Big Weekend for the UFC’s Lightweight Division – as New Champion Will Be Crowned
As the dust settles following Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement from the sport of MMA, the UFC’s most talent-rich division will find a new ruler. ‘Iron’ Michael Chandler vs Charles ‘Do Bronx’ Oliveira for the vacant 155lb belt headlines in front of an expected sold-out arena in Houston, Texas – with several other great fights on the card with close betting odds.
This Saturday night (or Sunday morning for the hardcore European fans), for the first time since 2016, a new, undisputed, lightweight king will be crowned. The winner of the main event will likely await the winner of McGregor vs Poirier 3 – with Poirier choosing the trilogy over the championship bout after his KO win against McGregor at UFC 257.
Missing from the original card is co-headliner Leon Edwards vs Nate Diaz, postponed after an undisclosed injury sustained by Diaz, and Edmen Shahbayzan vs Jack Hermansson (being pushed back by a month).
From Top to Bottom:
#4 Michael Chandler (22-5) vs #3 Charles Oliveira (30-8-1NC)
As a 3-time Bellator World Champion, Michael Chandler looks to join old foe Eddie Alvarez and Cris ‘Cyborg’ as only the third fighter to hold a world-title under both Bellator and UFC banners. Fighting in Bellator from 2010 to 2020, Chandler was often cited as one of the best – if not the best – fighters not competing for the global leader.
The all-American wrestler punctuated his arrival in the UFC with a thunderous TKO victory over top-contender Dan Hooker, and subsequently finds himself on the brink of validation as one of the greatest lightweights to ever compete in MMA. The Missouri native, fighting out of Sanford MMA under the great Henri Hooft, has a tremendously well-rounded game; with knockout power (10 KOs), elite grappling (NCAA Div. 1 wrestling and 7 submission victories), and conditioning that allows him to pressure from bell-to-bell.
He will likely look to pressure forward and knock Oliveira out with the dynamite in his hands, as, even with such a good grappling pedigree, you would imagine Oliveira’s submissions are on another level. If he is successful in his quest, it will be the second-fastest ascension to a title in UFC history at 111 days – behind Anderson Silva at 108 days.
Previous 3 bouts: Dan Hooker (TKO Round 1 – W), Benson Henderson (KO Round 1 – W), Sidney Outlaw (KO Round 1 – W)Michael Chandler finishes then #6-ranked Dan Hooker in his Octagon debut.
Making his UFC debut in 2010, Oliveira has seen it all in his tenure with the organisation; wins and win streaks, losses and losing streaks. His name is attached to several company records; most submission wins (14), most ‘Performance of the Night’ bonuses (10), and tied for most finishes with ‘Cowboy’ Cerrone (16). Now? After 27-fights in the Octagon, currently on an 8-fight win-streak, he vies to finally reach the pinnacle of the sport as he enters his prime at 31-years old.
If we are to give Chandler the compliment of being ‘tremendously well-rounded’, then we must say the same about ‘Do Bronx’.
A black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu for 11-years, he has supplemented this with crisp – and ever-improving – striking technique and a powerful offensive-wrestling game that was on full display against Tony Ferguson. He will feel dangerous if Chandler puts him on his back, and therefore will be comfortable striking with him on the feet and letting his kicks go. His performance against Ferguson showed he has the gas tank to push the pace for three full rounds; he has been scheduled for five rounds before but has never gone past the third.
Previous 3 bouts: Tony Ferguson (Decision – W), Kevin Lee (Submission Round 3 – W), Jared Gordon (KO Round 1 – W)Oliveira solidified his place in the fight for the vacant title with a dominant performance over Tony Ferguson last time out.
#5 Tony Ferguson (25-5) vs #9 Beneil Dariush (20-4-1)
From 2013 to 2020, it could be argued that Tony Ferguson was the most feared lightweight in the history of MMA. In what must be the most cursed bout in combat sports, he was booked to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov five times, only for it to always be cancelled – and thus he never fought for the undisputed title.
