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The Landscape of the UFC Lightweight Division

The last 2 weeks made matchmaking in the UFC’s lightweight division very interesting. 155 featured the top 3 fights at UFC 242 while UFC Vancouver featured the main event between #5 Justin Gaethje and #4 Donald Cerrone. While the rankings haven’t had a massive shift, the results of four key lightweight fights created a lot of speculation as to what is next for the top 15 of the UFC’s lightweight division. There is however, one area where there’s zero speculation between fighters, pundits and fans. 

The main talk after UFC 242 is Khabib Nurmagomedov (28-0) must defend against Tony Ferguson (25-3). Both are on winning streaks and have dominated all recent opponents, it by far makes the most sense. What problems might interfere? Recently Ferguson said he wants to fight Khabib in Las Vegas (UFC 245). After UFC 229, it’s hard to see Khabib fighting again in Las Vegas. Tony and his management team would probably be wiser to aim for the main event of UFC 246 rather than try to get Khabib in Nevada again. We also have the fact that they’ve been booked four times and all fell out, any true MMA fan has felt the wrath of that cursed matchup. 

A post shared by @TonyFergusonxt (@tonyfergusonxt) on Sep 12, 2019 at 8:50pm PDT

Next down the rankings are Dustin Poirier (25-6) and Conor McGregor (21-4). While a rematch between those two appears enticing, it seems doubtful to happen. Most fans, including fans of McGregor, feel like he doesn’t belong #3 at lightweight. His last and only win at 155 was in 2016 when he defeated Eddie Alvarez for the belt, which he eventually lost due to inactivity. Nate Diaz, who has massively proven his popularity the last couple months, would have been removed from the top 15 by now (happened to him twice before). Most fans would agree the only reason Conor remains ranked #3 is because he’s a massive PPV draw. If you remove the financial incentive, it makes little sense why he’s even ranked at all. I’m very interested who the UFC tries to match Poirier up with next. Because Cerrone is such a huge name, despite being on a 2 fight skid, I would not be shocked if the UFC tried to match those 2 men up. It’s not uncommon for the UFC to match up fighters who both recently won or lost, not to mention fighters who could easily main event any non PPV event or co-main a PPV.

A post shared by Dustin Poirier (@dustinpoirier) on Sep 9, 2019 at 9:11am PDT

Justin Gaethje (21-2) is now on a 3 fight win streak including two 1st round KO’s and one 1st round TKO. His total octagon time in those fights is only 8:15. It appears Justin has learned a lot from his two losses, especially the one to Poirier. The way he’s been fighting in his last three victories he’s bound to dramatically lower his insanely high strike absorption rate of 10+ per minute. His strikes landed per minute (8+ per min) should also decline but that’s also a good thing. Striking less will reserve energy and allow a much higher percentage for power punches like he’s landed against Vick, Barbosa and Cerrone. In his losses he got too tired to land anything nearly as meaningful, eventually leading to his decline in both fights. His recent three fight win streak has set him up perfectly to be in line for the winner of Khabib and Ferguson, considering that fight happens. However, if I’m Gaethje, I’m rooting for Tony. The way most of Khabib’s team is talking like they want Tony first, then GSP and retirement. Though fighting Khabib is something Justin would surely want, right now it’s doubtful Khabib and his team would aim for that fight. 

A post shared by Justin Gaethje 🇺🇸 (@justin_gaethje) on Mar 25, 2019 at 8:26pm PDT

#6-#15 is an interesting landscape to evaluate. Kevin Lee is still ranked #8 and Anthony Pettis #10, despite their recent move to welterweight. #11 Gregor Gillespie finally called somebody out, interestingly enough that person was Anthony Pettis. By rank it makes perfect sense. For Gillespie it’s by far the best name to pick if he’s not being too greedy or too humble to fight lower ranked people. However, if I was Gillespie, I would aim my sites toward Donald Cerrone. That’s another big name and we all know Cowboy, he will fight anyone/anytime. But with Cowboy on a two fight skid it seems more likely the UFC will pair him against a lower ranked opponent or somebody else off a loss. That said, it may be tough for Gillespie to land that fight and perhaps Pettis is a better callout. As much as I respect Poirier, I believe he is a better matchup for Cowboy than Gillespie (I could be wrong but that’s my hunch). It also makes sense if Cowboy wants to get back in contention for the belt as soon as possible. Or, perhaps Edson Barbosa? If Poirier isn’t an option, Cerrone vs Barbosa has ESPN Fight Night Main Event written all over it. 

A post shared by Edson Barboza Jr (@edsonbarbozajr) on Jul 27, 2019 at 8:38am PDT

Al Iaquinta and Dan Hooker are slated to meet at UFC 243, a huge opportunity for Dan Hooker as #15 vs #6 on home turf. The speculation there is in what happens with the rankings if Hooker wins. To my knowledge #13 Charles Oliveira and #14 Alexander Hernandez aren’t scheduled to fight right now. Perhaps it makes sense to match those two up? #14 Islam Makhachev is a hot prospect off a recent win, I’m very curious what the UFC matchmakers decide to do with him. It seems he’s ready for a top 10 opponent but he needs a dancing partner willing to gamble their higher spot. I’ve seen many on social media outlets call for Gillespie vs Makhachev. While that is a great match up on paper, especially for wrestling fans, it’s hard to see Gillespie entertaining a fight vs the #14 ranked Makhachev when he has bigger names slightly above him that make more sense. For Makhachev, it may make more sense to aim for a better stylistic matchup and try to meet Gillespie at the top down the road. 

A post shared by Dan "Hangman" Hooker (@danhangman) on Jul 15, 2019 at 10:31am PDT

Between the high ranked veterans with recent losses and the hot prospects on win streaks it will be very interesting to see what fights get signed over the next 1-2 months. I’m confident the UFC will find a way to make great matchups, they usually do. Despite it being difficult to believe Dana all the time, one area I usually believe him is in the work he does to find people fights and honor their deals. In a 2017 interview with TMZ Sports, when speaking about Nate Diaz fighting again, Dana said “We offer these guys fights and they turn them down. I don’t know what he wants, that’s up to them” [source below].

Fighters on contract have to be offered fights, it’s part of their contract. Like Dana White or not, he’s proven time and time again that he goes to great efforts to put together quality fight cards for the fans. The world isn’t perfect and sometimes we have cards that are much better than others, unfortunately that’s part of the game. When it comes to 155 in the UFC, I find it hard to believe they will struggle to sign great fights in a division so deep in talent. ■

Jason Marlowe, UnknownMMA

**rankings courtesy of

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