What’s next for the UFC’s lightweight division after UFC 257?
Dustin Poirier shocked the world when he knocked out Conor McGregor at UFC 257. At the same time, he shocked the system as it related to the company’s lightweight division.
Amid loads of uncertainty around UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov after his retirement in the fall of 2020, UFC president Dana White delivered a message ahead of UFC 257 saying that Nurmagomedov required something “spectacular” to draw him out of retirement in 2021.
Whether those words and sentiments were actually expressed by Nurmagomedov is unknown. But, the statement put all sorts of pressure on the four lightweights taking center stage on Fight Island in the UFC’s first pay-per-view of 2021: McGregor, Poirier, Dan Hooker, and newcomer Michael Chandler.
As UFC 257 came and went, however, it seemed like a lot changed, and a lot somehow stayed exactly the same for the lightweight division.
For starters, despite an impressive UFC debut for the MMA mainstay Chandler in a knockout win over Hooker, and the earth-shattering knockout from Poirier in the main event, it seems as if the lightweight champion remains unimpressed.
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Poirier’s win merely bumped McGregor further back in the lightweight line as far as a title shot is concerned, rather than moving Poirier directly into Nurmagomedov’s future. (Considering Nurmagomedov’s submission victory against Poirier in 2019, it doesn’t seem like an intriguing fight as the lightweight champion looks for a 30-0 record)
Meanwhile, Chandler’s win propelled him to UFC stardom, and seemingly threw him in the title conversation as a fresh, well-rounded and interesting challenge for Nurmagomedov to train for. Instead, Nurmagomedov seemed indifferent and more focused on the Poirier-McGregor main event that would follow.
Instead, both Nurmagomedov and the entire lightweight division remain in limbo, and the Poirier victory may have actually hurt the UFC in a certain sense.
Clips before UFC 257 showed White discussing the financial implications of a rematch between Nurmagomedov and McGregor with the champion himself, all obviously dependent upon the latter winning at UFC 257. Now, McGregor is left with a few options for his next fight, but none of them could possibly include Nurmagomedov.
For Nurmagomedov, only one option seems like a possibility at this point: the retired Georges St. Pierre. If the UFC could convince one of its greatest fighters of all time to return to the Octagon to face Nurmagomedov, with the status as the promotion’s greatest of all time on the line, then it seems like a no-brainer for either side.
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However, Nurmagomedov himself seems content in retirement, telling Russia’s Sport24 that he had “achieved everything in this sport” and saying “there isn’t someone I would like to fight now.” At the same time, he reiterated his desire to honor his mother’s fighting-related wish following the death of his father.
“My mother is the most precious thing I have left,” Nurmagomedov said. “You won’t push me to do things that will disappoint my mother.”
Away from that, the UFC would (and currently does) have to figure out the next steps for the lightweight title, given Nurmagomedov’s apparent lack of interest related to title defenses.
Logically, Poirier himself would be in line for either a spot in a fight for the vacant lightweight championship, or could reasonably be handed the belt as if the McGregor knockout was for the title in the first place.
Regardless, he seems like a guarantee for the title’s future, and in his mind, he’s already the “uncrowned world champion.”
Figuring out his next challenger, however, isn’t so easy. McGregor is calling for a rematch in 2021 to complete the duo’s trilogy, which would undoubtedly give Poirier the most money if that is his main goal.
Nate Diaz has emerged as a potential opponent, which makes sense given the fact that Diaz was supposed to fight Poirier in 2018. But, Diaz isn’t in the title picture whatsoever, with only one victory in his last three fights, all of which took place over the course of three years. Diaz also hasn’t fought since 2019.
Justin Gaethje, who won the interim lightweight title in 2020 and could go down as Nurmagomedov’s last successful title defense, has a case for a title shot, as well. But, Poirier knocked him out in 2018, and may want to focus on a different challenge.
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Then, there’s Chandler and rising lightweight star Charles Oliveira. Each fighter has an argument for a title shot, but it also seems like each needs one more signature win to solidify their chance at the belt.
With so many moving parts, it seems like an impossible puzzle for White and the UFC to figure out, let alone in the midst of a pandemic.
But, there are a few ideas for them to work with.
If Nurmagomedov wants to return to defend his lightweight title one last time and move to 30-0, he should fight Poirier, Chandler or Oliveira. If not, he should vacate the belt to let the division move on, and set his sights on a fight with St. Pierre for his pursuit of 30-0.
If the title is vacated, there are a few different (and realistic) approaches to take.
- Poirier could fight Gaethje in a championship fight, with Chandler and Oliveira squaring off to become next in line for a title shot.
- Poirier could fight Chandler in a championship fight, with Gaethje and Oliveira battling for a title shot.
- Poirier, Gaethje, Chandler and Oliveira could compete in a mini-tournament, with the final two competing for the title later in 2021.
In any scenario, all four fighters could compete on the same card, which would allow for alternates for the main event, in case COVID-19 or an injury impacts the title fight.
As for McGregor, the UFC should have one prerogative: keep him away from the title.
If Poirier wants to fight McGregor to get a big-money fight and to complete the trilogy, then fine. But, McGregor shouldn’t be rewarded with a title shot after a knockout loss, and with just one win in his last three fights.
Instead, McGregor should fight a fellow massive draw with just one win in his last three fights: Diaz.
While Poirier, Gaethje, Chandler and Oliveria settle whichever scenario comes about at the top of the division, have McGregor and Diaz complete their trilogy at lightweight in the summer.
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No matter what happens in the fight (outside of a draw), one of the superstars would finally pick up a win after a long time away from getting their hand raised, and could then be put right back into contention to add some stardom to the title picture.
It may not seem like an ideal play for the UFC, given how bottom-heavy the division is from a financial perspective. McGregor and Diaz are the two biggest draws in the division, and may seem like natural pawns to move around to get the lightweight title back in order.
But, the UFC has some serious potential at the top of the division, if they operate correctly.
Poirier has the “X” on his back as the man who just knocked out the company’s biggest moneymaker.
Gaethje put himself on the map in 2020, and has the status as Nurmagomedov’s last opponent.
Chandler is the exciting newcomer, while Oliveria just needs one more signature win to really assert himself at the top.
After all of that dust clears, any of the four can work their way up to the big draws in McGregor and Diaz, and potentially become a bonafide superstar in the process.
Yes, it may seem like a tough situation to navigate. But, there’s a lot to look forward to the UFC’s lightweight division, no matter how the company’s matchmakers play it.
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