Charles Oliveira reached the pinnacle of MMA at UFC 262 by beating Michael Chandler to win the vacant UFC lightweight championship. The contest was a microcosm of Oliveira’s career, starting quickly, then fading and appearing to wilt under pressure, before rallying to secure the knockout victory in the second round. The Brazilian celebrated in memorable fashion, vaulting the Octagon to first speak to the commentators, then moving to thank UFC President Dana White, before running to embrace close friends who were cage side. It was a moment that was nearly 11 years in the making and was made even sweeter for Oliveira considering the long, arduous journey it had taken him to get there. The Brazilian had fought 28 times in the Octagon by the time he became champion, the most of any fighter in the promotion’s history.
The shadow of Khabib Nurmagomedov continues to loom large over this division but Oliveira now finds himself in a position where he can leave his own indelible mark on the sport. His first title defense is expected to be against the winner of the Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor trilogy bout which is due to take place at UFC 264 on July 10. Regardless of who wins that fight, it seems certain that Oliveira’s next contest will be the biggest of his career. McGregor is the biggest draw in the history of the sport, while Poirier was already a household name in the MMA community even before his win over the Irishman in January.
After Poirier knocked out McGregor at UFC 257, the Louisiana native was widely considered to be the best active lightweight on the planet. He was expected to be in the vacant lightweight title bout that was set to be scheduled following Nurmagomedov’s retirement. However, Poirier chose to purse the substantial financial reward that comes with a third McGregor bout instead of competing for the belt. It was subsequently announced that Oliveira would take on former Bellator lightweight king Michael Chandler, who delivered a highlight-reel knockout of Dan Hooker in his Octagon debut in the UFC 257 co-main event.
Beating Chandler for the title was the crowning achievement of Oliveira’s career but there is a feeling among some in the MMA community that he had not yet proved himself as the best lightweight in the world. Through no fault of his own, he was denied the opportunity to fight Poirier, the man who many believe he needs to overcome to be thought of as the definitive best at 155 pounds.
As strange as it may sound, for a man who has been fighting in the UFC since he was 20, Oliveira has spent the bulk of his career flying under the radar of fans and media alike. This was highlighted as recently as his last fight, where the bulk of the UFC’s promotion appeared to revolve around Chandler. The fact that the American was a newcomer to the UFC also contributed to the relative lack of spotlight on the event in comparison to the fights during Nurmagomedov’s reign.
Oliveira will have to adjust to the increased scrutiny that he will inevitably be confronted with in his next bout. “Do Bronx” displayed an ability to overcome adversity in his title-winning effort, something which was previously questioned by Chandler and many others within the sport. However, the more calculated fighters in this division, such as Poirier and McGregor, are not as likely to give him an opportunity to escape if they hurt him to that extent.
The circus that surrounds a McGregor fight will also be a significant hurdle he will need to overcome should the Irishman prevail in July. The more understated Poirier isn’t likely to engage in trash talk, but possesses a brand of quiet confidence which has been forged by an outstanding record in the UFC lightweight division, 10 wins, two losses and one no-contest. Along the way, “The Diamond” has defeated several former world champions and would undoubtedly present a formidable challenge for Oliveira.
UFC light heavyweight kingpin Jan Blachowicz only felt truly validated as the best in his weight class after he successfully defended his title against Israel Adesanya, who is one of the biggest stars in the UFC. Oliveira evidently doesn’t share the same sentiment, as could be inferred from his joyous celebrations at UFC 262. Beating McGregor would give the 31-year-old the mainstream exposure that has eluded him thus far and significantly increase his earning potential. Getting the better of Poirier would legitimize the Brazilian as champion in the eyes of many and would dismiss the notion that his victory over Chandler was a result of a lucky escape.
A significant aspect of the modern fighter’s legacy is is their marketability and box office appeal. The aforementioned Nurmagomedov’s brand was strengthened by his ability to speak on the microphone, most notably delivering many memorable lines during his bitter rivalry with McGregor. Oliveira’s inability to speak English and general lack of self-promotion has meant that his rise to the top has almost come by surprise. This has not hindered his ability to connect with fans, as he received a positive reception from the Houston crowd during his walkout despite taking on a man who emerged as a fan favorite himself during fight week. The 31-year-old further endeared himself to the audience in the way he overcame adversity to win and with the outpouring of emotion he displayed upon being announced as champion.
There have been athletes in the UFC, such as Demetrious Johnson, who in spite of their incredible resumes inside the Octagon, failed to transcend the sport and reach the mainstream audience. For Oliveira, it would be important to learn from these fighters.
Whomever became lightweight champion following Nurmagomedov has to deal with the pressure of being compared to one of the greatest fighters of all time. Oliveira already has incredible accolades to his name, including the most finishes and the most submissions in UFC history. If he manages to defend his title on multiple occasions, then his reputation will ascend to a level that would have seemed unfathomable not too long ago. The man hailing from the favelas of Guaruja, Sao Paulo, Brazil has now achieved his dream of becoming a UFC champion. In the near future, he may very well have his sights set on having the entire MMA world at his feet.
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