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Editorial: Tony Ferguson and Charles Oliveira are the flawed contenders lightweight needs

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UFC 256 offers a lot of fun matchups, but no matchup offers as much history as the lightweight bout between Tony Ferguson and Charles Oliveira.

UFC 249 Ferguson v Gaethje Photo by Douglas P. DeFelice/Getty Images

There was a time, not that long ago, when the lightweight hierarchy made total sense. The B.J. Penn era ended just in time for the WEC takeover. Although sadly for everyone involved, Penn stuck around long past his expiration date, tactically as well as physically. Once the WEC crew exited the thunderdome, 155 was a rotating door of one-and-done marksmen. For fours years, no lightweight champion could defend their title more than once. But we were cool with that because there was an ace up the division’s sleeve: Tony Ferguson vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov.

That last sentence could have been written in 2015, or 2018. It’s insane how long that fight stuck around in the UFC’s back pocket. Except for the glitch in the matrix known as Michael Johnson (and by ‘glitch’ I mean ‘MMA’s most underrated technician’), Tony and Khabib couldn’t be beat — even when the champions around them could.

We know the rest of this sordid history. Injuries kept them apart. Then the coronavirus kept us apart. Khabib would eventually claim that elusive gold. But then he retired, leaving Ferguson with a nightmare matchup in Justin Gaethje. Tony and Khabib were supposed to set lightweight straight. We’ve lost that. Could Ferguson vs. Oliviera be its janky successor?

Before you go running into the comments to set me straight with an admittedly well-deserved “lol”, let me clarify something that should be obvious. Oliveira is not half the fighter Khabib was. And we can’t say with any degree of certainty just how much “trouble” Ferguson would have posed for Khabib. So no, these fighters are nothing alike. This isn’t a strict comparison. It’s a spiritual one.

Ferguson, after all, remains elite. His technical wizardly is matchup only by his technical akwardness. With his beef jerky toughness, he’s as much a physical obstacle as he is a metaphysical one. No wonder he’s named after a ghost monster. But...it’s reasonable to question whether Ferguson is the same guy who happily rolled out of danger despite getting his head caved in against Anthony Pettis and Lando Vannata. Against Gaethje, the wide-eyed, mouthpiece-biting enthusiasm was replaced by a tattooed warrior no longer gleefully isolated against the grisly salvage of combat. Ferguson was always hit, and hurt, but never tormented. Until he met Gaethje.

Then there’s Oliveira: undefeated over the past two years, and riding a seven-fight win streak, consisting of all finishes no less. He’s only a year younger than Deiveson Figueiredo, who’s defending his title this weekend. With a fun ballot of punitive carpentry, he’s a threat wherever the fight goes; a true five-tools threat. The only reason he struggled early on his career is because the UFC watched him swim when he swam, and sank when he sunk — all around the same time he could legally drink in the US. But I can see why some people might consider Ferguson a bridge too far. Elite fighters tend to be like Tyson’s Punch Out: they all have a weakness — if you can spot it. However, Oliveira has more than just one weakness. He’s been hit (Swanson), hurt (Cerrone), and tormented (Felder).

I think that’s what makes this fight a big deal in its own way. No, I don’t expect to see the division end up with a Khabib-like champion in response to the outcome. Even if you think Ferguson was stylistically interesting enough to dethrone Khabib, it’s unrealistic to expect Ferguson to sustain the pace he’s historically fought at. But both men should be able to answer important questions about where we can expect their careers to climax, and what that says about the future of the division.

If Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson was always a window into where the division was headed, Ferguson vs. Oliveira might be the window into where the division went. It’s a weird thing to say. Khabib is still officially the champ. Even if his maybe-maybe not status remains a monolith-level mystery. Then you have Gaethje, Poirier, McGregor, and dos Anjos representing an additional crop of high-level contenders.

But Gaethje is only three years into his UFC career; a career that’s always seemed a little destined to be short. Poirier still ‘has’ featherweight. Dos Anjos still ‘has’ welterweight. McGregor has ‘had’ boxing. Ferguson and Oliveira on the other hand, have always had each other. It’s kind of sweet. For ten years, they’ve been figuring out how to put a bow on the lightweight division. With so much history bottled up in one fight, the matchup is bound to signal a more consistent future.