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I don’t recommend paying any sort of attention to my fight predictions. I don’t gamble, so my picks are always low-stakes. As such, I tend to make them using one of two criteria. Either I have a strong analytical reason for thinking one fighter will win, or I would simply prefer one fighter to win, even if I don’t think he or she will.
I picked Justin Gaethje to beat Donald Cerrone at UFC Fight Night 158 on Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia. He fulfilled both criteria. His penchant for working the body and Cerrone’s history of wilting via body shots made me think he’d finish the fight, and frankly, it was the best-case scenario for the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division. That’s not a dig on “Cowboy.” He’s one of the most widely beloved and uniquely intriguing fighters in the sport’s history. He’s not only entertaining but also incredibly skilled. No doubt, he’ll go down as one of the best fighters to never win a championship -- emphasis on that last part.
Had Cerrone won, it would have added a new dimension to his already remarkable career. The old dog would have proved that he still had bite, or something. Yet there’s no denying that he’s past the point of being able to compete with the top of the division. He already lost decisively to Tony Ferguson, and it’s not hard to guess what Khabib Nurmagomedov would do to him. Throw in Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor, and it’s clear he’s a notch below the best of the best. At 36 years of age, Cerrone’s window for winning a title is almost certainly closed. Beating Gaethje wouldn’t have meant he was ready for the lightweight elite; it just would have meant that Gaethje wasn’t, either. That may be a sad reality to accept, but there’s a bright side: Gaethje won, which means the top of the heap at lightweight is as exhilarating as it is talented. It would take either willful neglect or colossal stupidity to mess up things.
After the champion, the next three in line are, in some order or another, Ferguson, Gaethje and McGregor. Ferguson and Gaethje are in the title picture the old-fashioned way: through relevant and meaningful wins. McGregor, however, is an anomaly, and whether you like it or not, his fame and ability to reliably do big numbers mean he’s always in the mix. Poirier is every bit as good as those three -- he beat Gaethje, after all -- but losing the way he did in a title match probably means he’ll have to string together a couple more wins before getting another shot.
There are six possible matchups between those top four. Most are incredible, but even the worst possible scenario is still pretty good. Of course, the most ideal matchup would be Nurmagomedov-Ferguson. It has been made four times since 2015, only to be smote by the injury gods in alternating fashion: Nurmagomedov had a rib injury, then Ferguson had a lung problem, then Nurmagomedov got sick cutting weight, then Ferguson tripped and hurt his knee. No matchup has ever been as woefully stuck in the morass of our imagination or as stubbornly resistant to actually happening.
The history of the bout is compelling on its own, but the fight itself is must-see. Nurmagomedov is dominantly predictable, and Ferguson is sensationally unpredictable. “El Cucuy” has the kind of attritive power that could, in theory, make Nurmagomedov hesitant to level-change, and he’s offensively creative enough to make the grappling exchanges a little less one-sided than those to which the champ is accustomed. Add to that Ferguson’s elite cardio, and real pathways to victory emerge. Even though I have my doubts about his chances, it’s still the most compelling matchup in the division by a long shot.
What if one of them gets injured? Gaethje would be the ideal candidate to step in, and there wouldn’t be much of a drop in quality. Nurmagomedov-Gaethje is full of narrative allure and stylistic intrigue. Gaethje would have a chance to prove that he is good enough to become UFC champion after spending most of his career in the small pond of the now-defunct World Series of Fighting, and Nurmagomedov would have to overcome an opponent with legitimate takedown defense who could very well force him to fight moving backwards. Conversely, Ferguson-Gaethje would almost certainly yield an all-time level of violence-per-minute, for however long it would last. Both of them have diverse and powerful striking, consistently exploitable defense and a willingness to eat a few shots to dish some out in return.
Maybe McGregor gets the go-ahead instead of Gaethje. No matter. McGregor has been called out by Ferguson in the past, so there’s some history between them, but more importantly, the matchup would be the best kind of chaos. Both of them emphasize the importance of unorthodox movement, but it manifests in entirely different ways. McGregor is smooth and calculated, anchored by tremendous one-punch power. Ferguson is an offensive flowchart, seamlessly transitioning from one attack to the next. McGregor is dangerous off his front foot or his back foot; Ferguson is effective at switching stances. It would be a sniper vs. a Tasmanian Devil.
What is perhaps the least likely scenario is still an incredible fight: McGregor vs. Gaethje. Gaethje has been vocally critical of McGregor lately, not as a fighter so much as a human being, and the matchup of nonstop aggression vs. slick counterpunching would lead to wild, back-and-forth exchanges. “The Highlight” gets hit so often that McGregor could easily walk home with another head, but Gaethje also fights with the kind of nonstop intensity that could easily wear down the Irishman for a late-round stoppage. It would be an all-action tossup.
Which leaves us with the last possible matchup and likely the least desired: a rematch between Nurmagomedov and McGregor. Even if it’s not as enticing as the other possible matchups, it would still carry undeniable promotional weight. McGregor got handily defeated the first time, but the post-fight brawl created unfinished business. Plus, McGregor is the only man who has claimed a round against the undefeated champion; perhaps a little preparatory fine-tuning is all that’s needed to change the outcome. The sport’s biggest star vs. the sport’s most dominant champion is an easy sell, no matter how deserving McGregor is or isn’t.
This is the best lightweight title picture we’ve probably ever seen. There are no wrong answers here, though some are clearly righter than others. No matter which matchups happen and no matter who wins, the future of the division is one of spectacular possibility. Really, the only thing that could ruin this is if all four of them … I’m not even going to say it.
Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.