After former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (29-0) retired and vacated his title in October last year, there have been discussions around who would be the future UFC lightweight champion. It seems that the UFC is gearing up for an unofficial lightweight tournament in order to crown a new champion. Let’s have a look at the six fighters that could be the future UFC lightweight champion.
Six Fighters Who Could be the Future UFC Lightweight Champion
6. Michael Chandler
One of the most recent editions in the UFC lightweight mix has been former Bellator champion Michael Chandler (21-5). Chandler was thrust into the UFC lightweight championship mix by being booked as the alternate for Khabib vs Gaethje at UFC 254. While both men made it to the event, being put in that position served to show the UFC’s faith in the 34-year-old. Chandler has now had his debut announced against Dan Hooker (20-9) at UFC 257.
If Chandler wins he’s likely one fight away from challenging for the title. Chandler’s athleticism and wrestling presents a lot of problems for the top of the lightweight division, which, with the loss of Nurmagomedov, now has fewer wrestlers at the very top of the division.
However, it is worth noting that Chandler is at the age where athleticism starts to dwindle, and missteps in the UFC’s lightweight division rarely go unpunished. It’s also worth noting that while Chandler has wins over former champs like Eddie Alvarez (30-7) and Benson Henderson (28-10), neither were in the prime of their fighting ability when Chandler fought them. Alvarez was relatively green and Henderson had left his peak fighting days years before.
Since Chandler has had no UFC career and Scott Coker rarely offers his cash cows challenging fights, there are a lot of question marks surrounding how Chandler might do in the UFC. However, in lightweight MMA anything can happen, and Chandler is close enough to the title already that he must be considered as a possible future UFC lightweight champion.
5. Dan Hooker
“The Hangman” has not had an easy tenure at the UFC. Stuck in the top five top 10 of his division he has had to fight some of the best in the world consistently. However, despite his recent loss to Dustin Poirier (26-6), Dan Hooker is still in the position to become the future UFC lightweight champion if he can win his next few fights. While his loss to Poirier may make the road a tad longer than, say, Chandler’s, a win at UFC 257 puts him on the cusp of a title shot. If he beats Chandler, Hooker will likely have to face Justin Gaethje (22-3) or Charles Oliveira (30-8) before he can actually challenge for the title proper.
While these are incredibly tall asks for the contender, Hooker does have a way to win both contests. His height and range may present problems for Oliveira coming forward and he could possibly time Oliveira with a knee if he tries to take him down. Meanwhile, we have not seen Gaethje against someone with as educated of a jab as Hooker, especially since Gaethje has moved away from being a pressuring counter striker to a more pure, elusive outside kickboxer.
Hooker may be athletically disadvantaged in those fights, but he has a skill set he can leverage well to turn the tide. While Hooker might not be the favorite to emerge with the belt, he has proven to have the ability and the toughness to hang with any of the top in that division and as a result, could possibly end up being the UFC lightweight champion.
4. Charles Oliveira
Charles Oliveira has finally managed to break through the lightweight ceiling and has emerged a bonafide contender. Having had his two biggest career wins, first a submission win over Kevin Lee (18-6), and second a three-round domination of Tony Ferguson (25-5), Oliveira looks to be a world-beater. Outside of the exiting champion Nurmagomedov, Oliveira has the most momentum behind him in the top five. Depending on how the rest of the division shakes out, Oliveira is either one win away from a title shot, or one win away from the title.
At this juncture Oliveira could either face the previous title challenger Justin Gaethje or the winner of Dustin Poirier vs Conor McGregor 2 at UFC 257, most likely he’ll have to do both. Against Gaethje, Oliveira will likely have to mix striking with wrestling to get the former interim champion working. If Oliveira can keep Gaethje scrambling and deny counters and being sprawled on while constantly forcing Gaethje backward then he can likely overwhelm him until he gets into a dominant position for submission. He will have to disrupt Gaethje’s footwork with low-kicks and use feints to deny counters but Oliveira won’t have much room for mistakes.
With McGregor and Poirier, Oliveira may be best suited to using his wrestling and grappling skills to take it to the mat and threaten submissions. By occupying both men with grappling exchanges Oliveira can maintain the fight where he has the advantage. If he is forced into prolonged striking exchanges with either man, it is likely that he’s going to eat a hard counter for his efforts. Conor McGregor (22-4) will be harder to close the distance on but if Oliveira can force him back consistently and create prolonged exchanges he will have more success. Poirier can be dangerous in the clinch so if Oliveira finds himself there he must try and get the grappling going and not linger too long. Oliveira may be a dark horse in the division about to seize his destined day in the sun.
