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What’s next for the UFC lightweight division?

What’s next for the UFC lightweight division?

UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov speaks during a press conference for UFC 229

The UFC’s lightweight division has been a reliable source of madness for some time now. This madness at 155-pounds, it seems, is in considerable excess at the moment and is in desperate need of a clean-up.

The last week or so, in particular, has been even more eventful than usual.

Khabib Nurmagomedov asserted himself as one of the best UFC champions in recent memory and threatened to quit the company altogether. In doing so, he sent Conor McGregor crashing into the loss column. And Nate Diaz has gone from being booked as an MSG co-headliner to suggesting that he be fired himself.

These are only the headlines.

But in your hour of confusion, we’re here to help clear things up. Pay attention, because this is what needs to be done with the UFC’s lightweight division.

Khabib Nurmagomedov, Conor McGregor, and most things in between

There’s good and bad to be taken from last Saturday night. Deciding on which there is more of is an argument best left to the fast thumbs of Twitter, so we won’t do that. Instead, we can assess what we have left over and what it all means for the UFC’s premier weight class.

Irrespective of Khabib’s popularity, McGregor’s defeat isn’t the most desired outcome for the UFC bigwigs. A hard-fought battle displaying the brutality of Khabib’s ground game culminating in a come-from-behind left-hand KO from McGregor would have likely been the ideal scenario. This would have begun what could have been another trilogy for the ages along with a healthy dose of McGregor mania and an overwhelming number of new fans.

However, what the UFC got from UFC 229 was much different. Nurmagomedov absolutely mauled McGregor (original terminology, I know), and even managed to drop the Irishman with a brilliant right hand. “The Eagle” arguably looked better than he ever has before and it was certainly one of the performances of the year. Unsurprisingly, the event smashed all pay-per-view records, as well.

What this means, however, is that there could be somewhat of a void at the top of the division that is sure to irritate any fans that have just been introduced to the world of mixed martial arts. We can presume that McGregor will now slip back into hibernation as he is almost definitely going to have to wait for another huge fight somewhere along the line because McGregor only fights for titles or the keys to Stockton.

Clearly then, the torch has been passed to Khabib to capitalize on his new fanbase and entertain the masses in McGregor’s absence. But he can’t do that if he isn’t in the UFC.

His promise to tear up his contract as a show of loyalty to Zubaira Tukhugov, his longtime training partner and one of the men believed to have hit McGregor during the brawl, is not an idle threat. The team of killers developed by Eagles MMA and American Kickboxing Academy is a fiercely loyal brotherhood that isn’t afraid of any repercussions that the UFC or NSAC can throw at them.

And so, in a way only ever matched by his Irish counterpart or perhaps a Diaz brother, Khabib has the UFC wrapped around his terrifying little finger. They simply cannot afford to lose a champion like him at the moment. Dana White and the WME-IMG bosses simply need to swallow their pride, do as he says and allow Tukhugov to stay. It might be embarrassing in the short term, but it’s likely to be a good move for the lightweight division in the long run.

Tony Ferguson looks on while competing against Anthony Pettis at UFC 229

The best of the rest

Of course, the lightweight division is so much more than just Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor. The UFC has an incredibly strong core group of fighters at the 155-pound weight class, and it has to be said that they haven’t all been used in the best way. For example, take the violent oddity that is Tony Ferguson.

Selecting Khabib’s next opponent should be a relatively trivial task. In a division overflowing with talent, Ferguson’s 11-fight winning streak and a 14-1 record in the UFC stands out, together with his spectacular return in what is a ‘Fight of the Year’ candidate against Anthony Pettis only seven months after a catastrophic knee injury.

Sadly, however, they might not be facing each other next, and some would even argue that there’s a good chance that Nurmagomedov and Ferguson will never stand across the Octagon from each other. During the UFC 223 fight week, Dana White insisted that he would never book Khabib against Ferguson ever again. Even if this a classic Dana White promise that will soon be broken, having a statement like that out there is simply bad news for everyone who loves the lightweight division.

There are so many other lightweight fighters that can make a case as the deserving next title challenger that it has to be thought that the UFC will put off making this fight for as long as possible, for fear of disappointment once again.

But the fact is, the fans are very much willing to go down that road again and as a result, so should the UFC.

Dealing with last minute pullouts is never easy (just think of the tears that will be shed if Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson falls through again), but the rewards far outweigh the risks here. You can book Khabib vs. Ferguson as many more times as you need, so long as you close the cage door behind them at least once and film it for us.

Ferguson aside, we’ve also had Dustin Poirier vs. Nate Diaz snatched away from us. Poirier’s untimely hip injury is a double-edged sword dipped in salt and lemon juice for the lightweight division. Not only does it likely bring an anti-climatic end to Poirier’s stunning year, but it also throws Diaz’s future right back up into the air. Two potential title challengers, albeit one a bit more deserving than the other, have been taken out in one swift brush by the MMA gods.

Getting both men back up on their feet again should be a high priority for the UFC. Hopefully, Poirier will take full advantage of the Performance Institute and undergo his own Drago-style treatment for his hip. As for Diaz, it seems the only treatment that can be given to him is a series of lengthy chats with Mick Maynard and Sean Shelby. They’ll need some serious patience, but it’s up to them to get Diaz back fighting again, regularly if possible. But let’s not push our luck.

The UFC lightweight landscape

The chaos of the UFC lightweight division is truly unique but it can also be overwhelming. So overwhelming in fact, that you may have missed the announcements of some stellar matchups such as:

  • Matt Frevola vs. Lando Vannata (UFC 230, Nov 3)
  • Olivier Aubin-Mercier vs. Gilbert Burns (UFC 231, Dec 8)
  • Edson Barboza vs. Dan Hooker (UFC on Fox 31, Dec 15)
  • Kevin Lee vs. Al Iaquinta II (UFC on Fox 31, Dec 15)

Good fights undoubtedly, but we think we can do better. Playing matchmaker is the best part of deciding what to do with a division and so that’s exactly what we did. Here’s what we came up with:

Justin Gaethje vs. Paul Felder

Seriously. Just imagine it. ‘Just Bleed’ t-shirts would be shot into the crowd.

Alex Hernandez vs. Islam Makhachev

Obviously subject to Makhachev being cleared of any wrongdoing by the NSAC, but this is a fantastic pairing of prospects to see who continues to climb.

Anthony Pettis vs. Gregor Gillespie

The UFC’s best fisherman deserves his chance at bigger prey, and Pettis’ style should make for an exciting clash.

Tony Ferguson vs. Nate Diaz

You didn’t think we weren’t gonna finish big, did you? Diaz vs. Poirier is a great fight that we’d all love to see in the future, but we want the Stockton man back and we want him now. This is slick striking, high-level jiu-jitsu, and constant back-and-forth all rolled into one PPV headliner-worthy box of violence.

Have we missed something? Do you agree or disagree with what we’ve said? Drop us a comment below and let us know how wrong we were, that’s always fun.

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