In the inaugural years of the UFC, before the introduction of weight classes in response to criticism (and threats of banning the sport) from Senator John McCain, there was simply one open weight division.
There were also no doping policies, no official gloves or uniforms, and no judges, with the only way to win a fight being via KO, submission, or corner stoppage. It was a wild time.
After McCain got involved, there were a series of revisions, with weight classes being split between Heavyweight and Lightweight in 1997, before Lightweight was renamed to Middleweight for UFC 14, with Lightweight returning at UFC 16 for competitors under 170lbs. Two years later, at UFC 26, the Bantamweight division would be debuted.
The UFC Lightweight Title Lineage After the Madness at UFC 274 with Charles Oliveira and Justin Gaethje
The Inaugural Lightweight Championship and the Early Changes
In 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board decided to be proactive and invite MMA promoters to hold events in the state, with the intent to develop the Unified Rules that we know today, which established the five heavier weight classes we know today.
And so it was that on February 23rd, 2001, Jens Pulver would defeat Caol Uno at UFC 30 in a Unanimous Decision to claim the first UFC Lightweight Title (under the unified rules). He would continue to defeat Dennis Hallman and B.J. Penn by UD and Majority Decision before leaving the organization due to contractual issues, and the main issue was that promotions in Japan were offering to pay more than the UFC.
This would result in a four-man tournament between B.J. Penn, Matt Serra, Caol Uno, and Din Thomas at UFC 39. Penn and Uno would secure UD wins over Serra and Thomas, respectively, before facing off to a Draw at UFC 41. With no evident champion emerging from the tournament, the division would take a pause between 2003 and 2006.
The Return of the Lightweights
When the division eventually returned, the title would be put up for grabs at UFC 64 between the veteran Sean Sherk and The Ultimate Fighter Season 1 alum Kenny Florian.
The fight would go the distance, with Florian opening a gash on Sherk’s scalp with an elbow from guard in the second round that would see most fights today (especially in New York) immediately stopped.
The blood would continue to leak all over the octagon, Sherk, and Florian for the remainder of the fight, making it almost impossible for Florian to cinch up a submission.
Sherk would defend again at UFC 73 against Hermes Franca (yes, the guy who beat Nate Diaz by armbar in the WEC) before being stripped for steroid usage.
The Rise of BJ Penn
From the wreckage of Sherk’s downfall would rise a worthy champion in BJ Penn.
He would solidify the second-longest championship reign at Lightweight (812 Days), with all four of his Championship wins by finish, including challenging Georges St. Pierre for the Welterweight Title in the middle of his reign. Not to mention he’s now running for Governor of Hawaii.
BJ Penn would choke Joe Stevenson out in the second round of their bout for the vacant lightweight belt at UFC 80. He then defended the belt by knocking Sherk out in the third round when “The Muscle Shark” came to try to reclaim ‘his belt’ at UFC 84.
He would continue his reign after being defeated by St. Pierre by sinking in an RNC on Kenny Florian at UFC 101. “The Prodigy” would secure his last victory as lightweight champion after beating Diego Sanchez senseless before his corner threw in the towel. Sanchez would land only 8 of 108 strikes thrown in what many consider one of the greatest performances from a defending champion ever.
The Fall of BJ Penn
Not everywhere can be Honolulu, Hawaii (unfortunately), and so Penn’s reign would eventually come to an end in 2010 at UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi.
It was Penn’s first loss in the division since 2002. The fight was controversial, with 8-9 media members giving the fight to Penn, despite all three judges seeing the fight for Frankie “The Answer” Edgar.
Round 1 was razor close, with an argument to be made for Edgar based on simply being more active because the striking was that close. Round 2 is typically considered to have gone to Penn, who landed better counters and consistently landed the big shot at the end of the exchanges.
The third is again razor-close, with Edgar landing cleaner towards the end. While the fourth round is practically a mirror, except Penn lands a few bigger shots, giving him that round by a slightly larger margin.
The fifth shows Penn landing heavy early after Edgar scores the second takedown of the fight, landing one big ground and pound strike. Edgar would continue to push the pace, but Penn would finally begin to fade towards the end, allowing Edgar to edge out the final round and the judges’ scorecards.
“The Answer” and His Reign
Naturally, an immediate rematch would be scheduled for UFC 118: the company’s first event in Boston. Where Frankie “The Answer” Edgar would silence the nay-sayers in a 50-45 performance for the ages. Something akin to the recent rematch between Aljamain Sterling and Petr Yan.
Unfortunately, Edgar wouldn’t be given much chance to rest because Gray Maynard, the only man to beat Edgar (at the time), won a title shot opportunity the same night as Edgar cemented his place at the top.
