The UFC's lightweight division is about to embark on a new era following the retirement of undefeated former champion Khabib Nurmagomedov.
The division endured the Conor McGregor era of 2016 to 2018, during which he essentially held the belt hostage without a single title defense for 511 days before being stripped of it for inactivity. And we say farewell to the Nurmagomedov era of 2018 to 2020, during which there were actual title fights, but not competitive ones.
On Saturday, the UFC's vacant lightweight belt is up for grabs between Charles Oliveira (30-8) and Michael Chandler (22-5). Neither has fought for a UFC title before, and regardless of who wins, there will be plenty to talk about as the division moves forward.
So, in honor of the new chapter we're about to witness, let's answer some of the more pertinent questions surrounding the division right now.
Is the McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier winner on July 10 guaranteed a shot at Saturday's winner?
Poirier, McGregor exchange blows in first two rounds
Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor go back and forth in Round 1, but it's all Poirier in Round 2 as he pulls out the stunning victory.
Yes. Open-and-shut, case closed. McGregor and Poirier square off in the main event of UFC 264 in a nontitle trilogy bout. The weird thing about the matchup is that Poirier could have had the title fight if he wanted. He was given a choice between the two, and he took McGregor -- because of the money, of course.
So, in a sense, Poirier is already the No. 1 contender, even more so than the two men fighting for the belt at UFC 262. And if he beats McGregor, his stock will be higher than it's ever been, and he will fight for the title next
As for McGregor, the UFC wants to give him a title shot. Had Nurmagomedov stuck around and been willing to fight him, the UFC would have made that fight without even asking McGregor to earn it with a win. McGregor is a wild card in his own right, and who knows what he wants to do beyond UFC 264? But he's said he wants to be active, and if he beats Poirier, the offer will be there to reclaim his title.
Where does Justin Gaethje fit into the title picture?
We're about to find out. Gaethje has been the odd man out in these recent bookings, mostly because he happened to be the last guy to lose to Nurmagomedov. There just wasn't an obvious fight for him. McGregor and Poirier needed to finish their trilogy, and the UFC didn't want to book a vacant title fight with a guy who just lost a UFC title fight his last time out. So, bad timing for Gaethje -- but I believe UFC president Dana White when he's said Gaethje is still in a good spot. A great spot.
Gaethje's next move will really come down to timing and results of these next few fights. If McGregor beats Poirier but doesn't make a quick turnaround, the UFC could book Gaethje vs. the winner of Oliveira-Chandler. If Poirier wins the trilogy and gets the title fight, I could absolutely see the UFC trying to book McGregor vs. Gaethje, which would be a massive fight. There are some very good options out there for Gaethje, but it's hard to predict what his next move is until we see some of these results.
Are there any wild-card title challengers?
Not really. The names we've discussed are the ones in play for a UFC championship in the near future. I will give you two names, however, to consider -- not necessarily as wild cards to fight for the title soon, but as part of the conversation: Tony Ferguson and Islam Makhachev.
Ferguson faces Beneil Dariush on Saturday in a crossroads fight for his career. He went 0-2 last year and didn't look good against Gaethje or Oliveira. If he loses to Dariush, he'll fall out of lightweight relevancy, as far as the title picture is concerned.
If Ferguson wins, I believe he's on a collision course with the other name I noted: Makhachev. Look, Ferguson is now at a disadvantage when it comes to claiming a title shot, because of his recent performances. If he wants to insert himself back into the title picture, I think he's going to have to take the fight that no one wants, and that's Makhachev. A protege of the Nurmagomedovs, Khabib and his late father Abdulmanap, Makhachev has a style similar to the now-retired former champion, and he has made it clear he wants to fight Ferguson.
In a way, this matchup would be a nod to the five Nurmagomedov vs. Ferguson fights that fell through over the years for various reasons. If Ferguson wins at UFC 262, I believe this fight is in his future -- and the good news is that it is a big one. Because if this fight ever gets made, whoever wins will be in a great position.
Are there any lightweight prospects who could make some noise over the next year?
Because this division is so top-heavy, and there are so many good matchups to make amongst the top guys, it's going to be hard for a new face to emerge over the next year. There is plenty of talent coming up the ranks at 155 pounds, but they're at the mercy of what fights they can get, and for that reason, it will be tough to break out. Dariush, who's 32 and has been fighting in the UFC for seven years, doesn't fit the description of a prospect, but if he beats Ferguson this weekend, he'll be owed a big fight. So, he's in a good spot. Gregor Gillespie, who fought just last weekend, is floating in that top-10 space, and his next fight will likely be the biggest opportunity of his career.
Beyond that, I still like "Mini Kelvin Gastelum," Nasrat Haqparast. The physical tools are there, and he's fun to watch. The 24-year-old Arman Tsarukyan is certainly one to keep an eye on. Rafael Fiziev, take notice of him. Those are some lottery tickets I'd throw out, in terms of guys who if everything fell their way, we could be talking about them in a title picture within the next year. But they've got their work cut out.