The UFC's lightweight division is loaded right now. Khabib Nurmagomedov is champion, but just weeks ago that title belonged to Conor McGregor. And then to Tony Ferguson before a freak injury sidelined him. Add in Eddie Alvarez and Dustin Poirier both coming off knockout wins and a crucial bout this weekend between Edson Barboza and Kevin Lee, and you have a top of a weight class that rivals any in the sport.
What matchups should the UFC pursue in the coming months?
Okamoto: The UFC's lightweight division is so good right now, it feels like Saturday's main event between Lee and Barboza in Atlantic City is being overlooked, which is insanity. Lee is a former title challenger and Barboza is one of the most consistently dangerous strikers in the division.
How does this all shake out? It's impossible to say right now, due to the unknown variables (McGregor's legal status, Ferguson's knee, Alvarez's contract, Nate Diaz's inactivity), but I'll give it my best prediction: Nurmagomedov versus McGregor. Diaz versus Alvarez. Poirier versus Lee/Barboza winner. Ferguson rehabs his knee and re-enters the picture after these play out.
Murphy: Lightweight is widely considered the UFC's most exciting weight class. That's due to its unpredictability. But I think things will slow down in the next six months.
The top three in the class -- pick your order -- are McGregor, Nurmagomedov and Ferguson. McGregor's almost-certain suspension and Ferguson's freak knee injury could sideline both for the rest of 2018. Nurmagomedov likely won't fight until early fall as he observes Ramadan. The question of his next opponent is the one most worth examining.
I don't think it's Conor. The marketability of that fight is inelastic. I know I'm in the minority, but I think UFC president Dana White understands he needs to shelve McGregor temporarily for the bus attack that nearly derailed UFC 223. I don't think Khabib next faces Georges St-Pierre, who the Russian called out after claiming the lightweight belt. Nurmagomedov might be even more terrifying at 170 pounds with a relaxed weight cut. That high-risk booking isn't what St-Pierre wants.
By process of elimination, that leaves the winner of yet-to-be-scheduled Alvarez versus Poirier. Their illegal-strike-shortened fight at UFC 211 warrants a rematch. Even though Poirier used mic time Saturday to call out Khabib, timing works better to mete out who's more deserving between Poirier and The Diamond this summer, while The Eagle is away.
Nurmagomedov matches up favorably against both. He should nab a convincing win, remove any misplaced doubt after failing to finish Al Iaquinta, let the Conor fight marinate and blow up the box office in early 2019 with the promotion's most Notorious return of all time.
Wagenheim: The next movement in the lightweight symphony will be orchestrated by neither Dana White nor his matchmakers. It will be set in motion (or stalled) by the New York court system. And the Islamic calendar. And a cable running along a TV studio floor.
If McGregor is unencumbered by legal woes by the time Nurmagomedov is back from his observance of Ramadan, then that's the fight. It's the one to book not because of the bad blood or the mad money. It's the necessary fight because one man is newly in possession of a championship belt that was stripped from other while he was distracted by fame and fortune. Their tug-of-war would determine who gets to be undisputed.
Ferguson would have a claim if he weren't preoccupied by counting the staples Frankensteining down his surgically repaired leg, the freaky result of tripping over that TV cable. He appears to be out for an extended period ... and, really, McGregor could be, too. Nurmagomedov might end up having to go with Plan D -- as in Dustin. By summer's end, Poirier will be healed up from the beating he took in last weekend's TKO win over a zombie disguised as Justin Gaethje.
Rosenstein: I told all of my friends who casually watch MMA that this past Saturday's clash between Poirier and Gaethje would be a can't-miss war. I was proven correct. Poirier survived multiple eye pokes and a badly damaged right leg to win the fight by fourth-round TKO. The result puts him in title contention right now -- but I say he's still one victory away.
The UFC should make Nurmagomedov versus McGregor, especially after the madness that occurred in Barclays Center before UFC 223. The matchup alone would be amazing. Add the feud between both camps and it'll be the event of the year in MMA. I have doubts McGregor gets any serious punishment from the UFC, so when he wants to fight, he'll fight. Expect this in the fall or winter after Khabib observes Ramadan.
Poirier versus Alvarez also seems like a fight that needs to be made. There's bad blood between them as their previous bout ended in a "no contest" due to Alvarez's illegal knees. Before that occurred it saw constant action. The winner of this competes for the belt.
The rest of this division is up in the air. Ferguson deserves another shot at the title, but there's no telling when he will be able to return from a torn ligament in his knee. This weekend's fight between Barboza and Lee will be intriguing and the winner could be another option for Poirier.