Charles Oliveira may no longer be the official UFC lightweight champion after forfeiting his title on the scales last Friday. His subsequent performance, however, submitting Justin Gaethje in the first round at UFC 274 in Phoenix, has gone a long way in making that key footnote nothing more than a moot one for the 155-pound division's new No. 1 contender.
With or without the belt around his waist, the current win streak of Oliveira (33-8, 1 NC) has gone a long way in declaring him the best lightweight on the planet not named Khabib Nurmagomedov, who retired following his final fight in late 2020. The only question remaining is how much there still is for Oliveira, 32, left to do before the Brazilian star passes Nurmagomedov as the greatest 155-pound champion in UFC history.
Nurmagomedov (29-0) took such a circuitous path to his first title shot in 2018, thanks to injuries and bad luck, that he only managed a trio of title defenses, placing him tied for most in division history with fellow former champions BJ Penn, Frankie Edgar and Benson Henderson. But "The Eagle" has been largely able to separate himself from the pack because of his outright dominance as lightweight king, which included stoppage wins over former champions Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier (interim) and Gaethje (interim) while barely losing a single round throughout his entire career.
Oliveira spent five years in the UFC's featherweight division between 2012-17, which meant he never crossed paths with Nurmagomedov at 155 pounds. In fact, when the native of Russia outpointed late replacement Al Iaquinta for the vacant lightweight title in 2018, Oliveira had just wrapped up a stretch in which he was 2-4 in his last six fights, culminating in a 2017 TKO loss to Paul Felder.
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The good news for Oliveira is that he would never lose again inside the Octagon. In fact, two months after Nurmagomedov first wore the belt around his waist, Oliveira submitted Clay Guida to kick off his current streak of 11 straight victories, including an astounding 10 by stoppage.
Oliveira now owns UFC records for both submission wins (16) and overall finishes (19). And even though he fails to match Nurmagomedov's clean sheet throughout his pro career with eight losses (and a total of five times missing weight), he has clearly used the lessons learned from defeat to round out his game while building an almost other worldly level of resolve and self confidence.
Now that his striking has caught up with the dangers he presents on the ground, it wouldn't be out of the question to call Oliveira the most dangerous finisher in UFC title history. It's a moniker best defended by the stat that reveals only four of Oliveira's 42 pro fights have ever needed the judges' decision to render an outcome.
In theory, all Oliveira might need to supplant Nurmagomedov as the greatest UFC lightweight champion would be a few more title defenses. Yet a closer look at their respective lightweight resumes shows they may not be all that far off right now.
Because Nurmagomedov fought just once in 2014, 2017, 2019 and 2020 (along with missing 2015 altogether due to a knee injury), his UFC run consists of just 13 fights, all of which he won, although six of them went the distance. And even though Nurmagomedov does hold an impressive 2014 demolition of former 155-pound champion Rafael dos Anjos, the bulk of his legend was built upon his final five bouts, which include elite wins over Edson Barboza, Iaquinta, McGregor, Poirier and Gaethje.
Oliveira's current run since returning to lightweight in 2017 produced a similar stretch to Nurmagomedov in that it has consisted of 13 fights. Oliveira is 12-1 over that stretch, with only one fight going the distance. But it's his own recent five-fight stretch against a series of former champions and title contenders that might be even better than Nurmagomedov closed out his career with.
Beginning in 2020, Oliveira defeated Kevin Lee and Tony Ferguson (who entered 12-1 over his last 13) before knocking out Michael Chandler to capture the vacant title Nurmagomedov left behind. Since then, Oliveira has been even more dominant by submitting Poirier (as a betting underdog) before doing the same to Gaethje.
Oliveira vs. Nurmagomedov by resume
Last five fights
Justin Gaethje (Rd. 1 submission -- 2022)
Justin Gaethje (Rd. 2 submission -- 2020)
Dustin Poirier (Rd. 2 submission -- 2021)
Dustin Poirier (Rd. 3 submission -- 2019)
Michael Chandler (Rd. 3 TKO -- 2021)
Conor McGregor (Rd. 4 submission -- 2018)
Tony Ferguson (UD -- 2020)
Al Iaquinta (UD -- 2018)
Kevin Lee (Rd. 3 submission -- 2020)
Edson Barboza (UD -- 2017)
While the breakup in the lineage of Oliveira's title reign due to missing weight last weekend will mean he will need to work harder to add enough title defenses to pass Nurmagomedov, he's closing in at an alarming pace. And a big part of Oliveira's success has centered upon his willingness to place himself in precarious situations (while often absorbing damage in the process) without succumbing to the danger in front of him.
Oliveira's ability to swim so consistently in the deep end of the pool against some of this generation's most dangerous action stars has been eye opening. And it has clearly helped his cause as it pertains to the eye test of mythical matchmaking, as many experts are now openly wondering whether it is Oliveira -- and not Ferguson, who signed to fight Nurmagomedov five times without ever actually touching gloves inside the cage -- who had the best chance all along in handing "The Eagle" his first defeat.
On paper, at least, Oliveira's case is pretty strong. His grappling skills and the danger he presents from his back are the perfect antidote to Nurmagomedov's dominant wrestling game. Oliveira has also evolved enough on his feet that the edge in striking would certainly go his way when compared to Nurmagomedov.
The question you are probably thinking isn't a bad one: how many more dominant wins would Oliveira need to have before Nurmagomedov, 33, might get the itch to return and hold his place in history?
Given the promise regarding retirement he made to his parents, including his late father and trainer Abdulmanap, it's far from likely Nurmagomedov ever gives us that shot at 155-pound closure. But that doesn't mean it's impossible, especially considering Nurmagomedov now trains the one fighter most deserving of the next shot at the title in Islam Makhachev (22-1), who is currently riding his own 10-fight win streak of domination.
Being deserving of the title, however, never guarantees one will get it, which means Makhachev could find himself waiting as everyone from Chandler (in a rematch) to even McGregor might cut the line in front of him based upon the decisions of UFC matchmakers. Under that scenario, it would only be apropos for Oliveira to end up facing a fighter trained by Nurmagomedov for the shot at potentially passing him on the list of greatest lightweight champions in UFC history.
Either way, Oliveira's current run of eight performance of the night bonuses over his last 10 wins has produced one of the most memorable stretches the Octagon has ever seen. Given how historically deep the division has been during his win streak, it might not be long before Oliveira passes the only UFC champion to walk away unblemished on his way to lightweight immortality.