3. Justin Gaethje
One certain contender for the belt is the last man to challenge Nurmagomedov for the title. While Justin Gaethje was ultimately dominated and submitted early in the second round by the retired champion, his other performances have shown his ability to be a world-class fighter in the lightweight division. Gaethje may have to fight the winner of Poirier vs McGregor for the belt. Poirier is the first man to hand Gaethje a loss in his professional career, so a win against his former opponent would be a vindication of his new style.
Poirier does seem to have lost a bit of his edge since their last fight, which, while Poirier was successful in defeating “the Highlight”, may be enough to give Gaethje the win. Gaethje’s new style will also give him opportunities to counter Poirier, who tends to be a bit wild when made to lead. This coupled with his leg kicks could deny Poirier’s pocket boxing, which is where he gave Gaethje trouble in their first fight.
Against McGregor the leg kicks will also be key, however, it may be worth Gaethje reverting back to his previous style of forward pressure. This is because, while McGregor is an astonishing aggressive counter fighter, he is allergic to forward pressure and often struggles with prolonged exchanges. The battle between them will be one of power punchers, and while McGregor has the precision and speed advantage, Gaethje is certainly durable enough to force McGregor into a dog fight. Of the two potential matchups, Poirier is likely the more favorable, although neither should be viewed as easy.
Other matchups for Gaethje could be Charles Oliveira. While Oliveira is certainly a submission threat for Gaethje, his aggression and limited defensive game makes him an easier target than others on this list. However, Gaethje could also have success pressuring Oliveira and forcing him to shoot wherein he could sprawl and punish him with vicious ground and pound. Gaethje has probably had one of the toughest runs in UFC history, but his suffering could pay dividends soon as he may be crowned UFC lightweight champion before the end of the year.
2. Dustin Poirier
Dustin Poirier faces Conor McGregor at UFC 257. The first time the two fought, in the featherweight division, the Irishman left Poirier unconscious on the canvas within the first round. Since then “the Diamond” has developed his striking, particularly his defense, and using that to supplement his offensive capabilities. Beyond that, in his move to 155 lbs, Poirier has developed an ungodly chin, taking punishment from Gaethje, Alvarez, and Hooker.
However, McGregor appears to be a stylistic nightmare for Poirier since he is relentless in his pressure, and also punishes wild exchanges, which Poirier is prone to do when placed under pressure. However, Poirier should use his full mixed martial arts skillset to keep McGregor working. The clinch will be a useful phase for Poirier as he can where on McGregor’s gas tank and take some of the pop out of his arms. From there Poirier can use his cardio advantage to force extended exchanges where McGregor will feel less comfortable. If Poirier can force McGregor to work and extend the fight into the later rounds he will have a chance at taking the Irishman’s chin and set him up with a title shot against one of the other contenders within the division.
Another avenue available for Poirier is to try and get McGregor on his back. It’s unlikely that Poirier will be able to submit McGregor but it will neutralize a lot of his threats and allow Poirier to exhaust McGregor in relative safety. This fight may be the most meaningful fight in Poirier’s entire career, and his back is truly against the wall as he steps up to face one of the most dangerous men in the history of the UFC.
1. Conor McGregor
Surprise, surprise: the king may in fact be back. Conor McGregor likely has the clearest path to the title out of the current crop of contenders. This is due to a combination of star power and ability. What I mean is that due to McGregor’s popularity he will be afforded more opportunities for the belt as the UFC needs that sweet sweet pay-per-view revenue.
However, there is no such thing as an easy fight at the top of the lightweight division. McGregor’s next match against Dustin Poirier proves this point, as Poirier is a monster for anyone to fight.
However, the former champion has a straightforward path to victory, which is mainly just doing what he always does. Poirier has a tendency of leaving himself open to counters when forced to lead exchanges. McGregor is an expert at getting his opponents to lead so he can counter them. So his best plan is to be the best Conor McGregor he can be. He may struggle with Poirier’s recent defensive developments and increased durability, but if anyone has the precision to land it’s McGregor.
If McGregor wins his next fight will either be Oliveira or Gaethje. Both men provide unique challenges for the Irishman, but again if he is able to force them to come to him he will likely have an easy time dispatching some of the best fighters in the world. McGregor is a controversial figure in MMA, mostly because of the things he does and says.
However, if he wins the belt against top contenders, no one can deny his greatness. Personally, I feel like it would be a nightmare to have him be the UFC lightweight champion since we know he’s just going to take a year or two off to lose to a boxing legend again. But the UFC is McGregor’s world and everyone else is just living in it.