Debating Legacies: Khabib vs. Charles Oliveira
UFC 274 was an event that served up a lot of questions - especially in terms of the lightweight top-10 - where the standout performance of the night, that riveting one-round affair between Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje - left even more fans convinced of Do Bronx’s merits as one of the greatest fighters of his era.
And though the belt is now vacant, there is little doubt in our minds as to who the best lightweight on the planet is - or at least we know for sure the greatest 155lb fighter is in terms of accomplishments - because, of course, the Islam Makhachev question is still there - and it’s perhaps even more interesting than ever before.
But now, with his victories, his finishes of Dustin Poirier, Michael Chandler, Justin Gaethje, and that complete shut-out of Tony Ferguson - a lot of fans have started to wonder at just how far Oliveira is from Khabib Nurmagomedov’s undeniable position as the greatest lightweight of all-time.
Closing the Gap
And while I know that a lot of you may recoil at even the suggestion that Khabib can be dethroned but let’s be realistic, while I would argue that there is still a gap between him and Oliveira - and we will get into the reasons why shortly - I’d also say that even with his past shortcomings, there is absolutely no way anyone can say that Charles will never be greater than Khabib.
It just doesn’t make any sense - unless you’re taking a totally one-dimensional view of a career and you like big pretty numbers beside zeroes.
But in my eyes, just for the record, I do think that Khabib is definitely in a league of his own - even now.
However, it’s not his record or his lack of losses - or even his number of title defenses that do it for me.
So let’s get into this unavoidable topic and I’ll give you my thoughts and why I think it’s a conversation worth having.
Khabib: Peak Performance
I suppose to start, the main question that is worth answering is ‘why exactly is Khabib Nurmagomedov the greatest lightweight of all-time?’
Well, for me, the things that make Khabib the greatest lightweight of all-time and one of the 7 or 8 greatest fighters of all-time are mainly to do with the peaks he reached and the consistency at which he was able to operate from those peaks.
It’s not the full story - but it’s where I’ll begin.
Khabib was a force of nature in the cage that just didn’t have an equal. The game had no answer for his style - and over the course of his 13 UFC bouts - the game did not come any closer to figuring him out.
The effect that his overbearing form of pressure, top control, ground and pound, and submission skills had on that division was something that really hasn’t been seen before.
In situations with guys like GSP and Jon Jones where you knew how their fights would generally go if they were winning - how they would use their technical dominance to really make the gulf in quality quite clear - they still didn’t have Khabib’s incredible ability to break fighters, to make his victory more of an inevitability than anything else.
It was a fear factor that came about primarily because of just how difficult it was to have any form of success once he got a hold of you.
We’ve seen masterful strikers shut down opposition before - but this was something different, something far more straightforward to the eye.
Khabib smothered good fighters, great fighters, and he did this all while barely taking any damage.
And I think the things that hold him back under my own personal G.O.A.T criteria aren’t actually that important when assessing him as a talent within this game.
Yea, I certainly need my own G.O.A.T pick to have a bit more in the way of longevity - to really beat down his or her own generation before then proving the long-term viability of their style and its evolution by doing the same to the next generation.
But if we’re looking at Khabib as a talent, not hitting the number 1 spot is no real attack on the things that do make him great.
So where does Charles Oliveira stand in relation to The Eagle.
Well, here’s the thing - here’s the thing that’s really going to draw a line in the sand between the masses as a whole.
Personally, I think greatness can be condensed into a short or long peaks - fighters can be considered among the greatest examples of what a mixed martial artist can be - based purely on short, medium, or long stretches that show them operating on a truly high level.
Guys like Randy Couture, Conor McGregor - these are fighters who didn’t have the St-Pierre or Demetrious Johnson run of dominance - but in moments they achieved greatness.
And the two are not mutually exclusive.
And personally, I think it’s fair to judge fighters based on a mixture of their highs and lows - without letting the full story overshadow key phases.
But I also think the opposite can be true - how a long consistent run of say 8/10 level greatness could well be a seen as harder to do, harder to sustain.
I just think measuring greatness in MMA works in many different ways.
So when it comes to Charles Oliveira - looking at his career as a whole certainly doesn’t leave you with the clear, definitive answer to the greatness question that Khabib’s does.
But is it fair to hold Oliveira’s long and drawn out process of improvement against him?
I don’t think so.
I don’t even think that it should play into our assessment of his 155lb G.O.A.T status against Khabib’s.
People change, circumstances change, and sometimes the pieces can fit together for the most unlikely candidates - at the most unlikely of times.
And I think that, looking at Charles Oliveira on this recent run is a better way to judge him - looking at the fighter he became, in spite of his more inconsistent early days.
He’s a flawed fighter - certainly a far more flawed fighter than Nurmagomedov. But there’s something to that, something to the way he gets dropped - the way he has to rally in order to rebound that just makes him unmissable. It makes him a spectacle.
But I don’t know what that says in comparison to the unquestionable dominance of Khabib.
If you’re really on the side of Khabib being the 155lb G.O.A.T - like truly giving Charles no argument as things stand - maybe try to ask yourself the following question.
What if Oliveira goes 5 and 0 in his next five outings - beating the best of the best at 155lbs, finishing a lot of them - bringing more records into his possession?
What if by the time he retires he has that elusive ‘longest win streak in UFC history’ record - coupled with the most submissions the promotion has ever known?
I don’t ask these questions to be combative - but more because I want to know where your line is?
Does Charles have no chance of surpassing Khabib because he has already lost eight times in his career? And is that what you value? Does a loss that happened five, six, seven years ago factor so heavily into your own criteria that it overshadows present greatness?
Look, I don’t have the answer, I’m just out here asking questions.
For now, Khabib is certainly still the main man - but as this ongoing run - this imperfect, chaotic, but also totally riveting run of form continues - I think we all need to at least have the conversation - because if you can come up with a solid answer, it’ll really give you a clear impression of what you value from a truly great fighter.