Michael Chandler’s opinion on Charles Oliveira when he first came to the UFC wasn’t that different from most athletes and analysts around the sport.
Through 18 fights in the UFC, “Do Bronx” was a human highlight reel at times who seemed to fall short in his biggest opportunities. While there’s certainly no shame in losing to the likes of Frankie Edgar, Max Holloway, Anthony Pettis or Paul Felder, it felt like Oliveira had put together a big enough body of work to know his limitations in the sport.
But then he put together an impressive win streak in the lightweight division, which included seven consecutive finishes by knockout or submission. After dominating Tony Ferguson in a lopsided decision and then earning back-to-back wins over Chandler and Dustin Poirier to win and defend the UFC lightweight title, it’s safe to say the narrative around Oliveira has changed.
“You can’t get in a championship fight, almost get knocked out and lose a 10-8 round to me and come back and meet me in the center of the octagon like he did and win the fight or have somewhat of a lopsided win against Dustin Poirier, a finish but dominant two rounds and not have the opinion of yourself being a champion or being of championship caliber,” Chandler said about Oliveira while appearing on The Fighter vs The Writer. “We were wrong about Charles Oliveira. I’ll be the first to admit it as well.
“When I was talking about the top lightweights a year ago when I was coming into the UFC, I never would have thought that I would be challenging Charles Oliveira for the title or wanting to be chasing the gold and have it be around Charles Oliveira’s waist.”
After facing him in May and seeing the kind of resolve necessary to win a fight following a near-finish in the opening round, Chandler grew to respect Oliveira even more.
Combined with his third-round submission win over Poirier at UFC 269, Chandler believes Oliveira has done enough to be considered the Fighter of the Year for 2021.
“What Charles Oliveira has been able to do and he’s been in the UFC for so long and now to finally capture gold and then defend his gold against the guy everyone knew was the No. 1 contender in the world if not the best lightweight in the world in Dustin Poirier. It’s been a great year for him,” Chandler stated.
“I think that would probably be my pick for Fighter of the Year. Watching what Charles Oliveira has done this year. Claiming gold and then defending it against one of the best to ever do it at lightweight, one of the greatest lightweights of all time, will inevitably be a UFC Hall of Famer Dustin Poirier. Hats off to him. I think he would be my pick for Fighter of the Year.”
While the argument over Fighter of the Year is ultimately subjective — just like a debate about the pound-for-pound best in the sport — UFC welterweight champion Kamaru Usman has also made a compelling case to earn that accolade.
With three wins in 2021 over a trio of top-ranked welterweights in Gilbert Burns, Jorge Masvidal and Colby Covington and finishes in two of those outings, Usman has not only solidified himself as the best fighter in the world at 170 pounds, he’s put together the kind of resume over a calendar year that’s tough to match.
As a former training partner, Chandler has nothing but the utmost respect for Usman and his accomplishments but he wasn’t surprised to see “The Nigerian Nightmare” tear through three opponents inside a year. He can’t say the same where Oliveira is concerned.
“I think that’s the one thing that Charles had going against him,” Chandler explained. “He didn’t have as many fights in the year as Kamaru did. But the one thing Kamaru has going against him, if we’re talking about Fighter of the Year, is that unfortunately it’s almost as though we expected Kamaru to be that dominant. Our expectation of Kamaru was a little higher so when it comes to exceeding expectations and that feeling you get when you say what that guy did, that makes him Fighter of the Year, that for me is Charles Oliveira.
“Because I feel like it was unexpected. Would we have ever thought that Charles Oliveira would be the lightweight champion a year or year and a half ago? Obviously, he was still on a run but he was still fighting guys outside the top 10 and then all of a sudden comes inside the top 10 and has been finishing guys inside the top 10 for about a year or over a year. To cap it all off beating Dustin Poirier, one of the greatest to ever do it at lightweight. That’s where I see it. The exceeding of expectations for me is why I would give it to Charles.”
There’s no right or wrong answer when it comes to this particular award but Chandler has no problem giving credit where credit is due, even if that means praising an opponent who actually beat him this year.
“Kudos to him,” Chandler said about Oliveira. “Comeback Career of the Year, Fighter of the Year, that’s what Charles Oliveira is for me.”