What’s Next for the UFC Lightweight Division?

by Vito Basile

UFC 257, the first premiere event of 2021, didn’t disappoint. The main event of the evening belonged to Dustin “Diamond” Poirier v. Conor “Notorious” McGregor. Poirier finished McGregor in the second round of the bout by KO/TKO.

McGregor returned to UFC 257 after a yearlong absence, with his last bout against Donald Cerone. McGregor wasn’t his usual trash-talking, egotistical, ranting self that propelled him to success, but a man with more humility. McGregor had been advocating for a rematch with recently retired champion Khabib Nurmagomadov to avenge one of the more humiliating losses of his career.

Poirier, who’s last win came against Dan Hooker, looked very good. He devastated Conor with his calf kicks, which led to Conor being KO’d. UFC President Dana White said after the fight that Khabib spoke with him about potentially coming out of retirement to face Conor or any of the current top lightweights. Dana believes there’s no longer any chance for that, at least not anytime soon.

The current situation in the lightweight division is certainly unique, because Khabib has said he’s retired, but Dana has yet to vacate his lightweight title. Khabib has said that he will not hold up the division, but Dana has really been adamant about a comeback to give the fans McGregor v. Khabib II. Most of the MMA community has been very reluctant about this fight, especially with the recent turn of events.

The most intriguing fight of UFC 257 came as the co-main event: Dan Hooker v. Mike Chandler, who are also contenders in the lightweight division. What made this fight intriguing is that Chandler, former Bellator champion and top lightweight in the world, made his debut into the UFC against top 10 foe Hooker. Chandler’s debut was much anticipated because many have doubts about former Bellator champions making the jump to the UFC, mainly due to the competition level and skill of Bellator fighters.

Chandler did prove his critics wrong, finishing Hooker in the first round by KO, something that Poirier and a few other top contenders couldn’t do. Chandler has certainly put himself into discussion for a contender spot for the title. Hooker, who’s now on a two-fight skid, looks to battle back into the top 8 of the division to earn himself a shot at top contenders.

After UFC 257, Dana White has many options of matchmaking in the lightweight division, but none more important than that of Dustin Poirier v. Charles Oliviera. Oliviera’s recent fight against Tony Ferguson boosted him into prime position for a title shot. Dana seems to have a good problem on his hands, because he also has another fight that would do just as well: Justin Gaethje v. Mike Chandler for #1 contender. Gaethje, coming off a title loss from Khabib in October, matches up very well with Chandler. They were both D1 college wrestlers with excellent striking, which Gaethje showcased last April against Tony Ferguson.

Where does Conor fit into all this after his loss to Poirier? There are plenty of fights to be had for him, i.e. McGregor v. Nate Diaz III, McGregor v. Dan Hooker, McGregor v. Tony Ferguson, none of which include a title shot. Conor said after the Poirier match that he would like to finish the trilogy with him, which I think is fair since they’re 1-1, but Poirier deserves his title shot first.

In a division with many opportunities, Dana White certainly has his hands full. One thing is for certain, though: Dustin Poirier deserves to be at the top of any list he decides to make.