mma / Columns

State of UFC’s Lightweight Division

April 2, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Tony Ferguson UFC 216 UFC 229

The champion is suspended for another three months. Its biggest draw announced his retirement last week. The uncrowned interim champion is on the sidelines for an indeterminate amount of time due to personal issues. The featherweight champion is moving up to fight for a new interim title.

These facts seem to spell a sorry state, but in reality, the top of the UFC’s lightweight division has never been more exciting.

Inactivity plagues the top of the division. Khabib Nurmagomedov, with 27 wins against zero losses, could be the best fighter lightweight has ever seen, but there are still several top fighters for him to test himself against. Conor McGregor has fought only twice in UFC’s lightweight division and has fought just once inside the octagon since 2016 ended. Tony Ferguson fought once in 2017 and then once in 2018. Still lurking in the shadows is Nate Diaz, who hasn’t competed in since 2016.

And yet there is no shortage of incredible lightweight talent. This weekend’s main event proved to be an excellent example. Edson Barboza and Justin Gaethje figured to combine for a violent, exciting fight. They delivered on that, although the fight was too short to match “fight of the year contender” status that most of Gaethje’s UFC bouts have reached. Gaethje accepts that he’ll be burned and walks into the fire, but that’s the best way he knows to fight it. Burn him Barboza did, but Justin Gaethje isn’t going to succumb to fire in round one. He pressed forward—Barboza has fallen to aggression in the past—and scored his second consecutive first-round knockout.

Most of the UFC’s ten best lightweights are notable for how exciting their fights are. That Gaethje stands head and shoulders above all of them for the violent thrills that his fights bring is one of the more remarkable feats in modern MMA. In his five UFC bouts, Gaethje had the best fight of 2017—you can pick whether it was his debut against Michael Johnson or his war against Eddie Alvarez—the best fight of 2018 against Dustin Poirier, and now two consecutive first-round knockouts. The rule of thumb is basically that if a Gaethje fight gets into the second round, it will be ranked as one of the best fights of the year.

You will never worry about seeing a boring fight between two of the elite lightweight fighters. Khabib Nurmagomedov’s dominant, crushing grappling is perhaps the least exciting style of any top lightweight, but that only makes his bouts more compelling. If Nurmagomedov’s grappling were less effective, he wouldn’t be in his spot; there would be no wonderment at how his grappling can be so dominant, and no pondering of whether his opponents can withstand or counter it.

As if the division needed some extra shine, featherweight champion Max Holloway is taking on the challenge of Dustin Poirier for the interim lightweight title in two weeks. Holloway should be able to compete with the lightweight elite right away; size won’t be an issue, and neither will skill. His foray into the lightweight division is particularly intriguing because even though he is a large featherweight that drains himself to make that weight class, the pace he carried into and increased in the later rounds of featherweight bouts was insane. According to UFC Stats, he threw 204 strikes in the third round of his second fight against Jose Aldo, and 196 strikes in the fourth round against Brian Ortega. If this is Holloway after a tough weight cut, imagine him without draining himself to get to 145 pounds.

The major question is how all of these pieces fit together going forward with select fighters remaining inactive. Nurmagomedov should return later this year, perhaps as early as September. The obvious fight for him is the winner of Dustin Poirier vs. Max Holloway, but things rarely work out so smoothly in the lightweight division. The goods news is that the division is so loaded, there are five or six fighters that I would be more than happy to see challenge Nurmagomedov.

Conor McGregor’s retirement will likely end up similar to his last one. He doesn’t seem like a fighter who is done yet, and although the window for him to make big money will be open for several more years, the window for him at his athletic peak won’t remain open nearly as long. It’s anyone’s guess as to when exactly he’ll return, but when he does, he won’t be more than one win away from another title shot.

Tony Ferguson’s status is no clearer than McGregor’s; there is no timeframe for his return.

Although the UFC has been fickle with interim champions within the past couple of years, the winner of Poirier vs. Holloway will be in a great spot as long as they can stay healthy. They’ll either have a shot at Nurmagomedov, who should be the second or third-biggest pay-per-view draw in the company when he returns, or if Nurmagomedov’s return is delayed, they’ll be the top dog in the division for a time.

The rest of the pack includes Gaethje, Al Iaquinta, Donald Cerrone, and Kevin Lee. Iaquinta and Cerrone are set to fight in May. Gaethje can fight anyone in the division and I’d be excited by the announcement, but he should be getting the best opponent available outside of Nurmagomedov. Kevin Lee is making a temporary move to welterweight to fight former lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos, which was a good move for him to rebound from his loss to Iaquinta.

With a division as strong as the UFC’s lightweight division, there are few missteps possible. Most fights are going to be great or deliver an exciting finish. The only lamentable point is that if everyone at the top of the division was active, this would be a legendary time in the division; the type of stuff books are written about. Instead we’re treated to a division that keep us engaged both inside and outside the cage.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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Conor McGregor, UFC, Dan Plunkett