Former UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov's shadow no longer looms over the title picture. Dana White and the UFC eventually came to terms with The Eagle's decision to stay retired. White then made the announcement through his social media accounts.
With Michael Chandler and Charles Oliveira set to fight for the vacant lightweight title at UFC 262 on May 15, 2021, it is only natural for fight fans to contemplate how the title picture at 155lbs might unfold when the next UFC lightweight champion is crowned.
The lightweight scene is one of the most talent-stacked divisions in the UFC. There is no shortage of fighters that deserve to compete for the strap. Here are three fighters that could end up challenging the UFC lightweight champion next.
#3. Tony Ferguson
At 37 years of age, time is not Tony Ferguson's ally.
El Cucuy's fall from grace was quick and saddening for the fight fans to witness. Before his back-to-back losses against Justin Gaethje and Charles Oliveira, Ferguson was riding a 12-fight winning streak and stood knocking on the doors of a title shot.
The veteran fighter has visibly diminished with age but not necessarily enough to lose three in a row. All things considered, Tony Ferguson may be able to edge past his next opponent Beneil Dariush on the same card that will host the vacant title fight.
He still sits among the top five in the division. If there is anything to take away from Dan Henderson, Glover Texeira, and Urijah Faber's careers, it is that the UFC does not mind granting aging elite fighters a shot at the title. Such shots have been granted to honor their legacies, irrespective of their impending retirement.
Expect Tony Ferguson to fight the new UFC lightweight champion after a win over Dariush.
#2. Justin Gaethje
Justin Gaethje's dream of becoming the UFC lightweight champion was recently shattered. But that should not be cause for concern given he only lost to the seemingly unbeatable Khabib Nurmagomedov.
Gaethje had absolutely nothing to offer Khabib on the ground. However, it was not impossible to believe that he was a few kicks away from destroying Khabib's legs at UFC 254. The ferocity of his striking should count for something.
Furthermore, Gaethje will most likely win his next fight because it will be against someone outside of the top five.
#1. Dustin Poirier
Dustin Poirier would be fighting Charles Oliveira to determine the next UFC lightweight champion if it were not for his pursuit of the trilogy fight with Conor McGregor. Regardless, Dustin Poirier will still likely be the first challenger to the lightweight champion due to the nature of MMA trilogies.
MMA is a rapidly evolving sport, it is the fighter that evolves with the sport that wins the trilogy. Dustin Poirier has fought nine times in the UFC since Conor McGregor became the UFC lightweight champion in 2016. McGregor, meanwhile, has become a less active fighter averaging less than one fight per year.
The result of the UFC 257 rematch implies that the sport has passed McGregor by. Given that the third fight between them will take place after a relatively short gap, it is unlikely that the Irishman will make all of the necessary advances in his game to beat Poirier.
Dustin Poirier will likely beat Conor McGregor again before standing across the octagon to fight the UFC lightweight champion.