Five fighters who could replace Khabib Nurmagomedov as the best lightweight in the world.
Now that UFC lightweightchampion Khabib “The Eagle” Nurmagomedov has retired from competition (probablu) the hunt for his heir apparent has begun. On the surface, it seems like the perfect time for Conor McGregor to take back his spot atop the lightweight division, and he could very well do so if he beats Dustin Poirier in January. But at this point, McGregor is his own brand, and no one knows if he will consistently enter the Octagon at all – in or out of the lightweight division. With that said, we’ll look at five other lightweights on the rise to the top of that podium – in and outside of the UFC.
Justin Gaethje, UFC
Is there any lightweight in the world with a bigger heart than Gaethje? His action-packed performances speak for themselves. As a devastating puncher with a never-back-down attitude and a solid wrestler who can compete against the best on the mat, Gaethje has all the tools needed to be an elite fighter. And while he possesses the technical ability to outscore any opponent in the UFC, he’s always coming to take their heads.
Gaethje’s one-sided beatdown of Tony Ferguson – the so-called boogeyman of the lightweight division – further proved how immensely talented he is. And even in his loss to Nurmagomedov at UFC 254 this past October, Gaethje stood his ground better than anyone else.
Sure, he got finished within two rounds, but the American was just one leg kick away from winning that fight and shocking the world. In Nurmagomedov’s absence, Gaethje is in pole position to take the Russian’s spot as the world’s best lightweight.
Dustin Poirier, UFC
Dustin “The Diamond” Poirier is another fighter with a shot to take over from Nurmagomedov.
The 31-year-old’s list of victims reads like a who’s who of UFC lightweight greats: Max Holloway, Diego Brandao, Jim Miller, Anthony Pettis, Dan Hooker, and Eddie Alvarez.
Poirier even scored a fourth-round technical knockout victory over Gaethje in an intense battle that earned him one of his many Fight of the Night bonuses.
Poirier toughness and finishing ability form a deadly combination, and he could very well become the man at lightweight. That is, if he gets past his next opponent – none other than McGregor himself.
Poirier and McGregor first locked horns more than six years ago. At the time, the streaking Irishman made quick work of Poirier, winning by first-round TKO. Poirier has gotten significantly better since then, and so has McGregor. The rematch should provide an interesting new take on their intriguing clash of styles.
Charles Oliveira, UFC
After a spectacular performance against third-ranked Tony Ferguson at UFC 256, you can’t deny Charles Oliveira his place among the best lightweights of today. Oliveira dismantled Ferguson from start to finish, and he looked like an absolute stud while doing so. He faced one of the most dangerous fighters in the world and made him look like an amateur.
The Brazilian’s Octagon win streak now stands at eight and includes victories over Clay Guida, Jim Miller, Nik Lentz, and Kevin Lee. His performance against Ferguson is still fresh in the mind, which should boost him up the rankings. If he continues to perform that way, he’ll find himself in the division’s title mix very soon.
As it stands, Oliveira against anybody at lightweight would be a fun fight. His elevated status should open the doors of opportunity; now he must walk through them.
Christian Lee, ONE Championship
22-year-old phenom Christian “The Warrior” Lee has finally stepped away from the shadow of his older sister, ONE Championship atomweight champion Angela Lee.
The reigning ONE lightweight champion is on a five-fight winning streak, with four of those coming via exciting stoppages. A victory over Japanese veteran Shinya Aoki earned Lee the lightweight title. Next, Lee took care of business against the dangerous Saygid Guseyn Arslanaliev – a man not many observers gave Lee a chance to beat. And this past October, he easily dispatched previously unbeaten Iuri Lapicus.
The emerging superstar’s ability to seamlessly mix his striking with his grappling – transitioning between positions, tactics, and gears – is his greatest asset as a fighter.
There are so many options for Lee next year, with fights against Timofey Nastyukhin, Sage Northcutt, and former UFC champion Eddie Alvarez all on the table. If he can beat all three, Lee would make a tremendous case for himself as the world’s best lightweight.
Saygid Guseyn Arslanaliev, ONE Championship
Despite the one-sided decision loss to Lee last year, “Dagi” Arslanaliev remains the dark horse of ONE’s lightweight division.
At the age of five, Arslanaliev was shipped to a famous boarding school for fighters in Dagestan. There, he learned how to compete, taking the same path as other Dagestani greats like Usman Nurmagomedov, Zabit Magomedsharipov, Islam Makhachev, boxer Artur Beterbiev, and Khabib himself. Then at 14, he moved to Istanbul to study Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu, eventually becoming a European BJJ champion. Needless to say, “Dagi’s” skill set is very well-rounded.
With the exception of Lee, Arslanaliev has destroyed everyone in front of him, including Tetsuya Yamada, Timofey Nastyukhin, Ev Ting, and former lightweight title challenger Amir Khan. Overall, he has seven first-round finishes to his name, and he’s getting better each time out.
It sounds like ONE is looking to pit “Dagi” against Eddie Alvarez at some point in 2021. If the Dagestani star can beat Alvarez, he may earn himself the right to challenge his only conqueror for the lightweight title – and stake his claim to be considered the world’s best.