This article is part of our MMA Barometer series.
To be frank, the UFC lightweight title picture is a mess. Tony Ferguson's freak knee injury and Conor McGregor's subsequent rampage through the Barclays Center parking garage have muddied the waters on who will be the next contender for Khabib Nurmagomedov's lightweight belt following his title victory over Al Iaquinta. To add to the confusion, Dustin Poirier came out victorious against Justin Gaethje last weekend and has placed himself squarely in the middle of the contenders. The outlook for Ferguson, McGregor and Poirier are outlined below in an effort to clarify the direction of the lightweight division for the foreseeable future, in addition to the regular profile of risers and fallers in the UFC.
Zabit Magomedsharipov, UFC, Featherweight
Zabit Magomedsharipov may be the next great fighter in the UFC. At this point, it already looks like he could compete with the top five in the UFC featherweight division. The Dagestani fighter has all the tools of a star. His striking is creative and he uses his 6-foot-1 frame to keep the fight at a distance. The 27-year-old also has the athletic ability to throw unorthodox kicks that keep his opponent guessing.
Magomedsharipov also has the ability to take the fight to the floor almost at any point of the fight, as we have become accustomed to with Dagestan-born fighters. In his second fight in the UFC he scored a whopping 11 takedowns in just three rounds before ultimately submitting his opponent. His skill set seems consistent with the makings of a future champion, but his first real test will come in his next fight when he will face a top-15 opponent, if not top 10.
Looking at the rankings there are several appropriate matchups for newly re-signed Zabit. Yair Rodriguez, the No. 11-ranked UFC featherweight, is the matchup Zabit requested after his victory at UFC 223. This would be an intriguing matchup, as the Dagestani's unorthodox striking and range would be tested against the flashy striking style and equally lengthy Rodriguez. However, after the beating Frankie Edgar put on Rodriguez in Rodriguez's last trip to the octagon, it is not hard to imagine Magomedsharipov taking the Mexican fighter down at will.
Another worthwhile matchup would be Chan Sung Jung, the No. 8-ranked UFC featherweight, who has only lost one fight in his UFC career in a title bid against Jose Aldo, and has finished each win. Jung would be a difficult matchup, as he is known for having a great chin and has tricky grappling, as he evidenced with wins via twister and D'Arce choke, both rare submissions. Either fight would be exciting, but the Rodriguez fight is probably better for Magomedsharipov's popularity, as Rodriguez is a more recognizable and marketed commodity. Regardless, fight fans will soon see where Magomedsharipov stands in the division.
Next Fight: TBA
Dustin Poirier, UFC, Lightweight
Poirier is having arguably the best stretch of his career at this point. He is 7-1 with a no contest against Eddie Alvarez since returning to the lightweight division following a knockout loss to Conor McGregor at featherweight. In his last three fights, Poirier has been particularly exciting, showcasing sharp striking and a smothering ground game. The best example of his striking is last weekend's thrilling victory over Justin Gaethje. Poirier took shots and absorbed many Gaethje leg kicks, but he stayed calm and stuck to his game plan, ultimately overwhelming "The Highlight" and forcing the referee to stop the fight in the fourth round. It was impressive because Gaethje's style generally entices others into slugfests, and a younger Poirier may have obliged, but this version of "The Diamond" stuck to his technique and soundly out-struck Gaethje over four rounds by a mark of 174 to 115.
Before his fight with Gaethje, Poirier fought former lightweight king Anthony Pettis. In that fight he showcased his ground game as he took Pettis down five times and caused Pettis to be a bloody mess. Ultimately the ground strikes took their toll and Pettis was forced to quit due to an injured rib. Poirier's last two fights have shown he is now a complete fighter.
After his victory last weekend, Poirier requested a title shot. He has been on a good run, and likely deserved to get the win against Alvarez, which would put him at 4-0 in his last four fights. It is an impressive streak against strong competition, but he is still behind Tony Ferguson and Conor McGregor who are undoubtedly more deserving of title shots at this point. However, McGregor's legal troubles coupled with Ferguson's knee injury may make "The Diamond" the only choice to challenge current lightweight king Khabib Nurmagomedov.
However, if the UFC wants to keep Nurmagomedov on the shelf for potential blockbuster fights with McGregor and/or Ferguson, it may be the perfect time to run back the fight with Eddie Alvarez, which ended in a controversial no contest. The fighters hurt each other in the fight, but it seemed as if Poirier was on his way to a knockout victory until he was poked in the eye by Alvarez so severely that the fight was stopped. The winner of the rematch would likely be in line for a title shot when the McGregor/Ferguson/Khabib triangle was settled.
Next Fight: TBA
Thiago Santos, UFC, Middleweight
Santos is currently on a four-fight winning streak and is the No. 12-ranked UFC middleweight. Each of those victories has come by KO/TKO in the second round or earlier. Santos has showcased devastating striking and has shown a propensity for avoiding takedowns with 71 percent takedown defense throughout his UFC career. However, two of his four career UFC losses have come by submission. This is worrisome against his next opponent, former World Series of Fighter champion David Branch.
Branch is currently the No. 8-ranked UFC middleweight despite a 1-1 record since returning to the UFC after a six year hiatus from the Octagon. In his return fight, Branch narrowly edged Krzysztof Jotko in a laborious split decision. In his subsequent fight, he was dominated by Luke Rockhold and tapped to strikes. It seems Branch is not quite ready for the competition of the UFC, and this is a golden opportunity for Santos to defeat a top-10 opponent and increase his winning streak to five fights.
