Oliveira vs. Chandler for UFC lightweight gold would have sounded like a ridiculous fever dream just two or three years ago. At that time, the mercurial “Do Bronx” was already the greatest submission artist in the history of the division, but his history of in-fight lapses, blown weight cuts and suspect striking defense meant that few saw him as a future title contender. Meanwhile, “Iron Mike” was Bellator MMA’s most dominant champion and greatest homegrown star, and seemed highly unlikely ever to jump ship. However far-fetched it may have seemed a few years ago, these two unlikely but highly deserving greats are about to duke it out at UFC 262 this Saturday. The winner will be able to claim supremacy over perhaps the deepest, most competitive division in all of mixed martial arts.
It wasn’t always that way, of course. The UFC lightweight division was once so unloved that, thanks to a combination of lukewarm fan interest, a thin roster and a fluke fight outcome, the title lay vacant from March 2002, when champion Jens Pulver bolted over a contract dispute, until October 2006, when Sean Sherk defeated Kenny Florian to capture the title and rekindle the division. Unthinkable as it seems now, many fans during that four-and-a-half-year interregnum spoke about lightweight in the way some today talk about flyweight (men’s or women’s; take your pick), questioning whether the “little guys” would ever be a deep enough division to consistently develop title contenders — let alone sell pay-per-views — and wondering whether the UFC might not be better off abandoning it altogether.
Thankfully, the UFC never did give up on the division, and by the time of B.J. Penn’s long-awaited title reign in 2008, it was well on its way to becoming the force it is today. While most of the lightweight stars from Pride Fighting Championships chose to continue competing in Asia after the promotion was acquired by Zuffa in 2007, the UFC’s absorption of World Extreme Cagefighting in 2010 and Strikeforce in 2013 bolstered the already loaded division even further.
Here is the history of the UFC lightweight title. It tells a story of triumph over adversity and of turning away determined challengers: not only for the individual men who have held the belt but for the division itself.
Ben Duffy/Sherdog.com illustration