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The UFC Lightweight Division: The Gift That Keeps On Giving

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For years in the UFC, the 205 pound weight class was the glamour division for the promotion. With stars such as Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Forrest Griffin, Rampage Jackson, Rashad Evans, and a plethora of others, light heavyweight was the weight class that seemed to fill the most main events, grab the most headlines, and create the most memorable moments.

This begin to change about the year 2015. By this time, the UFC light heavyweight champion Jon Jones had basically cleaned out the division, and whatever he left over, Daniel Cormier has taken care of in subsequent years. Also around that time, this dude from Ireland named Conor McGregor came along and brought excitement we had never seen to the 145 pound featherweight division, which had been locked up for most of its existence by Jose Aldo.

When McGregor moved up to the 155 weight class in November 2016, it was the beginning of the lightweight division becoming the new glamour division. McGregor’s star power was able to provide spotlight to a division that was breeding killers such as Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson.

2018 has seen the division finally begin to meet its full potential with tons of exciting matchups and a top fifteen that it is unmatched by any another division in the sport.

Going into 2019, there is no telling what this division is going to produce, but whatever it is, it seems to be destined to be out of this world.

With eyes towards this future, Fightbooth will be looking at the top fighters in the division and what their future may be for 2019. First off, let’s start at the top.

Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov (27-0, 10-0 UFC)

For many years “The Eagle” was the best kept secret in MMA, this super-strong grappler from Dagestan would just slam people to the ground and obliterated them. But for so many years, injuries kept him from being the star that he could have been. Even after he burst into the consciousness of many when he destroyed Michael Johnson at UFC 205 and then called out McGregor, his third pullout against Tony Ferguson in March 2017 seemed to doom him to the category of “what might have been?”

Yet all of that has changed in the last twelve months as Khabib has seemed to figure his weight cut and training issues and he has notched three wins in that time period. After mauling Edson Barboza last December, Nurmagomedov was scheduled to face Tony Ferguson at UFC 223 and instead found himself in the middle of the craziest day out of the Octagon in UFC History.

After Nurmagomedov had been caught on video bullying McGregor’s teammate Artem Lobov, Conor responded by famously throwing a dolly at the window of a bus carrying Khabib. At the same time, Khabib had both Ferguson and UFC Featherweight Champion Max Holloway fall out as opponents, Max on that same day. So Long Island’s Al Iaquinta stepped in and Khabib battled him to a five round decision victory that was nowhere near as dominant as people expected. The important thing was that Khabib was finally UFC Lightweight Champion of the World.

Then we finally got the matchup we wanted on October 6 at UFC 229, which after a very fun press tour and a lot of hype, turned out to be well worth the wait and more. Khabib dominated McGregor for most of what was an excellent fight until he finally submitted McGregor with a neck crank to get a submission victory in the fourth round. Then in the moment which should have cemented him as a worldwide star, Khabib went nuts.

The culmination of what had been a highly personal buildup to the fight boiled over, with Khabib jumping over the cage to attack McGregor’s friend Dillon Danis. It was a disgusting act that soured Khabib in the eyes of many and currently has his future on ice when it comes to the Nevada State Athletic Commission. We don’t know when Khabib will be able to fight again and ironically after months of Conor being rightly accused of holding up the division, you could argue that Khabib’s actions have resulted in him doing the same thing!

Six months ago, Khabib was one of the biggest babyfaces in the UFC with the awesome hat, the quotes in his cool accent, and awesome fighting ability. But lately he has become quite the heel, talking about boxing Floyd Mayweather, criticizing female MMA fighters, mocking homeless people in the US, and inciting the near riot on October 6.

Also, it has to be said, if you let Dillon Danis get under your skin, are you really that mentally tough?

That being said, all of this mess has made Khabib as captivating as ever. Yet while people once paid to see him beat people up, now they may be paying to see the opposite. But as to whom and when he will be fighting, it all seems up in the air.

1) Tony Ferguson (24-3, 14-1 UFC)

MMA has always been a sport filled with ridiculous characters, but Tony Ferguson is one of the most enigmatic fighters we have seen in the sport. From his training techniques to his fashion sense (sunglasses indoors) to his unique social media posts (he capitalizes the first word on every post he makes), everything about this dude is unique. He has drawn a huge cult following online and everywhere you look in MMA related posts, you see “Tony Ferguson is the kind of guy” comments. But the real thing that makes this guy so interesting is that all he does is win.

Ever since losing a decision to Michael Johnson at UFC 166 in October 213, Ferguson has notched eleven straight wins, seven of them by stoppage, and most of them have been entertaining as hell.

From decisioning Josh Thompson in an excellent fight, to coming from behind to D’Arce Choke Edson Barboza in a bloody war, to coming off the canvas to stop last-minute replacement Lando Vannata, Ferguson has been in great fight after great fight. His come from behind victory over Kevin Lee in October 2017 to take the interim UFC lightweight title seemed to finally set him up to be a huge star.

Then, a week before he was supposed to fight Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 223 Brooklyn, Ferguson tripped on a television cable and torn his ACL, resulting in this fight being canceled for an unprecedented fourth time. It broke the hearts of fight fans everywhere and set off a chain reaction of events that resulted in the craziest week in UFC history.