With unique creativity, and endless gas tank, and seemingly no-holes in his game, he seemed to always lure his foes into a war that they could not win. ‘El Cucuy’ fights were often violent masterpieces as he wore the blood of his opponents from his slicing elbows. However, in the beatdown he received at the hands of Justin Gaethje, he looked like he had finally succumbed – physically and mentally – to the taxing nature of the sport.
In his next fight, he lost a unanimous decision against a surging Charles Oliveira who would not be denied, begging the question of whether ‘father-time’, as they call it, had caught ‘the Boogeyman’ of the division.
This is a must-win fight for Ferguson, and although it’s unlikely that the UFC will cut a big-name, highly-ranked guy like himself, it will make it very difficult for him to work his way back into the title picture at 37 years of age. We will see if we have been too quick to say that he is ‘finished’, after all, the only two men he has lost to since 2012 currently make up two-thirds of the top-three; Oliveira (fighting for the title on this card) and Gaethje (the last man to face Khabib).
Previous 3 bouts: Charles Oliveira (Decision – L), Justin Gaethje (TKO Round 5 – L), Donald Cerrone (TKO Round 2 – W)Can Tony Ferguson re-establish himself as one of the elite at 155lbs?
I seem to be saying this for each athlete, but Beneil Dariush is as complete a fighter as they come. Under the tutelage of Rafael Cordeiro he has formed into an elite-level talent with a wide range of weapons; possessing black-belts in both Muay-Thai and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu – a multiple-time No-Gi World Champion in the latter. Like Ferguson, he has the ability to chaotically scrap with his opponent, be in seemingly unfavourable positions, and find a way to come out 0n top – see his fight with Drakkar Klose.
Dariush has said he will try to ‘out-crazy’ Ferguson, which could result in a high-paced affair, with both fighters able to test each other wherever the fight ends up. This is a matchup that allows Dariush the potential for a signature win over a highly-respected mainstay of the division, that would likely result in a no.1 contender fight.
Previous 3 bouts: Carlos Diego Ferreira (Decision – W), Scott Holtzman (KO Round 1 – W), Drakkar Klose (KO Round 2 – W)Dariush walks away after a crowd-pleasing, comeback KO victory over Drakkar Klose.
#8 Matt Schnell (15-5) vs #9 Rogerio Bontorin (16-3- 1NC)
Fighting out of the American Kickboxing Academy, Schnell is a black-belt karateka and purple-belt in jiu-jitsu with a sublime nickname; ‘Danger’. With eight of his wins coming via submission, Schnell will not be afraid to go to the mat with Bontorin, and this may turn out to be a grappling chess match.
Having experience at bantamweight, and three inches in height, Schnell will be the bigger man in the cage and will look to use this to his advantage in any grappling exchanges. The former LFA flyweight champion will look to make his case for a top-five opponent next and to go 2-0 in 2021.
Previous 3 bouts: Tyson Nam (Decision – W), Alexandre Pantoja (KO Round 1 – L), Jordin Espinosa (Submission Round 1 – W)
Winning his UFC contract on Dana White’s Contender series, Bontorin has gone 2-2 since joining the promotion. His last fight with Kara-France was one that he was winning until he wasn’t – as Kara-France stamped his comeback with a KO victory late in the round that was somewhat marred by Herb Dean’s indecisive stoppage.
The black belt in Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu will feel he has an advantage on the mats, despite his size disadvantage, with eleven of his wins coming by way of submission. Bontorin will seek to break his two-fight skid and make a case for a higher ranked opponent – and possibly a rematch with Kara-France.
