With Khabib Nurmagomedov announcing his retirement after his win at UFC 254, the UFC lightweight division is apparently without a champion. Losing their great champion is definitely a big hit to the UFC lightweight division. The good news is that there’s still a pretty deep pool of talent to build. It’s unlikely they’ll take this route, but the UFC could book a fun grand prix to crown the next champion. Booking a grand prix is tough to do; the first round fights can be a bit lopsided. But we’ll have a go at it anyway, because there are some fun fights to make. Here’s what a UFC lightweight grand prix could look like.
Booking a UFC Lightweight Grand Prix
Justin Gaethje vs. Dan Hooker
Following the loss to Nurmagomedov at UFC 254, Justin Gaethje will be looking to get right back into the title picture. Assuming the UFC doesn’t book a mini-tournament, he will be among the few names in title contention. But in this fantasy land, Gaethje would take on Dan Hooker of City Kickboxing in the first round of the tournament. This would be a firefight for as long as it would last.
Hooker climbed the UFC lightweight rankings with consecutive wins over James Vick, Al Iaquinta, and Paul Felder. His win streak was ended by Dustin Poirier in a Fight of the Year contender back in February. Still, Hooker finds himself ranked fifth in the division. Gaethje, on the other hand, will likely remain the number one contender. It would be a joy to watch these two exchange kicks, though it would likely be bad news for Hooker when Gaethje gets out of kicking range and into the pocket. Nonetheless, a real action kicks off the tournament.
Tony Ferguson vs. Paul Felder
In May, Tony Ferguson suffered his first defeat in eight years when he was finished by Gaethje. Ferguson took a ton of damage in that fight, like he has many times throughout his career. After that gruesome beating he took, a step down in the rankings would make sense for him in the first round of the grand prix. Insert Paul Felder, who retired following a split-decision loss to Hooker, but has since left the door open for a return. A matchup with the Boogeyman of the division surely would entice Felder, who loves a good war.
Ferguson is currently the number three ranked lightweight, while Felder is number seven. What a fight this would be. It’s easy to envision them covered in blood, exchanging elbows and not backing down until the final bell rings. The problem with a fight like this in a grand prix is that it might take a little while for the winner to be ready for his next round fight. It just makes a ton of sense to book this fight, though. Ferguson gets a chance to step back in the rankings and pick up a bounce back win, while Felder gets to insert himself right into the title picture if he pulls the upset.
Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier
This fight is already booked and it could have been un-booked, but we’ll keep it in the grand prix. In real life, this fight will probably end up having the vacant lightweight championship on the line. But in our fantasy, there won’t be any belt involved until the finals. So instead, they just fight in the opening round. It’s a championship caliber fight that we are getting in the quarterfinals. That’s how good the UFC lightweight division is.
Conor McGregor hasn’t fought since he finished Donald Cerrone in 40 seconds at UFC 246 in the welterweight division. He’s currently number four in the rankings, while Dustin Poirier is number two. And what a fight this one is. It’s a rematch six years in the making between two fighters who are much improved since their first fight. Back then, Poirier wasn’t near the boxer he is now. He truly is one of the best boxers in MMA, but he’s still likely a step behind McGregor in that regard. It could go either way and is just a phenomenal fight for the first round of a tournament.
Michael Chandler vs. Charles Oliveira
Don’t forget about the wildcard in all of this. Michael Chandler made the move from Bellator to the UFC and he belongs in the title picture. In real life, he’s probably one win away from a title shot. For us, he’ll need to win two tournament fights before getting his title shot. And a matchup with Charles Oliveira would be a heck of a way to introduce Chandler to the UFC audience.
The former Bellator lightweight champion gets welcome to the UFC by one of the best finishers in UFC history. Chandler is 5-1 with three finishes since 2018, while Oliveira is on a seven fight finish streak over the same time period. The grappling exchanges between these two guys would be incredible. A world-class wrestler and a world-class submission artist going toe-to-toe.
In this fantasy UFC lightweight grand prix, there would be no seeding. It doesn’t make much sense from a business perspective to seed the fighters. For example, seeding would give us Gaethje vs Felder in the first round. Booking without seeding allows us to make four intriguing first round fights that all make sense from a business perspective.
The absence of seeding also allows hand-picked matchups in the semifinals. It would allow us to avoid booking fights we have seen recently. For example, Ferguson and Gaethje fought very recently, as have Hooker and Poirier. So, we could avoid those rematches by leaving seeding out of the equation.
These fights would all either need to be three rounds or five rounds. With McGregor in the picture, we know that will be a main event, so we’ll make them all main events. Poirier vs. McGregor can definitely headline a pay-per-view, while the rest would be elite headliners for fight nights. Of course, it’s unlikely we’ll see Gaethje, Ferguson, or even Chandler headlining a fight night, but remember this is fantasy land.
Here are personal predictions for how these fights would play out, but they all really could go either way.
Justin Gaethje defeats Dan Hooker.
Conor McGregor defeats Dustin Poirier.
Tony Ferguson defeats Paul Felder.
Michael Chandler defeats Charles Oliveira.
And then, in the semifinals:
Justin Gaethje defeats Michael Chandler.
Conor McGregor defeats Tony Ferguson.
And finally, in a fight that is extremely tough to predict:
Conor McGregor defeats Justin Gaethje to win the UFC lightweight championship.
It’s a shame getting excited thinking about this tournament, because the UFC will never book it. This tournament would be a joy for fans to watch. Most importantly, it would establish a legitimate new champion with no complaints about how he obtained his belt.
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