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On Saturday, barring something unforeseen, either Charles
Oliveira
or Michael
Chandler
will become the 11th man to wear the Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight
belt.

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


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