Not just the momentum that carried Chandler back down to the canvas, completing his spontaneous, first ever back flip from the top of the fence, but also the momentum that had carried the former three-time Bellator lightweight champion through his UFC debut unscathed, leaving a number of intriguing bouts on the table – the same table where he had signed his contract with MMA’s flagship promotion last September.
Thirty-four years old when he completed his move to the UFC, Chandler said he was “not here for a long time, I’m here for a good time”. Having immediately been thrust into a back-up fighter role for Khabib Nurmagomedov’s title defence against Justin Gaethje in October, it seemed that Chandler might have had a long night, but not a good one, taking on the UFC’s undefeated lightweight champion – or even his peaking challenger.
Chandler, previously an NCAA Division 1 All-American wrestler, was not needed that night in Abu Dhabi, but his highly-anticipated UFC debut would follow three months later – also on Yas Island. Exactly halfway through the first round, Chandler starched Hooker.
Having chased the lanky New Zealander around the Octagon for the best part of two-and-a-half minutes, Chandler lowered Hooker’s guard with a right hand to the body before flooring his opponent with a left hook to the head. The American pummelled ‘The Hangman’ with piston strikes on the mat, forcing a stoppage. Seconds later, Chandler was propelling himself off the top of the cage, backwards through the air and to the top of the UFC’s lightweight division.
What followed was a Ric Flair-inspired, WWE-style promo as Chandler welcomed clashes with the main event’s combatants – Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier – and Nurmagomedov, whose retirement was at that point inevitable but unofficial.
Many of the 2,600 fans in the Etihad Arena and 1.6million viewers at home had been sceptics, but Chandler converted them with his knockout, acrobatics and mic skills at UFC 257. He had also no doubt delighted Dana White, emerging as an even more marketable star than the promotion’s president could have expected.
Within an hour of Chandler’s post-fight interview, Poirier had dismantled McGregor. Within two months, Khabib had officially retired. The UFC had the chance to turn UFC 257 into a retrospective lightweight tournament, with Poirier and Chandler meeting next for Nurmagomedov’s relinquished belt. In truth, there were numerous other valid match-ups for the vacant gold, but Poirier desired another seismic pay day in a trilogy bout with McGregor, leaving the title picture somewhat blurry.
Whereas Chandler (22-5) can channel professional wrestling pomp on the mic, Oliveira’s verbal jabs normally lose a little sting while the Brazilian waits for his interpreter to get to work. Whereas Hooker felt the power of the muscular All-American Chandler in the ring, the New Zealander has “broomsticks thicker than that boy” Oliveira in his cupboard. Whereas Chandler needed just 150 seconds in the ring – one win – to secure his spot in a UFC title fight, former featherweight Oliveira has required three years and eight straight victories.
Oliveira (30-8, 1 NC) seems the natural successor to former interim lightweight champion Tony Ferguson, the man he dominated on the mat across three rounds last time out. The Brazilian is a third-degree jiu-jitsu black belt who has achieved a remarkable 19 of his 30 victories by way of submission. He also has eight KOs to his name, demonstrating his versatility. Oliveira, 31, is a fluid fighter who is comfortable everywhere in the ring, who makes life incredibly uncomfortable for his opponents.
Notable in the lead-up to UFC 262, however, is who Oliveira is not, and who Chandler is not.
Neither man feels like the natural successor to Nurmagomedov. Perhaps no man could claim that title without having claimed ‘The Eagle’s title belt first-hand. The opportunity to do so has been erased by the Russian’s retirement.
Dismissing the unlikely possibility of a draw in Texas’ Toyota Center, the status of Chandler or Oliveira will be elevated to that of lightweight champion on Saturday. There will not be the extra elevation of having achieved that status by desecrating the undefeated record of Nurmagomedov, but either man would be a worthy champion – given the circumstances – by beating the other.
With Poirier, McGregor and Gaethje all in contention and Khabib’s talons no longer clenching the lightweight championship, the title could move freely between a number of talented combatants over the two years or so.
If the victor of Saturday’s main event is able to hold onto the gold for that length of time, however, he will go some way to marking himself out as a worthy successor to Nurmagomedov.
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