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HOUSTON – UFC 262 features one of the most unexpected championship matchups in recent memory, with 11-year UFC veteran Charles Oliveira taking on former Bellator champ Michael Chandler, who has all of two-and-a-half minutes of UFC experience.
It’s a fight that wasn’t even possible to book less than nine months ago, with Chandler (22-5 MMA, 1-0 UFC) still fulfilling the end of his Bellator contract before entering free agency. But even upon Chandler’s arrival, the idea of him facing Oliveira (30-8 MMA, 18-8 UFC) for a title seemed all but impossible, yet here we are, with the two headlining Saturday’s pay-per-view event at Toyota Center.
Chandler, 35, long has proclaimed himself as one of the best 155-pound fighters on the planet and thinks he didn’t necessarily get the respect he deserved while spending the past decade with Bellator, where he served as one of the organization’s most prominent figures. But after debuting in the UFC with a scintillating first-round knockout of Dan Hooker this past January, he believes he’s proven his worth.
“It feels like this is the way it was supposed to be scripted the entire time,” Chandler told MMA Junkie. “Lot of ups, couple of downs, but every road led me here, and honestly, as soon as I made the decision – as soon as that door just crept open a little bit – I said I was going to come in, I was going to kick the door down and showcase my skills and prove what I have been saying over the last decade, that I believe I’m the best lightweight on the planet. And on Saturday night, I get to prove that.”
Oliveira: ‘I knew someday I would get it’
Charles Oliveira at UFC on FOX 31. (USA TODAY Sports)
Meanwhile, Oliveira has been fighting for the UFC since 2010, debuting just shy of his 21st birthday. While his skills immediately became evident after earning “Submission of the Night” wins over Darren Elkins and Efrain Escudero in his first two octagon appearances, Oliveira’s path to the title was anything but direct.
After suffering a pair of losses to Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone, the Brazilian proclaimed he was moving down to featherweight. However, he missed weight four times in 12 appearances in that division – the last one a stunning nine-pound infraction against Ricardo Lamas in 2016.
However, since returning to 155 pounds, Oliveira is an incredible 9-1, a run that includes a current eight-fight winning streak.
“It’s been 11 years,” Oliveira said through an interpreter. “There were losses. I learned, and I’m really happy for this opportunity.
“I never had a doubt. I knew some day I would get it. I knew some day I could fight for this title.”
Timing helps fight come together
Oliveira needed some help, to be sure. As a top free agent, it was clear Chandler’s path to the title could be short. After all, he was actually tabbed as backup fighter for last October’s UFC 254 headliner between then-champ Khabib Nurmagomedov and Justin Gaethje.
Nurmagomedov retired after the fight, and though it took UFC officials several months to recognize his decision, that set in motion the opportunity for Saturday’s headliner.
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With a vacant title up for grabs, former interim titleholder Dustin Poirier seemed a natural fit for one side of the equation, but he chose a big-money trilogy with Conor McGregor instead.
Chandler, currently ranked No. 7 in the latest USA TODAY Sports/MMA Junkie lightweight rankings, was a clear choice for the fight following his vicious finish of Hooker. Meanwhile, Oliveira sits at No. 3, and his lengthy streak, which included a one-sided decision win over Tony Ferguson in December, was enough to earn him a spot on the other side of the cage.
While the shadow of Nurmagomedov clearly looms large over the contest, UFC president Dana White believes there’s no question the winner should be recognized as a deserving champion.
“The guy who wins on Saturday night is the champion,” White said. “Khabib left. He’s not here, and one of these guys will win it, and one of these guys will start to defend the title.”
‘We’re going to put on a phenomenal show’
Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler face off.
It might take a few defenses of that title before either Oliveira or Chandler get widespread recognition as a truly deserving champion, but there is no question they are each deserving of the spotlight – even if the idea of them facing off for a UFC title seemed somewhat bizarre until very recently.
Either way, one of these two men will have a UFC belt wrapped around his waist Saturday night, and Chandler is expecting the type of fight that will earn them both praise, even from those who might have been initially reluctant.
“I don’t look at the skills that Charles Oliveira brings to the table,” Chandler said. “I don’t look at the record. I don’t look at the submission wins. I don’t look at the records that he has right now. I look at the fact that he’s had some (losing) streaks. I look at the fact that he’s been in the UFC almost as long as I’ve been fighting.
“He was just a young kid from Brazil with a glimmer in his eye hoping to be a UFC champion one day. All of a sudden, he gets that opportunity, and you think I’m going to be able to take that away from him? So I know we’re going to see the best Charles Oliveira on Saturday night. I expect that. The fans here in Houston, Texas at the Toyota Center expect that, and we’re going to put on a phenomenal show.”