The UFC lightweight division, regarded by many as the promotion’s most competitive division, has suddenly become wide open with the retirement of champion Khabib Nurmagomedov this past Saturday.
But how will the UFC determine a new champ at 155 pounds? There are at least five fighters who can make a case for competing for the crown.
While Justin Gaethje lost to Nurmagomedov at UFC 254, he remains in contention. Tony Ferguson, who has won 12 of 13, also is in consideration, and so is newcomer Michael Chandler, the former Bellator lightweight champ. However, the division has a huge bout that is believed to be close to being set for Jan. 23 between Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor. Will the UFC simply make that bout a title fight?
And what about Khabib? This is the fight game, after all. People come out of retirement a lot. Will Nurmagomedov, who is 29-0, return someday to take on Georges St-Pierre? The winner could be considered the greatest mixed martial artist ever. Or does Nurmagomedov even need that fight to be called the GOAT?
ESPN MMA experts Ariel Helwani, Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi and Jeff Wagenheim break down those topics and determine what’s real and what’s not.
Real or not: The McGregor-Poirier fight will be for the vacant lightweight belt
Ariel Helwani reports on Conor McGregor accepting a fight vs. Dustin Poirier on Jan. 23, but McGregor has a stipulation that he wants the fight to take place at AT&T Stadium.
Helwani: First, let me preface this by stating I have no insider knowledge on this one. I mean, Khabib just vacated the title, and I don’t think the UFC brass thought that would happen. I definitely know they didn’t talk to either McGregor’s or Poirier’s camp about fighting for a vacant title on Jan. 23. That said, this makes way too much sense. I can’t imagine any scenario where they don’t do this. If in fact Nurmagomedov is done, and I believe he is (for now, at least), McGregor vs. Poirier 2 is the perfect vacant title fight.
McGregor’s only loss at 155 is to Nurmagomedov, and Poirier is coming off a win and has already defeated Gaethje. At around the same time, they should also book Ferguson vs. Chandler, and by the time the dust has settled with those two fights, Gaethje will be ready to come back, and he should still be in the mix, too. I’m sure the brass isn’t happy Nurmagomedov is leaving — after all, it feels like he was just coming into his own as a star — but the good news is the promotion has plenty of great options at its disposal, including the biggest draw in the game.
Real or not: Ferguson’s next fight will be against Chandler, and the winner faces the McGregor-Poirier winner for the title
More than two months after his loss to Justin Gaethje, Tony Ferguson says he’s ready to step back in the Octagon and lists the names he’d be willing to compete against.
Raimondi: This seems like the most likely scenario. I could see the UFC making McGregor vs. Poirier for the lightweight title and trying to put Ferguson and Chandler together on that January card or another event in close proximity. Maybe even UFC 256 on Dec. 12. Gaethje should be in this conversation somewhere, too. But he’ll likely need another win to get a title shot after falling to Khabib.
Losing Nurmagomedov to retirement is a blow to the UFC, there’s no doubt. He’s one of the top three draws in the promotion — maybe No. 2, behind McGregor. It also feels like he’s leaving before his peak. Nurmagomedov looked better than ever against Gaethje. He was hungry, ruthlessly looking for a finish at UFC 254. It was almost scary to watch. Usually, Gaethje is the predator in his fights. But Nurmagomedov is the UFC’s apex predator and he hunted down Gaethje.
With that said, if the UFC could afford to lose a top star from a division, it was at lightweight, which remains the deepest and most talented in the world. Look at the possible title fights and contender bouts left in Nurmagomedov’s wake. It’s a collection of well-rounded, excellent fighters — former champs, former titleholders from other promotions and potential future stars. Speaking of stars, the idea of McGregor becoming lightweight champion again with a win over Poirier would be a boon to the UFC moving into 2021 — with the potential of crowds coming back.
It has been an odd few months. Aside from the coronavirus pandemic, three of the top pound-for-pound fighters in the world have retired: Nurmagomedov, Daniel Cormier and Henry Cejudo. This feels like 2013 when Anderson Silva lost his title, then shattered his leg and Georges St-Pierre vacated his title and went on hiatus within just a few months of each other. Luckily, the UFC had a woman named Ronda Rousey ready to become a huge star. Israel Adesanya seems like the next big thing for the promotion now. But perhaps he could be joined by one of these very talented athletes in the lightweight division.
Real or not: Khabib will change his mind at some point and fight once more, against Georges St-Pierre
Georges St-Pierre gives his reaction to Khabib Nurmagomedov retiring after his win at UFC 254 and why he’s happy for him.
Wagenheim: I’ll call this one a half-truth. Nurmagomedov has been a competitor all his life, and that intrinsic thirst did not vanish from his nature at the instant he lay down his gloves at the center of the Octagon. He will feel the urge to test himself again. It might be today. It might be a year from tomorrow. It will happen — the desire to return will captivate him.
But Nurmagomedov will not surrender to that desire. Not even for a legacy-enhancing dance with St-Pierre.
Khabib promised his mother that Saturday would be his final professional fight, so he will not fight again. Period. End of story. The most dominant fighter in MMA history knows that a man is only as strong as his word. The enticement of fortune and hosannas will not win out over his commitment to family and honor. He will live up to his promise out of respect for his mother, out of respect for his late father — his coach, mentor and sage.
If the itch for competition becomes too vexing to ignore? Should that day come, a man in shades and a hat — an inconspicuous ball cap, not the attention-grabbing papakha — will walk into Tristar Gym in Montreal unannounced. St-Pierre will be expecting him — only GSP, no one else. Khabib and GSP will have their go privately — no fans, no bright lights. What happens that day will be known just by them. Both men will find satisfaction in that.
Real or not: Khabib didn’t have enough title defenses to be considered the GOAT
Before Khabib Nurmagomedov takes on Justin Gaethje at UFC 254, look back at his biggest wins inside the Octagon.
Okamoto: Yeah, that’s false. Not a great argument, in my opinion. Look, the whole GOAT conversation, I don’t get too wrapped up in it, personally — because at the end of the day there is no right answer. So, why are we gonna sit around and argue all day over something that doesn’t even have a correct answer to begin with? That said, I think it’s pretty clear there are four candidates for GOAT: Nurmagomedov, Jon Jones, Georges St-Pierre, Anderson Silva. And their cases are all kind of different.
St-Pierre has the sterling resume — a double champ — and was the closest thing to a perfect fighter in his era, in my opinion. Silva had the record for most consecutive title defenses — four — for a very long time, and he had a mystique factor that I think has to be accounted for. The manner in which he beat his opponents was just something different. Jones seems like the most gifted, the most talented of them all. His resume is littered with former greats, and his upcoming move to heavyweight will have a major impact on his legacy. Nurmagomedov has the undefeated record. The unbelievable accomplishment of staying perfect in a sport in which it’s virtually impossible to do so. Frankly, that’s more important than title defenses to me, and he still beat all the names in this division he needed to (Ferguson would have been great, but in the end, Nurmagomedov doesn’t need to beat Ferguson for his legacy). He’s also going on out on probably his best performance yet. So, those are the arguments. And personally, right now, I’m saying Nurmagomedov is the GOAT.