Clearing the rubble of the UFC lightweight division

With undisputed champion Conor McGregor set to return to the octagon and Tony Ferguson becoming interim champion, it's time to look at what's next for the 155lbs division

The UFC lightweight division has always been one of the most competitive weight classes in the company’s modern era, making the events of the past year even more unfortunate and difficult to resolve. In granting Conor McGregor a title shot against Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 in November of 2016, the UFC was already on thin ice. They were leaving top contenders Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson in the dark and ruling out the possibility of granting Rafael dos Anjos a rematch for the world championship he had lost in July. 

This was to kick-start a negative turn of events that have led the division down a path of great confusion, which is only now seeming to solve itself. With McGregor taking a hiatus from the sport to pursue a fight with Floyd Mayweather and Nurmagomedov unable to make the weight limit for his interim title fight in March, the division lost its momentum at the top. But it has remained relevant due to a slew of fantastic fights and performances from perennial contenders who sought to use the lack of attention to the title scene in their favor. 

Fighters such as Edson Barboza and Dustin Poirier have staked their place in the division this year, and are now essential names in the division going forward. Kevin Lee secured an opportunity at the interim championship at UFC 216 and proved himself to be one of the best prospects in the sport today, elevating himself from the prelims to a main eventer in a matter of months.  I believe a series of fights need to be booked between the elite at 155-pounds so the problems that the champion’s inactivity have caused can be reversed, and the division can reclaim its position as one of the most exciting in the sport today. There has to be a title defense soon, and more top contenders must be established as the fighters next in line to face the undisputed champion, but what fights should take place to decide this? 

Conor McGregor vs Tony Ferguson

I recently published an article explaining why a trilogy fight must take place between Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz.

I also explained in this piece that the bout would have to take place before the end of 2017 for it to be justifiable, but neither party will be prepared to make this date despite earlier rumors of the pair squaring off at the end-of-year card in December. Therefore, there is only one fight to make, and the booking of this one can be defended by all logic that exists inside the world of mixed martial arts. Conor McGregor is the UFC lightweight champion of the world, but has yet to defend his title in the eleven months he has held it. During this time, the promotion hurried to book Tony Ferguson versus Khabib Nurmagomedov to establish a clear number one contender. All plans for this fight fell through, however, and Ferguson was forced to wait for a new opponent to arise. Kevin Lee was the man to step up at UFC 216, and "El Cucuy" secured the interim title with a triangle choke submission in the third round. 

This has left the Californian in an undeniable position - he holds the momentum that Nate Diaz does not and has a legitimate claim to label himself as the true lightweight champion at 155 pounds. If McGregor is to have the huge fights he craves, then he must unify the world title, or else Tony's belt will hold more credence than his own. Besides, this is an amazing matchup. Ferguson has a tendency to be hit clean, but his unorthodox movement, awkward striking and lethal ground game pose huge problems to the Irishman. He also holds a physical advantage in reach and height, an attribute that has proven to give "The Notorious" problems in the past, and a well-tested chin to back it up. McGregor's usual counter-striking style could be very effective against Tony if he proves to hold the speed advantage on the feet (which I believe he does), but Tony showed in his recent contest with Kevin Lee that he can remain patient and utilize his elite cardio against opponents who struggle with fatigue. This is a problem that plagued Conor in his two fights with Nate Diaz and his boxing mega-fight against Floyd Mayweather. 

There is bound to be divided predictions for this fight, as there are with every Conor McGregor contest, but I believe it is undeniable at this point that Tony Ferguson deserves an opportunity to unify the world titles at lightweight before Nate Diaz gets his long-awaited trilogy fight with Conor. The McGregor vs. Diaz fight can break records even without a title on the line. Judging by the many polls being run online, it is quite clear that the majority want to see McGregor defend his championship against Ferguson in his return to the octagon, and I believe it. To quote Dana White: "this is the right fight to make."

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Edson Barboza

There are few matchups in MMA today superior to this one. Even the thought of a potential showdown between these two gives me goosebumps. Khabib Nurmagomedov is undoubtedly the most dominant grappler in the UFC lightweight division today, and may well be the best in the division's history when it comes to wrestling. In his unstoppable rise to the top, his record amounts to 25-0, the longest win streak in the UFC today. Along the way, he has mauled opponents such as Rafael dos Anjos and, most recently, Michael Johnson, which left him in the number one contender spot at the end of last year. However, health problems have left the "Eagle of Dagestan" sidelined for 2017, but it seems likely that he will return to our screens next year, and I have an opponent in mind for him.

