When Khabib Nurmagomedov retired after UFC 254, he left the UFC lightweight title picture a jumbled mess. It has been three months since “The Eagle” has hung up his gloves and things are starting to get a little clearer at the top of the lightweight division. While some fans are holding onto hope that Dana White could convince one of the greatest fighters of all time to grace us with his presence just one more time for a chance at that magical 30-0 record, it is beginning to look like we have already watched Khabib’s last fight in the UFC.
So, if Khabib is moving on, we should too. With that in mind, let us take a look at how the UFC lightweight title picture is looking in the wake of an epic UFC 257 card.
Lightweight Title Picture Players
Before we take a look at the whole lightweight title picture, we must first figure out the players. If we remove Khabib from the equation, we’re left with four major players and one wildcard.
Sitting at the top of the UFC lightweight rankings is Justin Gaethje, who last fought against Khabib in October for the title and lost. Right behind him is Dustin Poirier, who just defeated Conor McGregor at UFC 257. Then we have Charles Oliveira, who dismantled Tony Ferguson back at UFC 256 in December. Our last major player is Conor McGregor, who is coming off of the aforementioned loss to Poirier. The one wildcard in the lightweight title picture is Michael Chandler, who just made his UFC debut in spectacular fashion by knocking out Dan Hooker in two and a half minutes.
Now, let’s take a brief look at these players and why they may or may not deserve a shot at the lightweight title.
1. Justin Gaethje
Gaethje has been pretty active in the lightweight title picture, winning the interim lightweight belt against Tony Ferguson back at UFC 249. Like McGregor, Gaethje is also coming off of a loss in his last fight. However, the difference between the two is that Gaethje’s loss comes at the hands of the former champ, Khabib Nurmagomedov. While Gaethje was never really in that fight, he still possesses a ton of talent and has the ability to end a fight at a moment’s notice.
Many feel that Gaethje definitely deserves another shot at the title even though he just lost. This is a rare thought process for the UFC, as most fighters that lose will end up having to prove themselves again before another title shot comes their way. Whether you agree with that or not, Gaethje is sitting at the top of the lightweight title picture and has a good chance at fighting for the title again very soon.
2. Dustin Poirier
Poirier is coming off of one of the biggest wins in his career. Knocking out McGregor is very rare. In fact, it was the first time in McGregor’s UFC career that he had suffered a loss in such a manner. He currently sits at second in the UFC rankings but he very well may rise above Gaethje after a strong performance. Out of his last nine fights, his only loss comes at the hands of Khabib Nurmagomedov back at UFC 242. This man absolutely deserves to be at the top of the lightweight title picture.
3. Charles Oliveira
Oliveira is on an eight-fight win streak, with his most recent win over Tony Ferguson firmly placing him in the lightweight title picture. Oliveira doesn’t have as big a name as the other fighters in the conversation, but he certainly has the skill. During his win streak, he has five wins by submission, two by KO/TKO, and one by decision. The one question surrounding Oliveira would be the level of competition he has faced up to this point, with his biggest opponent being the fight against Ferguson. With that being said, an eight-fight win streak in the UFC is impressive regardless of who he has faced.
4. Conor McGregor
As previously mentioned, McGregor just suffered a TKO loss at the hands of Poirier at UFC 257. He is now 1-2 in his last three UFC fights, with his lone win coming over a Donald Cerrone that has lost four straight fights. Now you might be asking yourself, why is McGregor even in the conversation if he’s coming off of a loss? The honest answer is he shouldn’t be.
Even my colleague, Makoa Goble, doesn’t see a title shot in McGregor’s near future. In a fair world, McGregor wouldn’t even be in the lightweight title picture. However, it’s very hard to ignore the value he brings to PPV sales. Any fight with McGregor involved is bound to bring in a ton of money.
5. Michael Chandler
Chandler made his UFC debut at UFC 257 after a decade of fighting in Bellator and man did he impress. There were many people wondering if Chandler would be able to compete at the highest level and he immediately shut up any doubters. Chandler is no stranger to title fights. He was the Bellator Lightweight World Champion on three separate occasions, with six successful title defenses under his belt.
However, the question now is, does he deserve to be in the lightweight title picture after just one win inside the UFC? That obviously depends on who you ask. If you ask Poirier, the answer is a big fat NO. According to Poirier, Chandler only has one fight inside the UFC and needs to earn his stripes, so to speak. With that being said, it’s hard to deny that Chandler has a massive following in the MMA world and he will undoubtedly be fighting for the UFC Lightweight Championship at some point in his UFC career, if not in the very near future.
Sorting Out the Lightweight Title Picture
So now that we’ve taken a closer look at the players involved, how do we sort out the mess that is the lightweight title picture? It is certainly a good problem to have and a matchmaker’s dream. You’ve got five superstars that can sell PPVs all wanting their hands on the championship belt.
With that being said, there are many ways the lightweight title picture can get resolved. After all, we don’t really know what direction Dana White is going to go. However, let’s take a look at some of the more realistic scenarios that may unfold in the coming months in the lightweight division.
If you remove McGregor from the lightweight title picture, you’re left with four bonafide contenders in Gaethje, Poirier, Oliveira, and Chandler. From a business standpoint, a four-man tournament to determine which two would fight for the title makes the most sense. After all, why settle the lightweight title picture in one PPV when you could do it in two and make more money?
