Long In Limbo, The UFC’s Lightweight Title Picture Is Coming Into Focus
All the sharks are ready to feed
Article courtesy of Paul Miller of MMA Freaks
Hanging in limbo for 18 months because of former Champion Conor McGregor’s lack of title defenses, the UFC’s Lightweight Division has suddenly and rapidly emerged as its most exciting, arguably stacked with the most contender-level talent, any one of whom could claim the belt if given the shot. Just a couple short weeks ago, the top two fighters in the division were the inactive Champion and the Interim Champion, and there was title-picture uncertainty that everyone hoped would be resolved by Ferguson vs Nurmagomedov. My, how rapidly things have changed! Now the division is lorded over by an undefeated Champion who has never lost a round in the UFC, and he rules over a virtual tank filled with circling sharks waiting to take a bite out of him and each other.
With Dustin Poirier’s gutsy win over Justin Gaethje, the title picture conversation changed dramatically just a week after Khabib claimed the belt. The results of Kevin Lee vs Edson Barboza at UFC FightNight 128 will likely change the conversation again. With Khabib Nurmagomedov at the top of the mountain; former champ Eddie Alvarez chomping at the bit; Poirier inserting himself into the picture in dramatic fashion; and a host of would-be contenders all angling for a shot at the belt, the Lightweight title picture is starting to become coherent after many months of uncertainty, and it could hardly look more exciting for fans.
The crazy thing is, that as stacked, exciting, and volatile, as the Lightweight Division is, it is so even without Conor McGregor and Tony Ferguson in the near-term picture, and that is the very definition of roster-depth.
The Developing Picture
I’ve seen various scenarios proposed for moving forward in the division: Poirier should get the shot; Alvarez should get the shot; Poirier and Alvarez should fight for who gets the shot; If Lee beats Barboza he should get the shot because he gave Ferguson a tough fight; Khabib should wait for Tony; Khabib should fight Poirier or Alvarez, and if he wins, fight McGregor or Ferguson down the road; Khabib should wait for McGregor to get over his issues and fight in Moscow; Khabib vs McGregor in Las Vegas is where the real money is…
Unless you’re one of those “Conor is the One and Only True Champ” people, it’s likely that you see your opinion voiced somewhere in the pervious paragraph. With all these potential scenarios, here’s what we know: Ferguson is out for a minimum of 6 months – quite probably longer – rehabbing from his surgical repair of a torn LCL. McGregor, with his legal troubles and mountain of cash, is not coming back any time soon, and maybe not at all. So in considering the title picture at Lightweight, common sense says that both men should be set aside in the conversation for at least 6-12 months.
When looking at who appears to be in immediate contention among those who are available, the two most obvious are Alvarez and Poirier. Lee is an outlier if he beats Barboza. Barboza already lost to Khabib, so let’s take him out of the equation, assuming that he needs to put together a few wins before fighting Khabib again. Since Lee isn’t fighting until next week, let’s look at Alvarez and Poirier.
When comparing the UFC Lightweight records of these two men, it becomes apparent that Dustin Poirier’s win/loss record is more consistent, while Alvarez can boast winning the belt, even though he lost it to McGregor in his very next fight. Alvarez also held the Bellator belt against tough competition, which is worthy of consideration.
Dustin Poirier is 7-1-1 since moving up to Lightweight after his Featherweight loss to McGregor. His No Contest loss to Alvarez was a fight Poirier was winning until Alvarez landed fight-ending illegal knees to the head. Without that NC loss, Poirier would be 8-1 in his 9 Lightweight fights, assuming he’d have gone on to win that fight that he was winning.
Eddie Alvarez, on the other hand, is 4-2-1 in the UFC, and since winning the Lightweight belt, he subsequently lost it, then had the No Contest with Poirier, and then beat Justin Gaethje.
So if you’re going to award one of these two men a shot at Khabib Nurmagomedov, I think the nod has to go to Poirier. But I don’t think that’s what should happen.
A burning question exists: Who would have won the Poirier/Alvarez fight if Alvarez had not landed those fight-ending illegal knees? Both men have since been lukewarm or even dismissive of the idea that they should run that fight back one more time. Alvarez dismissed it right away; Poirier bypassed talk of Alvarez after beating Gaethje and went straight to calling out Khabib. But doesn’t it make perfect sense for Dustin and Eddie to meet? To my way of thinking, with the absence of McGregor and Ferguson, Alvarez and Poirier are both #1 contenders. Their records aside, any “ranking” system that places one over the other is academic at best, because they have unfinished business.
My opinion is that Poirier should take time to heal up from his war with Gaethje and that Poirier vs Alvarez 1.5 for the #1 contender spot is the fight to make. Of course, since it makes sense to me, the UFC is likely to do something entirely different. But in my world, where merit and paying your dues by winning fights still plays a role, that is what I think should happen. The result of this matchup would place a clear, unambiguous #1 contender in Numagomedov’s path, for the very first time in Khabib’s career, if we’re being honest. Khabib vs the winner of Poirier/Alvarez would have the legitimacy of a true title fight that some say was lacking in the Al Iaquinta matchup.
And whatever the result of a Khabib title fight born of a Poirier/Alvarez matchup, the circling sharks will still be there. Who knows what happens 6-12 months from now? If you want Conor to swoop in and fight for the LW belt, you might get your wish. If you want to see Tony vs Khabib finally happen, you may get that.
Great fighters like James Vick, Alex Hernandez, Al Iaquinta, Paul Felder, Anthony Pettis, Michael Chiesa, and Olivier Aubin-Mercier to name a few outside the top-five, are all waiting their turn to enter that shark tank, and some of them might be in the tank by the time Ferguson and McGregor return. In the meantime UFC, give us Poirier/Alvarez.