Branch is a fast starter and has five first-round finishes in 21 fights but, as mentioned above, Santos has finished his last four opponents in the early rounds. Branch is confident in his striking, but the Brazilian will hold the advantage in that realm. The only issue for Santos is Branch is an accomplished Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt under Renzo Gracie. If the fight goes to the mat Santos will have a tall task ahead of himself to avoid submissions and get the fight back to the feet. Even though Branch is dangerous on the ground, it seems that Santos will be able to keep the fight standing and finish Branch on the feet. This is a strong possibility based on his history of takedown defense and the devastating power he has showcased as of late.
Next Fight: David Branch, UFC Fight Night: Barboza vs. Lee (April 21, 2018)
Tony Ferguson, UFC, Lightweight
Ferguson's future is uncertain. He completely tore his LCL less than two weeks before his scheduled UFC lightweight title fight with Khabib Nurmagomedov and was stripped of his interim UFC lightweight title. An injury such as this typically takes nine months to heal. In that time, the lightweight title picture could change drastically with contenders such as Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier waiting in the wings. "El Cucuy" is on an astonishing nine-fight winning streak, but whichever way the title situation works out, he will have a tall order upon his return.
Ferguson may have been the favorite in the majority of those fights before his injury, but after a potential year-long layoff it is difficult to imagine him being the favorite due to ring rust and uncertainty of how the injury will affect the former interim UFC lightweight champion. Will he be able to move well enough to stay away from danger against the pinpoint striking of McGregor? Will he have enough power strength and explosiveness in his knee to defend against the otherworldly takedown ability of Nurmagomedov? Only time will tell.
Next Fight: TBA
Conor McGregor, UFC, Lightweight
McGregor's legal troubles are well documented at this point. He showed up the Barclays Center with a group of fellow Irishman two days before the event was scheduled to take place. They subsequently attacked a bus a group of fighters was on, and McGregor threw a dolly through the window of the bus. The shattered glass caused cuts to the face of Michael Chiesa and cuts to the eyes of Ray Borg. Both fighters were not medically cleared to fight following the incident. McGregor was later charged with a felony and arrested.
At this point, his UFC career is up in the air. If he is actually convicted of a felony McGregor may not be allowed to enter the United States on his work visa. This is obviously a "what if" situation, but a lightweight division with no threat of Conor McGregor would be very different. McGregor has the uncanny ability to land shots on any opponent and put them to sleep. Some of the fights in front of him are stylistic nightmares, but McGregor has given little reason to doubt his skills in past fights. He survived a mauling by Chad Mendes and got the finish, and he avoided Nate Diaz's takedowns and submissions in their second matchup. Even though he was successful in those fights, the fights in front of him pose significant problems.
In the event that McGregor's legal issues are mitigated, and he is charged with a lesser crime, he would likely fight Khabib Nurmagomedov this fall, once the current champ is finished observing Ramadan. The problems Khabib brings to a fight are well documented. He has not fought anybody in the UFC that has been able to stop his takedowns, and has only been caught standing on one occasion – a fight with Michael Johnson where he still went on to dominate the fight. The silver lining for McGregor is "The Eagle" has been caught with a punch. If McGregor catches him, it would likely end his night. If Khabib is able to take down McGregor, it will likely be a very long night for the Irishman. Nurmagovedov's top pressure is legendary and drains his opponent's energy. One negative aspect of Nurmagomedov's game that is not often referenced is he seems to have difficulty finishing fights, and subjects his opponents to long beatings. Normally there is nothing wrong with this, but against McGregor it will give "The Notorious" the opportunity to begin anew on the feet each round. McGregor showed against Mendes that he can absorb punishment and still maintain the stamina and power to finish the fight in a later round. This would be a matchup of polar opposites and it is anybody's guess how the fight would play out.
The other likely opponent would be Tony Ferguson if McGregor's legal troubles are not resolved in his favor and he has an extended absence from the Octagon. Ferguson could beat Nurmagomedov and lay in wait for McGregor upon his return. Ferguson is a very well-rounded fighter and would confront McGregor with a myriad of problems. "El Cucuy" has more polished striking than Khabib and could likely at least compete with McGregor standing. Ferguson is also a former National Collegiate Wrestling Association champion. He has excellent takedowns and holds a black belt in 10th Planet Jiu-Jitsu under Eddie Bravo. The former TUF champion is known for finishing submissions. If he got McGregor to the ground, it could be a short night for the former two-division champion. At this point these fights are pure speculation until McGregor's legal troubles, and discipline from the New York State Athletic Commission and UFC, are resolved.
Next Fight: TBA
Carlos Condit, UFC, Welterweight
Condit has lost four fights in a row since earning a UFC welterweight title shot with a second-round finish of Thiago Alves in 2015. After that he lost via decision to Robbie Lawler in a title fight and was then defeated by Demian Maia via first-round submission. He "retired" following that matchup and was on the shelf for a year before returning to the Octagon a little over a year later against Neil Magny in December 2017. He lost that fight via unanimous decision. His next fight was a long-awaited showdown with the ever exciting Matt Brown, but Brown tore his ACL a few weeks before the fight, the latest in a series of unfortunate event that scratched previously-scheduled matchups between the two UFC legends. Alex "Cowboy" Oliveira stepped in on short notice and submitted the former WEC welterweight champion in the second round following a devastating up-kick. Condit showed flashes of his old, violent brilliance, but ultimately came up short.
Condit has stated he still feels the fire to compete in the UFC, but one must wonder if that is true. He voluntarily stepped away from the Octagon a year ago due to not having the passion he once had. It is hard to believe he has it back after dropping consecutive fights to Magny and Oliveira, two middling welterweights. It is possible to attribute the loss to Oliveira to the short-notice replacement, but both fighters are opponents he likely would have easily defeated prior to his time away from the Octagon. The UFC is an organization where fighters have to be "all-in," and if Condit has any doubts about his commitment he should step away to maintain his health and legacy.
Next Fight: TBA