Edson Barboza is a fascinating matchup for the undefeated Russian - his grappling is excellent, but he may also possess the most devastating striking in the weight class. His highlight reel consists of some of the greatest knockouts in our sport - he secured the first ever spinning-heel-kick knockout in UFC history against Terry Etim in 2012, and his recent flying knee finish of Beneil Dariush remains to be one of the best finishes this year. Barboza's kicking game is second to none, but the question is: could he use them to their full effect against Khabib? Their speed alone may be too much to handle for Nurmagomedov, and Edson has shown himself to have solid grappling in his tenure inside of the UFC. 

However, as many fighters would testify, the consequences of being dragged (or thrown) to the ground by Khabib Nurmagomedov can be disastrous, but standing toe-to-toe with Edson Barboza has a similar effect. A win here would make either fighter the new number one contender for the championship, and the UFC would likely be keen to book the fight. This matchup is a worthy headliner of an event and it is one I would love to see happen soon.

Winner of Alvarez & Gaethje vs winner of Poirier & Pettis

It would be impossible to discuss the future at lightweight without mentioning these four fighters. Both Eddie Alvarez and Anthony Pettis are former champions in the UFC, and the pair have already fought inside of the promotion. However, their initial bout was very close and since then, Pettis has regained his confidence and seems to be returning to his old self, the man who blazed his way through the 155-pound weight class on his route to becoming one of the top pound-for-pound fighters in MMA. If both were to emerge victorious, I feel that a rematch would make sense the pair's careers going forward, as both seek to regain the coveted title they lost in recent times. But, that is not the only potential fight to come out of the arrangement I suggest.

There is still a score to be settled between Alvarez and Poirier. In their first meeting at UFC 211, a back-and-forth war resulted in the pair being on the verge of winning the Fight of the Night. However, the contest was to end in great controversy when Alvarez struck Poirier with an illegal knee in the second round, rendering the American unable to continue. Dustin came close to finishing the former champion in this fight and was furious when the UFC booked Alvarez to fight Justin Gaethje on The Ultimate Fighter, and rightfully so. The only reason that this rematch was not scheduled was due to the allure of a showdown between Alvarez and Gaethje, but I feel that both fights have the potential to be Fight of the Year contenders. If both were Dustin and Eddie were to win (or lose) their respective fights, they are sure to square off once again and remove the doubt surrounding the outcome of their initial bout.

Finally, we have the prospect of Justin Gaethje defeating Eddie Alvarez and facing either Poirier or Pettis. A Gaethje-Pettis fight would likely be the more technical, with Justin trying to get inside the range of Pettis' lethal kicks. The matchup would be highly interesting considering Gaethje's wrestling background and relentless pressure, and Pettis' explosive striking game and dangerous submission skills. This would definitely result in fireworks although a bout between Dustin Poirier and the newcomer at lightweight is a matchup that fans would salivate over. Neither fighter knows how to have a boring fight, and both would have much to gain from a victory here. 

The UFC will grant more opportunities to the most exciting fighters on their roster, and these two fit that description perfectly. Gaethje almost earned himself an interim title fight off the back of his electrifying UFC debut against Michael Johnson, and more of these performances are bound to catch the eye of even casual viewers. The same applies to Poirier - he has reinvented himself since moving up from featherweight, and a win over either Pettis or Gaethje (or both) may finally catapult him into the world title picture.

Kevin Lee

Another fighter I would love to see continue to compete with the elite at lightweight is the "Mo Town Phenom", Kevin Lee. The reason I did not mention him above was because of his suggestion that he will jump weight classes up to welterweight following the debacle with his weight cut at UFC 216, leaving me doubtful that he will attempt to make the lightweight limit again. However, if he could make the weight safely, which may be possible, there are multiple great fights on the table for Lee.

In the past, he has called out Khabib Nurmagomedov and seemed eager to face Justin Gaethje after his arrival in the UFC. Lee has a wish to face the very best in the world, and his recent performance against Tony Ferguson proved that he belongs inside of the cage with the top guys at lightweight. His staph infection was a heavy burden on him in his first world championship fight, yet he rose to the occasion and impressed the fans enough that most of us would like to see him granted further chances to prove himself. Whether he fights at lightweight or welterweight, Kevin Lee is a key name and the 25-year-old is one of the top prospects in mixed martial arts today.

Future is bright for the lightweight division

With champion Conor McGregor set to return and Tony Ferguson staking his place as interim champion, the coming months are set to be very interesting, as we see how it all unravels in the lightweight scene. I hope to see the two champions to face off sometime around next Spring, and I also expect the return of Khabib Nurmagomedov and await it eagerly.

All the combatants I mentioned above have a key role to play in the weight class' progression, as will those I left out who find themselves inside of the top 15. Once the mess at the top is fixed and top contenders and an undisputed champion are established I expect to see more up-and-comers make a name for themselves in this division. Lightweight is arguably the most stacked weight class in MMA, and I hope that the coming months will reinvigorate the division in the eyes of many fans.

What fights are you most looking forward to?

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David Murphy