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The lightweight division has for years rightfully earned plaudits as the most stacked division in the sport. It’s understandable given the weight class is a natural size for large numbers of athletes in many nations where MMA is popular. However, the division’s depth didn’t necessarily make it the most popular among the average fan. Rather, hardcore fight fans knew 155 pounds was the place to watch while more casual fans directed their attention elsewhere.
B.J. Penn was one of the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s biggest stars, but after he lost the UFC lightweight crown, his successors struggled to generate the same level of interest. Frankie Edgar’s title fights with Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson underwhelmed on pay-per-view, and Henderson, Anthony Pettis, Rafael dos Anjos and Eddie Alvarez didn’t do any better. Conor McGregor’s fight with Alvarez was one of the biggest fights in MMA history, but the Irishman hasn’t returned to MMA or the lightweight division since. The lightweight division thus returned to a familiar status: full of captivating talent but without a big star elevating everyone else.
Over the past week, that changed in a big way. McGregor’s plea deal puts him in position to return to action soon and UFC President Dana White has indicated the promotion isn’t looking to punish McGregor for past conduct. This is great news for the lightweight division in and of itself, but what’s just as promising is what has happened at lightweight since McGregor last fought. There is a pool of excellent fighters with different strengths who have built momentum at the same time. Moreover, there are plenty of fresh matchups, as the division’s best fighters for the most part haven’t all fought each other. In short, McGregor’s return couldn’t come at a better time.
The most immediate obstacle for McGregor if he returns to the UFC is of course the great Khabib Nurmagomedov. It’s easy to lose sight of what a remarkable accomplishment it is that Nurmagomedov has accumulated an undefeated 26-0 record, having debuted in the UFC all the way back at the beginning of 2012. Winning tends to be taken for granted, even in a sport where losses come so readily. Nurmagomedov is also a throwback, a fighter who relies on his ground game heavily, even as so many fighters with ground backgrounds turn to striking for their wins.
Nurmagomedov is more than a glossy record and distinctive style, too. He is a great trash talker. His talk has already helped make a fight with McGregor very attractive, and the buzz will only increase if McGregor accepts the challenge and the war of words really gets going. McGregor-Nurmagomedov would be a real gift for fight fans if it can get made, offering pretty much everything we want out of a big-time fight.
When Nurmagomedov’s fight with Tony Ferguson fell through yet again earlier this year, it was a massive blow to fans who wanted to see that compelling matchup. Now, many months later, there’s a bright spot to that: a third claimant to lightweight gold. McGregor never lost his title in the Octagon, and Nurmagomedov is undefeated for his career. If and when their fight comes to fruition, there won’t even be a drop-off. Waiting in the wings is a fighter with a 10-fight winning streak in the UFC and unbeaten for over six years. His mixture of being able to brawl while possessing a dangerous submission game presents different problems than McGregor and Nurmagomedov, too.
The top mix at lightweight got even stronger on Saturday with Dustin Poirier’s impressive TKO win over former champion Eddie Alvarez in the UFC on Fox 30 main event. Poirier, with a five-fight unbeaten streak and only one loss in his last 10 fights, is another fighter with great momentum. He has also done it with style, delivering exciting fights and brutal knockouts. Poirier did lose to McGregor in the past, but he has plenty of fresh matchups against other top contenders.
Beyond the top few contenders, the UFC lightweight division benefits from having not just a collection of fighters with impressive resumes but many great fighters whose stories are still being written. The 25-year-old Kevin Lee has won six of seven and appears to be improving markedly over time. James Vick has sneakily gone 9-1 in the UFC and could make a name for himself against Justin Gaethje next time out. There’s a lot still to be sorted out, and that’s a formula for an interesting division.
Of course, all of this hinges on McGregor. His star power elevates the status of everyone he competes against. There are plenty of exciting fights for those who follow the sport closely, but for those lost in the deluge of shows, McGregor is the one who brings focus. His return couldn’t come at a better time. McGregor-Nurmagomedov, McGregor-Ferguson, Ferguson-Nurmagomedov, Ferguson-Poirier, Lee-Nurmagomedov and a host of other tantalizing bouts could make for a fun upcoming year or two.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.
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