A new undisputed UFC lightweight champion was crowned on Saturday night after Khabib Nurmagomedov defeated short-notice replacement Al Iaquinta at UFC 223.
Despite the Russian’s dominant performance in Brooklyn, his division remains shrouded in uncertainty. Two other lightweight champions lost their UFC belts without even stepping inside the Octagon. Dana White says to be “the man”, you have to beat the man, but Nurmagomedov never got the opportunity to fight either of them.
Bizarrely, three fighters have been crowned lightweight champion in the past 18 months, but none have faced one another. Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor’s belts may have been dissolved, but we still don’t have a definitive answer to a simple question: who is the best lightweight in the UFC? It doesn’t look like that question will be answered any time soon, either. Ferguson and McGregor appear set for a long spell on the sidelines, albeit for very different reasons.
So who is left that could realistically challenge for the belt? Eddie Alvarez is still in the title picture at No. 3, but he only has one win to his name after his devastating loss to McGregor. “The Underground King” probably needs a couple more victories to build momentum.
It’s fair to say that UFC on Fox 29 and UFC Fight Night: Atlantic City have gone under the radar amidst the chaos that occurred in the lead up to UFC 223, but their main events could have a major impact on the lightweight division.
Four top 10 fighters will be in action as No. 5 Dustin Poirier takes on No. 6 Justin Gaethje, while No. 4 Edson Barboza faces No. 7 Kevin Lee.
Will Khabib defend his belt anytime soon?
Moments after capturing the belt, Nurmagomedov said that he doesn’t plan on defending it until November. The UFC may push for a swifter return to restore some order to the lightweight division.
Like it or not, there is a bit of an asterisk against Khabib’s belt. That’s not just because he hasn’t faced Ferguson or McGregor, but also because he has had lengthy periods of inactivity. He also hasn’t exactly faced a who’s who of contenders.
Khabib’s 10-fight UFC win streak is impressive. However, his best wins were against Iaquinta, Barboza, Michael Johnson and Rafael Dos Anjos (well before he became champion). The UFC may try to legitimize their new champion with a title defense against one of the contenders in action over the next couple of weeks. Although, he would be a heavy favorite against all of them.
However, these fighters aren’t particularly big names or major pay-per-view draws, so the UFC may be content to wait for a while. McGregor may well be allowed to return sooner than expected for a mega-fight with Khabib given the current state of the division. Not to mention the money he brings to the table. The dolly-throwing incident was a bad look for all the instigators, but there’s no denying it adds hype to a potential bout between the two.
We’ll assume that McGregor will be out for some time and Nurmagomedov will defend his belt in the near future.
Lee vs Barboza
If Barboza wins
The highest ranked contender after Alvarez is Barboza, who will face Lee on April 21 in Atlantic City. A win would get the Brazilian back on track, but despite his high ranking, it wouldn’t be enough to earn him a title shot for two reasons: 1) Lee is a lower ranked fighter, and 2) he was brutally beaten down by the champion just 4 months ago. Barboza was also finished by Tony Ferguson in the second round in late 2015, so he has a lot of work to do before he can seriously campaign for a title fight.
If Lee wins
Kevin Lee has a better chance of leapfrogging the other contenders if he puts on an impressive performance. However, it would be a huge surprise if he received an immediate title shot after defeating Barboza as his submission loss to Ferguson for the interim title is still fresh.
Lee is a very talented fighter and is deserving of his No. 7 ranking, but he hasn’t reached his prime yet and he still needs time to grow. While he had his moments against Ferguson, he has only defeated one top talent in No. 9 Michael Chiesa. Lee submitted Chiesa in the first round, which topped off a string of impressive performances in a five-fight winning streak.
He has a lot of potential, but there is no need to rush him into another title fight, especially after he was prematurely matched up with Tony Ferguson for the interim title.
A win against Barboza would put him right in the title conversation, but he would still be one or two fights away from a title shot. He may have to wait even longer than that depending on when Ferguson and McGregor return to action. A fight against either Alvarez or the winner of Poirier vs. Gaethje would make the most sense for him. The same could be said for Barboza if he is victorious.
Poirier vs Gaethje
At UFC on Fox 29, Poirier will take on Gaethje in what many anticipate will be an entertaining brawl.
If Gaethje wins
Fan-favorite Gaethje will need more than just a win against Poirier to earn a title shot. He is coming off a loss against Alvarez in his last bout. However, a win over No. 5 in the division would be the perfect springboard back into the title picture.
If he wins, he may get a rematch with Alvarez as their epic battle at UFC 218 was a real crowd-pleaser. The winner of that hypothetical fight would gain a lot of momentum- Gaethje would have two top-5 wins in a row, while a two-fight win streak could be enough to give a big name like Alvarez another shot at UFC glory. (Both of those wins would be against Gaethje).
Alternatively, Gaethje could fight the winner of Barboza vs Lee. Either way, the dearth of top contenders with a plausible claim to a title shot means that “The Highlight’s” stock could rise significantly if he wins.
If Poirier wins
Poirier has a better chance of earning an immediate title shot if he is victorious because McGregor, Ferguson and Barboza have all fallen by the wayside. “The Diamond” more or less holds a victory over Alvarez, too. The fight was controversially ruled a no-contest after Alvarez landed an illegal knee on his downed opponent.
Poirier was all over the former champion, but in the end, he was cruelly denied the biggest win of his career. Who knows what would have been next for him had he been awarded the victory that night?
The problem for Poirier is that he has few high-profile victims on his resume. He is 6-1 at lightweight with wins over Carlos Ferraira, Yancy Medeiros, Bobby Green, Joseph Duffy, Jim Miller and the declining Anthony Pettis. His knockout loss to Michael Johnson, who has lost three fights in a row since then, also doesn’t do him any favours.
Another fight against a top contender would probably be necessary to prove that he is worthy of a championship fight. That’s unless the UFC is dying to rush him into a title shot.
If he defeats Gaethje, a rematch with Alvarez would make a lot of sense for “The Diamond,” as they have unfinished business. The winner of Barboza vs Lee would also be a good matchup.
One more fight
A win would provide a massive boost to each of these fighters’ title hopes. But they will most likely need to fight each other and/or Alvarez to get a title shot in the future.
Don’t be surprised if a wild card is thrown to the mix though. Perhaps Nate Diaz will be given an immediate title shot when he makes his eagerly awaited return to the Octagon?
Both fights are a must-see regardless of their ultimate title implications as they have the potential to be absolute barn-burners.
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