Now that Colby Covington has finally been expelled from the welterweight division title picture following his one-sided defeat to Leon Edwards at UFC 296, the question on the lips of fans across the world has been, “who is next for the 170 lbs champ?”. There are a few names that are being floated around as possible candidates, this article will run through each possible contender and analyse their case for a match-up against the current champ.
Who are the Candidates?
Currently sitting at number two in the division’s rankings, Belal Muhammad has been slowly building his credibility to the point where it is very difficult to dismiss his claim as the right next contender for the belt. In the UFC for almost eight years now, Muhammad is unbeaten for five years and during this period he has managed to put together a ten fight undefeated streak. A highly impressive feat in a division that is as stacked as 170 lbs.
He has not shied away from taking on big names either and has managed to pick up victories over fighters such as Vicente Luque, Stephen Thompson, Sean Brady and perhaps most notably Gilbert Burns, a fight he took on short notice. In fact, the only blemish on Muhammad’s entire ten fight undefeated streak is a bout against Leon Edwards back in 2021 where after an eye poke early in the second round the fight would be ruled a no contest.
This gives Muhammad further weight to his claim as he and Edwards have a history and a score to be settled. In terms of longevity in the division and names on the CV, there is no currently active welterweight that would appear to have a stronger case than Belal Muhammad.
Currently sitting at number three in the welterweight ranks, Rakhmonov is probably considered a more exciting option than Belal Muhammad. The Kazakh fighter has looked unstoppable since joining the organisation back in 2020. His overall record is extremely impressive, after his submission win over Stephen Thompson at UFC 296 he stands at 18-0 with 18 finishes. Stats like this are almost unheard of in MMA and with him showing he is capable of fight of the night contenders seen with his bout against Geoff Neal, Rakhmonov has quickly become a fan favourite during his short tenure with the promotion.
Now having dispatched Neil Magny, Geoff Neal and Stephen Thompson any question marks that were had over the ability of Rakhmonov are surely dispelled and he has shown that he is more than worthy of being a part of that title conversation.
The current lightweight champion, Islam Makhachev and Leon Edwards have consistently been trading barbs at one another for almost the entire duration of each other’s title reigns. They have made it abundantly clear that they wish to fight and Makhachev let it be known once again, criticising Edward’s performance following his defence last Saturday against Covington.
Makhachev is certainly big enough to fight up a weight class and nobody would doubt his skill. Yet, he has only had two title defences at 155 lbs, and both of these were against Alexander Volkanovski who himself was the featherweight champion. With Makhachev currently yet to actually face a top five ranked Lightweight in a title defence it is unlikely that he would be granted permission by the UFC to move up a weight class and challenge Edwards. Despite the two champions making it clear that they would want this to happen.
The Case for Each Man
When looking at the three possible candidates for the next title shot, it becomes clear that there is only one answer the UFC can give to be ‘fair’. That of course is Belal Muhammad. Simply put his continuous winning run alongside his longevity inside that top 5 means that he is due a title shot and now finally with Usman, Covington and Masvidal being eliminated from the top of the division the time is right for Muhammad to receive his shot.
Despite not being super popular with fans due to his wrestling-heavy fighting style and some not warming to his personality, wins over four fighters currently in the top 10 in his last four fights would suggest that Muhammad has certainly made his case to fight for the strap.
Shavkat Rakhmonov is a fighter that certainly would be considered next in line for the belt if it were not for Muhammad’s extended winning streak and expect it to be him who is granted a title shot after Muhammad. If Rakhmonov decided to have one more fight perhaps during the first half of 2024 and was victorious then it would be almost guaranteed for him to have a shot by the end of next year. His record, willingness to fight and his entertaining fighting style have already made him extremely popular with the fans and he would certainly have earned a title shot if granted one.
Finally, Makhachev is the least likely to get a shot at the welterweight crown and is also the least deserving. Yet to defend the Lightweight belt against an actual Lightweight despite holding the title for over a year, Makhachev could simply not afford to go up a weight class for fear of totally holding up the 155 lbs division. Michael Bisping said it best on a recent episode of his podcast when discussing a possible fight between Makhachev and Edwards saying “Listen, they are not going to fight one another, simple as that. The Lightweight division is the most stacked, okay? And Leon Edwards has other people to defend against as well”. Who knows maybe if both are champions in two to three years time and have made multiple defences of their belts then maybe we will get to see it but don’t count on it happening anytime soon.
Conclusion: The next contender for the belt = Belal Muhammad