We're just days away from UFC 262 and crowning a new lightweight champion. UFC is back in action this Saturday from Houston with a loaded fight card that will take place in front of a sold-out capacity arena at the Toyota Center. Top contenders Michael Chandler and Charles Oliveira headline the card as they vie for the vacant lightweight title.
While this card took a hit in recent days and weeks -- notably losing Nate Diaz vs. Leon Edwards and Edmen Shahbazyan vs. Jack Hermansson -- there's still plenty to get excited about.
Let's take a closer look at the storylines entering this weekend.
1. Something is missing in this vacant title bout
That something -- or someone -- is top 155-pound contender Dustin Poirier who, fresh off a stunning TKO of Conor McGregor in their January rematch, chose the money of a trilogy fight over a shot at the UFC lightweight title. The reality is, Poirier should've already fought for the vacant or interim title long before thanks to Khabib Nurmagomedov's initial retirement (and UFC president Dana White refusal to accept it). With no disrespect intended to the two combatants headlining Saturday's card, Poirier is the best active fighter at 155 pounds and his resume explains it all. Considering how star-studded this division has been in recent years, Chandler and Oliveira couldn't be more unassuming in terms of their personalities entering this title bout. While both have been impressive in getting to this point, it still feels like the wrong matchup at the wrong time as it pertains to who is most deserving.
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2. Oliveira vs. Chandler could still be spectacular
On paper, this fight hits about ever possible metric of excitability. Two aggressive fighters with something massive to prove entering the biggest fight of their respective careers sounds like a recipe for excitement. This should be high pace and electric with plenty of turns in momentum when considering Chandler's fight-ending power and Oliveira's exciting submission game. The 31-year-old Oliveira has won eight straight fights including seven by stoppage. Chandler, meanwhile, looks to follow longtime rival Eddie Alvarez as former Bellator MMA lightweight champions who equaled that feat in the UFC after becoming a free-agent pickup.
3. Chandler's path to UFC gold would be the perfect storm
Although Chandler's UFC signing was rightfully met with fanfare given how in demand his services were after his Bellator contract expired, it was also gratuitous in the sense that the promotion was already overloaded with an historically deep lot of 155-pound fighters. The fact that the seas of the division parted in such a perfect way for Chandler to secure a title shot at UFC 262 makes one wonder whether destiny played a part. Nurmagomedov retired but not before defeating Justin Gaethje and longtime stalwart Tony Ferguson dropped two fights in succession. Then there was the rekindling of the Poirier-McGregor rivalry that kept both pre-occupied. Finally, Chandler was given no easy task to begin with for his UFC debut in January against Dan Hooker. But great risk also brings along the possibility of great reward and Chandler's first-round knockout of Hooker at the most opportune time possible opened up the door for him to face Oliveira. Winning a title in just his second UFC bout would put Chandler in the same company as Anderson Silva in 2006 and would have him slightly ahead of the three fights Brock Lesnar needed in 2008. Heck, if we are getting technical, both Jose Aldo and Ronda Rousey merged into UFC from WEC and Strikeforce, respectively, and were named UFC champions before even making their Octagon debut. Yet Chandler's story still feels unique in how unlikely things have perfectly gone his way.
4. Tony Ferguson is sitting precariously at the crossroads
At 37 and fresh off one-sided defeats to elite contenders like Gaethje and Oliveira, it's hard to know for sure what version of Ferguson to expect in Saturday's pivotal tilt against red-hot Beneil Dariush. Ferguson famously missed out on five different chances to fight Nurmagomedov, including the final three for at least a piece of the lightweight title. Along the way, Ferguson has accrued heavy damage even while winning and made remarkable turnarounds from serious injury. So mileage is certainly a potential factor in this one. Has Ferguson simply dropped one notch below the elite level, as evidenced by his recent defeats? Or has Ferguson fallen much harder and faster? In some ways, given Dariush's hunger to finally prove he belongs among the elite following a six-fight win streak, this fight is the perfect example of great matchmaking to find out just that.
5. Expect Shane Burgos and Edson Barboza to steal the show
Both fighters could badly use a win to retain stature in the crowded featherweight rankings. Both also possess the kind of fighting styles that don't allow a backward step. Did I mention both were high-flying and borderline reckless at times? Burgos, 30, hasn't fought since losing a three-round thriller to Josh Emmett in June 2020 to snap a three-fight win streak. Barboza, meanwhile, won a decision in October from Makwan Amirkhani to snap a skid of three straight defeats. Barboza looks reborn after cutting down to 145 pounds and this one has all the makings to be spectacular.