mma / Columns

UFC’s Lightweight Chaos is (Hopefully) Settling Down

September 2, 2019 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Khabib Nurmagomedov

The top of UFC’s lightweight division is slowly becoming less of a mess.

A year ago, Khabib Nurmagomedov had yet to defend his lightweight title against Conor McGregor. Tony Ferguson deserved a title shot, as did Dustin Poirier. Kevin Lee looked like he was ready to jump back in the mix.

Since then, Nurmagomedov has defeated McGregor, Tony Ferguson still deserves a title shot, Dustin Poirier had the right timing to rise to the top of the mix, and Kevin Lee fell out of the picture. On Saturday, the picture should become even cleaner.

Nurmagomedov is set for his first fight in eleven months, defending the belt against Poirier. It should leave one standing to fight Ferguson, but over the past several years with this division, what should happen usually isn’t what does happen.

We can go back to the first time Nurmagomedov was supposed to fight Ferguson back in December 2015. They’ve been on the docket against one another four times, and each time it has fallen through.

Then we can jump ahead a couple of months to champion vs. champion fight that never was, when lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos was set to defend against featherweight champion Conor McGregor. Dos Anjos, who overcame long odds to take the title i[n the first place, fell out of the fight with an injury. McGregor lost against replacement opponent Nate Diaz, which delayed McGregor’s lightweight title challenge, so Eddie Alvarez got the next shot at dos Anjos. A major underdog, Alvarez surprised dos Anjos, who had struggled to make the 155-pound limit, with a first-round knockout.

Of course, after that McGregor took the title from Alvarez in dominant fashion, making the durable veteran look like he was 42 instead of 32. Firmly atop the MMA world, a determined McGregor focused on quickly attaining historical accomplishments. The most attractive—and most unlikely—of those being a boxing match with Floyd Mayweather. It put the UFC’s lightweight title on hold, but became the second-richest combat sports event in history.

Two months after McGregor and Mayweather pushed hundred dollar bills out of each other, Tony Ferguson beat Kevin Lee for the interim lightweight championship. The belt wouldn’t stick. Just before another scheduled fight with Nurmagomedov, Ferguson injured his knee in a freak accident. The UFC stripped Ferguson of the interim title, and at the same time stripped McGregor of his piece of the lightweight title. Nurmagomedov went on to fight for the so-called undisputed title against Al Iaquinta—himself a late replacement for featherweight champion Max Holloway. As one would ascertain from his unblemished 27-0 record, Nurmagomedov took the crown.

Max Holloway did later get his lightweight title fight. With Nurmagomedov serving a suspension for a post-bout fracas following the McGregor bout, Holloway and Dustin Poirier fought for another version of the interim title. Poirier’s victory leads him into Saturday night where, hopefully, some semblance of order can continue to form in the UFC’s lightweight division.

Nurmagomedov could become the consensus best lightweight in MMA history with only a couple more title defenses. Lightweight is a historically strong and strongly competitive division. The record for most title defenses at lightweight hands relatively low at three, the same as the heavyweight division. Three champions have reached that mark: BJ Penn, Frankie Edgar, and Benson Henderson. Edgar and Henderson each benefitted from at least one narrow decision to hold onto their titles. Penn would probably be considered lightweight’s most dominant champion, but he reigned for less than two years.

Today, Nurmagomedov lords over the division at a historically strong time for it. Along with Ferguson, McGregor, and Poirier, the top four of today’s division stack up well against the top four in any era. The fighters below them in the ranks are very strong as well.

If Nurmagomedov can establish himself at the very top of the pecking order of this division by beating Poirier and following it up with a win over Ferguson, there is no good counter argument against him being the best lightweight ever. He would be an unbeaten fighter cleaning out perhaps the best collection of talent in the division’s history. It would be particularly great because history is not on his side.

Someone always comes along at lightweight to stop the party. It was hard to imagine any lightweight beating BJ Penn at the start of 2010, but then Frankie Edgar did it twice. Anthony Pettis looked like he might be the dominant champion the division had lacked, but them he fell hard. Rafael dos Anjos had a string of excellent performances that made one think about how far he could take it, but the weight was too great.

Khabib Nurmagomedov is a specialist. Dustin Poirier knows that Nurmagomedov is going to try to take him down on Saturday. Conor McGregor knew that Nurmagomedov would try to take him down last October. Tony Ferguson has known each of the four times they were supposed to fight that Nurmagomedov’s plan was to take him down. Nurmagomedov can do more than grapple—his dominant win over Al Iaquinta, largely conducted on the feet, looks better in retrospect than it did at the time—but everyone knows why the title is around his waist.

We could see Nurmagomedov clipped on the feet. We probably aren’t going to see him get outwrestled over the course of a fight, but some attempts can be defended and open something up. He could get tired at the end of a fight and his opponent could make something happen. There are so many points at which something could go awry, especially when you’re fighting the best. For Nurmagomedov to continue avoiding those traps would be remarkable.

Who knows what will happen on Saturday. We’ll almost surely see a lightweight title fight, but given past results, perhaps it will be a different fight than the one we see. If we do get Nurmagomedov vs. Poirier—finally—and we get a definitive result, we’ll move toward order at lightweight. Although disorder can be interesting, clarity is a great thing.

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.