There are a few different ways this tournament could be built. You could have Gaethje vs. Poirier and Oliveira vs. Chandler. There’s also Gaethje vs. Oliveira and Poirier vs. Chandler. Last you have Gaethje vs. Chandler and Poirier vs. Oliveira. From a fan’s standpoint, the UFC really couldn’t lose with any of these combinations if they were to go this route.
The combination that makes the most sense is Gaethje vs. Poirier and Oliveira vs. Chandler. You would have the #1 ranked lightweight, Gaethje, facing off with the #2 ranked lightweight, Poirier, in a rematch that is guaranteed to be a banger. Then you would have the submission specialist, Oliveira, facing off against the wrestler with hands of stone, Chandler.
However, if I’m the UFC, the combination I would go with is Gaethje vs. Chandler and Poirier vs. Oliveira. In this combination, none of the fighters have faced each other before. It would also open up the opportunity for a Gaethje vs. Poirier rematch for the title. If Gaethje were to lose, Chandler fighting Poirier or Oliveira for the title would also result in a very entertaining fight. Like I said before, the UFC really can’t lose with this idea.
Potential Title Fights
Now, if the UFC doesn’t choose to go the tournament route, they could just as easily make a title fight with any combination of the five fighters mentioned above. However, we’ve narrowed it down to just six that would make the most sense. Let’s take a look at them, in no particular order.
1. Gaethje vs Poirier II
This title fight would make the most sense out of all the combinations. You have two former interim lightweight champions facing off in a rematch from 2018 that has good odds to end in a knockout. In their first fight, Poirier won by TKO in the fourth round, earning a Fight of the Night bonus in the process. Poirier would then capture the interim lightweight title belt just two fights later. For Gaethje, it was his second straight loss but was the catalyst for his own interim lightweight championship run.
Both fighters would then go on to lose their respective title unification bouts against Nurmagomedov. With Khabib out of the lightweight title picture, it only makes sense that the last two people he defeated would fight for the championship. Fans would certainly love to see these two fight again in the octagon, this time with the title on the line. This is the fight to make if a tournament is not the direction the UFC chooses to go.
2. Gaethje vs Oliveira
Gaethje facing Oliveira for the lightweight title is an intriguing matchup. You’ve got a big-time striker facing a well-rounded submission machine. Gaethje showed that he can be taken down and submitted when he faced Khabib, so the path to victory is there for Oliveira. In addition to that, Oliveira does have some power in his hands himself. However, Oliveira is not Khabib, and Gaethje has shown in the past that he can handle himself against some grapplers. Needless to say, it would be interesting to see these two warriors clash in the octagon for the lightweight title.
3. Gaethje vs Chandler
Gaethje absolutely deserves another shot at the title. The question is, has Chandler earned a title shot already? While Chandler has a long championship history over in Bellator and should be in the lightweight title picture, he only has one win inside the UFC. While it was a very impressive performance, it is hard to argue that he should be fighting for the belt over guys like Poirier and Oliveira, who have a combined 37 wins inside the octagon.
With that being said, this fight would definitely help sort out the lightweight title picture. It would also be the classic striker vs. wrestler match that fans have grown to love. It would certainly be interesting to see if Chandler would have the same success taking Gaethje down that Khabib did. However, if his performance against Hooker is any indication, he also has the power to take Gaethje out while standing. This would be a very fun fight for the title.
4. Poirier vs Oliveira
Like the Gaethje vs. Oliveira fight, Poirier vs. Oliveira would be very interesting. This would also be the fight to make if you feel that Gaethje doesn’t deserve to be at the top of the lightweight title picture. Poirier is more known as a striker than a grappler but that’s not to say he can’t hold his own on the ground. The inverse can be said about Oliveira. While he is well-known for his grappling abilities, he can also handle himself on the feet. This is an intriguing contest for MMA fans and one that many would certainly pay to see.
5. Poirier vs Chandler
As previously mentioned, Poirier is not really open to fighting Chandler for the title. He feels that Chandler needs to earn his way to the top of the lightweight title picture before getting his shot. And who could blame him? Poirier has been grinding in the UFC since 2011 and has 25 fights inside the octagon under his belt. While Chandler has been fighting in Bellator since 2010, many feel the competition there is a step down from what he would have faced in the UFC during that same timespan. However, with all of that being said, if Poirier is offered a title shot against Chandler that comes with a good payday, you can bet he will take that fight.
6. Poirier vs McGregor III
Honestly, this fight isn’t going to happen. At least not with the title on the line. McGregor is a big name, and he definitely pulls in a lot of money, but it would be a slap in the face to everyone else in the lightweight title picture if he got to fight for the title after already losing to his opponent. In addition to that, Poirier won fair and square. There was no controversy to the fight, so no need for an immediate rematch. However, with all that being said, you truly cannot count out McGregor’s ability to sell PPVs. For that reason, ruling out this fight entirely would be irresponsible.
Needless to say, the future of the lightweight title picture is looking very, very bright. What do you think the UFC will do? Let us know in the comments below!
Second image credit: Embed from Getty Images
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