What happened next made many believe that Ferguson wasn’t just crazy, he was not human at all. Choosing to do all of his rehab on his own, Ferguson declared himself ready to return a mere six months later, an unprecedented return after such an injury. So Ferguson found himself in the co-main event of UFC 229, facing a surging Anthony Pettis. The result was one of the best fights of the year with Ferguson remarkable coming out and walking Pettis down, taking some big leg kick and just keeping coming.

Even though Pettis dropped him in the second, Tony managed to cut him up with elbows from the bottom and rip him for the duration of the second round. The fight was stopped between rounds because Pettis had broken his hand, with Pettis trainer Duke Roofus realizing that there was no way Pettis was beating Ferguson with one hand. Tony Ferguson is way too good for that.

With that win and Khabib’s victory over McGregor, it seems clear that Ferguson vs Khabib has to be the next fight, It has always been the next fight, with only clear acts of God preventing this from happening. Yet putting Khabib’s problem with the Nevada Commission aside, you have to wonder if the UFC will be gun-shy about scheduling this fight. Who can blame them at this point? Otherwise, Ferguson should keep training and keep healing his knee, which couldn’t possibly have been one hundred percent against Pettis. Destiny seems to be bound to come knocking at his door sometime, and Ferguson should concentrate on being ready…

2) Conor McGregor (21-4, 8-2 UFC)

What can be said about this man who hasn’t already been said? He is the biggest star the UFC has ever seen and few people in any sport evoke the kinds of emotion that he does. His out of the cage exploits are so insane that you forget just how good a fighter this man is at this point. When he destroyed Eddie Alvarez to win the UFC lightweight title at UFC 205, he put the kind of attention this division had long deserved and even though he didn’t fight for two years, he kept the attention there! This is a star of the rarest kind and no matter how many times he loses, he is going to keep this aurora. Don’t believe the podcasts that tell you any different.

That being said, not even Conor McGregor can get away with not fighting for two years and be at the very top of his game. The other fighters in this division are so good that you have to fighting and training at a different level in order to be champion and Conor clearly hasn’t been doing that. He was way too content to be on the ground against Khabib and even though he looked great in the third round on his feet, he got caught on the ground and neck cranked out in the fourth. What you saw that night was no illusion — it was simply a great fighter who hadn’t fought in a long time.

But ever since the bell rang to end the fight on October 6, Conor’s stock has risen. Khabib’s actions after the fight, including his teammates attacking Conor, have all of sudden made McGregor a babyface! Conor also spent the weeks after the fight on what looked like a fucking victory tour, hyping up the Dallas Cowboys, Proper 12 Whiskey commercials everywhere, and parties every weekend on his Instagram. Hell, if I hadn’t seen him tap with my own eyes, I would have sworn he won the damn fight!

Conor’s status remains up in the air with the Nevada Commission the same as Khabib’s at this point, but since he for once wasn’t the instigator that night, he should be cleared to fight soon. No matter who he is in the cage next, the best thing for Conor as a fighter would be for him to get back into the cage as soon as possible; none of this waiting for a title shot shit. Fighter’s fight, and if Conor wants to be a fighter, he needs to be back in training camp, back in the cage soon. I mean, it’s not like he won’t have his share of opponents…

3) Dustin Poirier (24-5, 16-4 UFC)

In the eyes of many, Poirer’s career was left for dead when he was knocked out in the first round by McGregor in September 2014. He had been ripped apart by the trash talking and taken out by a big McGregor left hand. But the King of Lafayette pulled himself together, moved back up to lightweight and rebuilt his career, and despite being flattened by Michael Johnson in October 2016, Poirier rebounded again to cement himself as probably the hottest fighter in the division.

The night that seemed to change everything was in May 2017 in Dallas, when he fought former UFC lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. Poirier had dominated the first round but Alvarez managed to come back in the second round and hurt Poirier, but then nailed him a clear as day illegal knee, resulting in a no contest. Poirier urged the fans not to boo Alvarez that night, and Alvarez responded by calling Poirier a quitter during interviews and on social media. He may have unleashed a monster.

After stopping Pettis in a bloody battle last November, Poirier was booked to face former WSOF champ Justin Gaethije in the main event on Fox in Glendale in April. The result was one of two or three best fights of the year, with Poirier somehow managing to match Gaethije’s pace the whole fight, even when he was fighting backwards! He took “The Highlights” signature leg kicks and kept coming, eventually stopping Gaethije with a fusslage of punches, the first to do so with hands alone. He followed that up with a potent encore, settling his rivalry with Alvarez with a dominant performance, knocking him out and sending him to ONE Championship in another Fox main event, this time in Calgary.

Poirier has the look and fighting style to be a star; all he needs now is that marquee fight. He was supposed to get that at UFC 230 against Nate Diaz, but “The Diamond” had to pull out with a back injury. It might have been the best thing to ever happen to Dustin, as Dana White has said that he is the frontrunner to face Conor McGregor, a rematch that Poirier has to crave. It would be a tremendous fight for both men, but if that fight gets made, the winner will ultimately be the fans-and the rest of the lightweight division. It would be just another gift in division that just keeps on giving them.

Next up; Lightweights 4-7.

"Frank has been a wrestling fan since he was two years old. (Don't worry, he's got proof.) He's also a huge boxing and UFC fan and has a long standing love affair with Popeyes Chicken. He still owns a VHS copy of the first Ring of Honor show ever and was watching NXT before it was cool (or good). Bret Hart > Shawn Michaels. You can follow him on Twitter at @FightFanaticPod and on Tumblr at FrankTheFightFanatic." He's also starting his own podcast soon!

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