The rematch would be scheduled for UFC 125 on New Year’s Day, 2011, in Las Vegas, Nevada. The fight would go down as one of the greatest of all time, with Maynard scoring a knockdown early before being pieced up by Edgar in the second. The fight would eventually be ruled a draw and the rematch scheduled for UFC 136.
The trilogy fight would begin eerily similar. Maynard landed big early, but the fight ended in the fourth round after Edgar landed a sharp uppercut and poured on the strikes to finish.
So, Edgar separated Maynard’s consciousness from this plane of existence and simultaneously avenged his one loss to that date while also erasing Maynard’s undefeated streak.
Here enters Benson Henderson to steal the belt out from under Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 by yet another controversial UD, breaking Edgar’s nose.
Again, a rematch to settle the debate would be scheduled for UFC 150, and the fight would leave fans even more confused than they were before.
Alas, the UFC Brass were seemingly convinced, and Henderson would be scheduled against Nate Diaz for UFC on Fox 5 and would score a fairly definitive win over the Stockton native in what was most certainly not Diaz’s best performance. Gilbert Melendez would be next for Henderson at UFC on Fox 7, and he’d retain his title via a split decision victory.
Wheaties Boxes and Mystic Macs
Now things get messy. Anthony Pettis would submit Henderson via first-round armbar at UFC 164 in 2013 before suffering a knee injury before his first scheduled defense. So, of course, it gave Pettis the perfect opportunity to coach a season of TUF (Season 20) opposite of Gilbert Melendez (and get his face on a Wheaties Box in the process), before submitting Melendez in the second round via guillotine at UFC 181, becoming the first to finish him.
Rafael Dos Anjos would subsequently win an impressive UD over Pettis at UFC 185 and would defend against Donald Cerrone, whom he would dispatch with a round one TKO, a fate mirrored in RDA’s next fight, as he would lose to Eddie Alvarez by R1 KO.
Later that year, at UFC 205, Conor McGregor would ensure Alvarez’s reign was a short one, finishing him in the second round, becoming the first-ever active double champion in UFC history in Madison Square Garden, November of 2016.
The One That Got Away
Following McGregor’s ascension to super-stardom and his endeavor to fight Floyd Mayweather for more money than God, Tony Ferguson, now on a nine-fight streak, was scheduled to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov (for the third time) at UFC 209 for the Interim Title.
Nurmagomedov would suffer kidney failure during the weight cut, and with no other appropriate fighter, Ferguson was rescheduled for UFC 216 against Kevin Lee. Where Ferguson would touch Interim Gold via a triangle choke in the third round.
He and Nurmagomedov would be scheduled for a title fight at UFC 223, but Ferguson would be forced to pull out due to injury, marking the fourth time the bout had been cancelled, the second time for a title.
Ferguson would eventually be replaced by Al Iaquinta, who missed weight, making Nurmagomedov the only one eligible for the title, which he would do via mauling for 25 minutes, finally claiming the crown.
After defeating a returning McGregor at UFC 229 via round four Neck-Crank, Numagomedov would not compete again until UFC 242, where he defeated Interim Champ Dustin Poirier (who had won the title in a five-round war with Max Holloway at UFC 236) via third-round RNC (a theme for Poirier in undisputed title fights).
Yet again, the Ferguson fight would be booked for UFC 249, but COVID-19 travel restrictions resulted in the fifth and final cancellation of the bout. Ferguson’s chin would finally be cracked, and his legendary win streak shattered by replacement Justin Gaethje, who would lose by a mounted triangle to “The Eagle” at UFC 254 before the Nurmagomedov would retire undefeated and vacate the title.
Oliveira weathered the storm brought on by the three-time former Bellator Champion before sitting him down with a perfect check left hook and follow-up shots in the second.
His fight with Dustin Poirier in December 2021 would go remarkably similarly, with Poirier putting it on the Brazilian in the first, before spending most of the second in full guard, being smothered by Charles, and finally submitting via RNC in the third to “do Bronx”.
In May 2022, Oliveira would controversially miss weight by 0.5lbs after a supposed reset of the scale after the Friday night weigh-ins, meaning that several fighters went to sleep believing they were on weight and then were forced to cut further.
This would mean that Oliveira would be stripped of the title before entering the ring with Gaehtje, meaning that only the Arizona native would be eligible to win the belt (forcing a similar situation to Nurmagomedov and Al Iaquinta).
The fight would go down as one of the best first rounds in history, with both men scoring knockdowns before Oliveira would wrap up his signature RNC. Standing, scrambling, sprawling, top, bottom, he doesn’t care. Once he hides his hand, it’s over.
Oliveira extends his leads in company records for most finishes (19), and most submissions (15). Dana White would reveal afterward that Oliveira would retain his PPV points and fight next for the vacant undisputed lightweight title.