The UFC lightweight division has been in constant flux ever since Conor McGregor defeated Eddie Alvarez to win the belt at UFC 205. Instead of defending his belt, McGregor went on to box Floyd Mayweather which necessitated the UFC creating an interim lightweight belt, which Tony Ferguson won by submitting Kevin Lee at UFC 216. Ferguson was set to take on Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 but fell off the card with an injury. After numerous other opponents fell out of the fight, Nurmagomedov ended up fighting Al Iaquinta, and he defeated him via wide decision to become the new undisputed UFC lightweight champion. The belt became vacant after McGregor was stripped of the belt due to inactivity and getting arrested in a bizarre attack on a bus carrying red corner fighters prior to UFC 223, and now Nurmagomedov is officially the king of the lightweights.
Now the question is, what’s next for “The Eagle”?
Of course, the fight that makes the most sense is Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor, but after the Irishman’s tirade last week in Brooklyn there’s no telling when he will step into the Octagon next. McGregor is facing several charges in relation to the attack on the bus and is due back in court in June. He still has to take care of his legal situation before a fight against Nurmagomedov can be booked. And it’s pretty clear that while the UFC would love to book this matchup, it just can’t rely on McGregor being available to fight in 2018, and it doesn’t want to have another situation where the lightweight belt isn’t defended again. So, for now at least, we can write McGregor off of the list of possible opponents for Nurmagomedov.
The same can be said for Ferguson, which is unfortunate since a fight pitting him against Nurmagomedov is still one of the best-possible matchups for the new champion. Unfortunately for Ferguson he blew his knee out after tripping over a wire in a dark room prior to UFC 223, and he’s going to be out on the shelf for a while so you can write him off the possible contenders list for now. Not to mention the fact Nurmagomedov has no interest in the fight right now, and who can blame him considering that particular matchup has been cancelled four times now. You can also write off Max Holloway as a contender for the lightweight belt as he’s expected to drop to featherweight and defend his belt against Brian Ortega sometime in the summer instead. The other fighter Nurmagomedov was linked to this week, Anthony Pettis, also won’t be in consideration as his recent record just isn’t good enough to be a title contender in a normal situation.
The fighter that Nurmagomedov called out after beating Iaquinta was actually former UFC welterweight and middleweight champion Georges St-Pierre. Nurmagomedov said he considers GSP the best athlete in UFC history and would love to fight him. And while that would be a great matchup, it’s kind of unrealistic right now because GSP hasn’t even spoken to the UFC about returning and also the fact he’s never made 155lbs before. That’s a fight I believe could happen one day, but Nurmagomedov needs to at least defend his belt a few times before he demands a superfight against GSP, which GSP himself said. So I just can’t see the GSP vs. Nurmagomedov fight happening anytime soon.
That leaves a few other guys as possible opponents for Nurmagomedov. The first would be the next contender in line, Eddie Alvarez, who is coming off of a massive knockout win over Justin Gaethje back at UFC 218 in one of the best fights of 2018. Alvarez is the former champion and he possesses the mix of wrestling and striking that could give Nurmagomedov trouble. We have seen Alvarez headline several cards in the past and he would make a fine first opponent for Nurmagomedov as the champion. The same could be said for Gaethje, who fights Dustin Poirier this weekend at UFC on FOX 29. The winner of that fight will be putting himself in excellent position to contend for the title. The fighters mentioned in this paragraph are the most-realistic opponents for Nurmagomedov, who will likely return to the Octagon in the fall.
If I had to guess, I’d go out and say Nurmagomedov vs. Alvarez is the fight the UFC books. Alvarez is coming off of a huge win over Gaethje and is one of the few guys who matches up well stylistically against Nurmagomedov. With Ferguson hurt, he’s the next highest-ranked fighter in the UFC rankings who hasn’t fought Nurmagomedov yet. It would be a good first title defense test for the new champion. Obviously everyone wants to see the Russian fight McGregor, but sadly for MMA fans everywhere McGregor was selfish and chose to make a scene in Brooklyn. And while Nurmagomedov himself wants GSP, that’s just not a fight that makes sense right now. Regardless of who the UFC pits him against, let’s just hope Nurmagomedov, the new lightweight king, doesn’t get hurt again, because the UFC lightweight division needs a champion who stays active and defends his title, which is something that cannot be said for McGregor, the Burger King.