Previous 3 bouts: Kai Kara-France (KO Round 1 – L), Ray Borg (Decision – L), Raulian Paiva (TKO Round 1 – W)
#2 Katlyn Chookagian (15-4) vs #7 Viviane Araujo (10-2)
Trading wins and losses in her last 5 bouts, perennial contender Katlyn Chookagian looks to make her case for a second shot at flyweight Queen, Valentina Shevchenko, with a big win this weekend. The Renzo Gracie fighter is 5-inches taller and has experience at bantamweight, and so will be the larger woman in the cage come fight night. Like the other contenders in the division, it seems like she is fighting for the #2 spot as Shevchenko is so dominant. However, with a big win over Araujo she can stake her claim as the no.1 contender.
Opting for volume overpower with her strikes, she is not one for finishing the fight on the feet, but her grappling and top-pressure is anything but weak, which should make for an interesting grappling battle – against the cage and on the mat.
Previous 3 bouts: Cynthia Calvillo (Decision – W), Jessica Andrade (TKO Round 1 – L), Antonina Shevchenko (Decision – W)
Viviane Araujo will attempt to build on her two previous victories over Modafferi and De La Rosa in what is the biggest fight of her career to date. The Brazlian Jiu Jitsu black-belt will believe she has the advantage on the floor in what may turn out to be a grappling-heavy affair. With a 94% takedown defence she is extremely difficult to ground, and she may look to tire Chookagian out and make her work before looking for the finish later on.
As she also showed against Modafferi, Araujo’s striking is always improving as she develops a rounded game. At 4-1 since entering the UFC, with a win against a staple of the division like Chookagian she can insert herself into the title picture.
Previous 3 bouts: Roxanne Modafferi (Decision – W), Montana De La Rosa (Decision – W), Jessica Eye (Decision – L)
#9 Shane Burgos (13-2) vs #13 Edson Barboza (21-9)
In what may turn out to be Fight of the Night, ‘Hurricane’ Shane Burgos looks for a trademark win against a battle-tested veteran in Barboza. In a recent episode of UFC Embedded, Michael Chandler revealed Burgos as his favourite on the roster, and it’s easy to see why; with three ‘Fight of the Night’ performances and 10 of his 13 wins coming via finish.
His technical war with Josh Emmet showed his resilience, chin, and frenetic pace, as well as his stand-up skills – as he displayed a beautiful low-kick game. He carries his power throughout the entire fight, and will look to weaponise his pace against Barboza to offset his kicking game.
Previous 3 bouts: Josh Emmet (Decision – L), Makwan Amirkhani (TKO Round 3 – W), Cub Swanson (Decision – W)
Across from him is Edson Barboza, a longtime contender at 155lbs, who possesses a legendary highlight-reel in the UFC. Since moving down to featherweight, Barboza has gone 1-1 and endeavours to build on his win over Amirkhani in October and lock in his spot in the top-ten. Often cited as one of the best kickers in MMA history, he is the only man in UFC history to finish a fight via head kick, body kick, and leg kick.
Recently negotiating a fresh contract with the UFC, he will hope to show his superior technical ability in the stand-up en route to a victory, and open up the door for other big matchups at 145lbs.
Previous 3 bouts: Makwan Amirkhani (Decision – W), Dan Ige (Decision – L), Paul Felder (Decision – L)
Ones to Watch Further Down the Bill:
Lando Vannata vs Mike Grundy
Vannata is always fun to watch – see his short-notice fight with Tony Ferguson and his spinning heel-kick knockout of John Makdessi. He is very creative and always comes to scrap. Grundy, of England’s Team Kaobon, is 1-1 in the UFC and will look to make a statement following some inactivity.
Ronaldo Souza vs Andre Muniz
‘Jacare’ Souza has hit somewhat of a rough patch as of late (including an unsuccessful venture to 205lbs), and with ageing and/or loss-streaking fighters being cut from the organisation on a seemingly weekly basis the 41-year old will want to show he is still dangerous and worth his place on the roster. With 13 of his 20 wins coming by submission, Muniz will be a willing grappling partner with Jacare – so you can expect to see some high-level jiu-jitsu. Muniz actually fought – and won – on the same card that Jacare headlined – and lost – at 205lbs against Blachowicz.