After the Quake: Game Planning the Future of 155 Pounds

By Jacob Debets Oct 30, 2020

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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In the end, there was no number of sprawls, haymakers or Ron Perlman hype videos that could save Justin Gaethje from suffering the same the fate as the 28 men who came before him.

Though on paper “The Highlight” looked like a worthy adversary for incumbent lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov—he had trounced divisional boogeyman Tony Ferguson in May and possessed a striking arsenal, wrestling pedigree and deranged quality that promised to make things interesting—“The Eagle” needed only seven minutes to render him unconscious with a triangle choke at UFC 254, notching a third consecutive defense of the 155-pound crown. As referee Jason Herzog intervened to pull the champion off of Gaethje’s limp body, the typically stoic Nurmagomedov walked to the center of the Octagon, kneeled in what initially looked like a prayer and burst into tears.

Five minutes later, the 32-year-old confirmed what the fervent peeling off of his gloves had already signaled: He was done with this prizefighting business. Following the death of his father and lifelong coach, Abdulmanap, in July, and his mother’s consequent request for him to retire, he vowed to make one last walk before hanging them up. We know now that, in addition to the immense personal trauma he was navigating, he also had to overcome serious physical roadblocks to make it to the Flash Forum on Oct. 24—first as a result of the mumps, which led to a three-day stay in hospital and took away a full two weeks of his training camp, then courtesy of a broken toe he sustained in sparring.

The outpouring of emotion from Nurmagomedov and the stunned silence that followed his announcement gave appropriate weight to a night which will likely go down in history as one of the greatest mic drops in MMA history. Whether or not Nurmagomedov really does rival Jon Jones, Anderson Silva or George St. Pierre in the Greatest of All-Time discussion, retiring undefeated—without ever being cut, hurt or bloodied—simply has no precedent in a sport singularly defined by the brutality it inflicts on its participants. That Nurmagomedov did it in the deepest weight class during its most competitive era sets a whole new benchmark for MMA careers, even if the legacy he built outside the cage was ultimately less savory.

Now, the consensus best lightweight to ever grace the sport is gone, and while many will continue to mourn the Papakha-shaped vacuum Nurmagomedov has left at the top of the 155-pound mountain, there is also a palpable sense of excitement around the race to crown his successor—something that is difficult to envision if the scenario were played out in almost any other weight class. That speaks to the depth and talent of the 155-pound division, along with the personalities and narratives that have captured the attention and affection of fans who have no shortage of combat sports content from which to choose.

There’s Dustin Poirier, the former interim champion and aspiring philanthropist whose humble beginnings, devotion to family and tireless advocacy for The Good Fight Foundation make him a wholesome and relatable figure in a sport which all-too-often reminds us of our darker selves. Then there’s the eccentric, hyper-discursive Ferguson, who also has an interim lightweight title lying around his garage somewhere and won a mind-boggling 12 fights in a row between 2013 and 2019 before falling to Gaethje in the cruelest of circumstances earlier this year. Former Bellator MMA lightweight champion Michael Chandler, the face of MMA’s No. 2 promotion for a decade, has also been inserted “in the mix” at the top of the division and has already begun campaigning for a bout opposite the aforementioned Gaethje. Hovering above all of them is mercurial Irishman Conor McGregor—MMA’s most popular and polarizing force—who, through sheer force of his brand power, remains a Top 5 lightweight despite being four years removed from his solitary victory in the weight class, a win that saw him vanquish Eddie Alvarez to become the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s first two-division titleholder. Popular wisdom says that one of these five athletes will emerge as the UFC’s 11th lightweight champion, and depending on the path the promotion takes to crown him, the journey could be orders of magnitude more exciting and meaningful than the destination.

An eight-man grand prix—with Dan Hooker, Charles Oliveira and Paul Felder also participating—would unequivocally be considered the best and most legitimate MMA tournament since the 2005 Pride Fighting Championships Middleweight Grand Prix, opening up the division after four consecutive years in which the undisputed title has been contested just once annually. The fact that the eventual winner would need three victories to earn the strap would create some distance between him and the specter of his 29-0 predecessor, and the sheer number of exciting matchups, rematches and reignited rivalries would dominate fan and media imagination.

The alternative—to do a four-man tournament and bench the unranked Chandler—would also be popular and exciting for much the same reason and may ultimately be more feasible given the logistical challenges of tournaments, which have been on full display in the recent heavyweight and welterweight grands prix held by Bellator.

Regrettably, it’s likely that the UFC eschew these options in favor of the path of least resistance, which would be to simply crown the winner of the promised Poirier-McGregor rematch, which is tentatively slated for Jan. 23. That’s the path that gives the UFC the highest chance of getting another piece of gold wrapped around its most profitable asset, a point “The Notorious” Irishman will surely be driving home in negotiations.

However, unless and until that happens, it’s nice to think about all the other wonderful possibilities, and in a post-Nurmagomedov world, at least for now, there are plenty of them.

Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com. Advertisement
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