioned Cerrone and Nate Diaz have left the division to take bigger fights at different weights. Even the top contender to the belt, Khabib Nurmagomedov, hasn’t been without his fair share of drama after only competing once since 2014 due to injuries.
The top contenders to the belt — Nurmagomedov, Alvarez, Tony Ferguson, Edson Barboza — aren’t anywhere near as popular as the old guard of the division used to be, and when popularity goes out of the window, only reputation and winning matter when it comes down to handing out title shots. It would only take a big win or two for Brooks to find himself firmly in the mix for a UFC title if given the opportunity. Brooks’ history as a champion in another organization and his current eight-fight winning streak give him a decent advantage over most of the other top contenders, and one win over a top-10 guy may even be enough to propel him straight to the top.
It’s still unclear whether or not Brooks is a top-five or even a top-10 lightweight, and since he hasn’t really beaten anyone outside of Chandler that would turn some heads, it’s impossible to really predict how he’ll fare when fighting that kind of competition on a fight-to-fight basis. However, the door is open for him to prove his worth. The sooner Brooks jumps on that opportunity, the better the chance he’s going to have to prove that he’s every bit as legit as he’s looked the last few years.
Obviously, this is all still speculation until Brooks decides to sign on the dotted line and make his way to the Octagon. However, the writing’s on the wall in terms of Brooks being able to score some big opportunities almost immediately if/when he decides to make the jump. He may be used to being a big fish in a small tank, but the talent Brooks possesses should allow him to be able to swim with the sharks and at the very least hold his own in one of MMA’s most competitive divisions.