Fans hoping for clarity on the future of Khabib Nurmagomedov were left with more questions than answers following the UFC lightweight champion's meeting with promotion president Dana White this past week. White has repeatedly stated his desire to convince Nurmagomedov to go back on his stated retirement and return for one more fight. After the meeting between the two, White announced that Nurmagomedov was taking a wait and see approach, specifically when it comes to the two big lightweight fights at Saturday's UFC 257.
In that card's main event, Conor McGregor will return for the first time in a year to rematch former interim lightweight champion Dustin Poirier. Also on the card, former Bellator champ Michael Chandler will make his UFC debut against Dan Hooker. Depending on Nurmagomedov's decision on his future, these two fights could kick off the beginning of the new era for the stacked lightweight division.
Assuming Nurmagomedov stays true to his plans to retire -- plans that included a promise to his mother to step away from fighting following the death of his father -- we've taken a look at the top contenders in the division and handicapped their chances to hold the 155-pound title when 2021 draws to a close.
No. 1: Conor McGregor | Chances: 40%
There's little doubt that McGregor is the man the UFC would prefer to see hold the title. He's the biggest draw in the sport and any McGregor fight is going to do big business between his established popularity and his ability to sell a fight on the microphone. Assuming McGregor can get past Poirier at UFC 257, he's going to be presented with every opportunity to fight for the title before the end of the year. McGregor has already beat Poirier in the past -- though Poirier has really come into his own since moving back to lightweight and McGregor's long layoffs always leave some question as to the stability of his performances -- and he's favored to win again. That puts him in the lead position to be the man with the belt at the end of a 2021 calendar without Nurmagomedov. There are some interesting potential hurdles for McGregor, however, in the form of Poirier and even Charles Oliveira. McGregor's four career losses have come via submission and Oliveira is the UFC's all-time leader in submission victories.
Biggest potential obstacle: Submission specialist
"Do you know that the unified title was never crowned? ... Khabib fled the cage and left me fighting with his family members in the cage.”@TheNotoriousMMA says he is still lightweight champion because the post-fight ceremony at UFC 229 never took place. (via @arielhelwani) pic.twitter.com/nWBGPsZMPQ— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) January 17, 2021
No. 2: Dustin Poirier | Chances: 25%
Poirier has proven himself as a top-tier lightweight, just not one who could compete with Nurmagomedov. Who can, though? For all his skill, Poirier is a gritty fighter who is willing to engage in a war if that's what's needed, as shown by seven Fight of the Night awards. That willingness can get him in trouble against the most dangerous opponents in the division, but is also a key to why he is such a popular fighter. Poirier's chances of holding the title are inflated by simply having the opportunity to beat McGregor. A win over the Irishman in one of the biggest fights of the year would all but lock Poirier as a title contender in 2021. Poirier is 6-1 since 2017, with the only loss in that time coming to Nurmagomedov. Still, his aforementioned willingness to go shot-for-shot with dangerous opponents puts him in a risky position against heavy hitters like McGregor, Justin Gaethje or Michael Chandler.
Biggest potential obstacle: Getting in his own head
No. 3: Justin Gaethje | Chances: 20%
Gaethje would not be favored in fights against Poirier (who beat Gaethje in 2018) or McGregor, but he likely would hold the edge over everyone else in the discussion. Gaethje has really dialed in since the mental shift from aiming to be the most exciting fighter in the world to trying to be the best. That led to his late-replacement domination of Tony Ferguson to capture the interim lightweight title in 2020. Gaethje's game wasn't enough to unify the titles against Nurmagomedov, but there are few with the wrestling game to dominate Gaethje's defensive grappling the way Nurmagomedov can. And, power-for-power, nobody can safely engage in a striking war with Gaethje. Dana White has suggested that Gaethje will likely face off with Charles Oliveira in his next fight. That's an extremely appropriate fight, and even more deserving of being part of a "mini-tournament" to crown a new champion than Michael Chandler vs. Dan Hooker. A fight between the winners of Gaethje vs. Oliveira and McGregor vs. Poirier would be an outstanding way to crown a new division king.
Biggest potential obstacle: Reverting to "most exciting fighter" mode
No. 4: Charles Oliveira | Chances: 10%
That Oliveira is in this discussion is somewhat incredible. Most fighters who start their UFC careers 10-8, as Oliveira did from 2010 to 2017, fall firmly into the gatekeeper or journeyman category for the remainder of their career. Instead, Oliveira has rattled off eight victories in a row, culminating in an utterly dominant victory over Tony Ferguson in December. Oliveira's skillset makes him such an interesting wildcard in the equation. His ground game is a unique factor, having scored the most submission wins in UFC history, but Oliveira also possesses some flashy striking and he completely dominated the wrestling game against Ferguson, easily taking down a big, strong longtime top contender in all three rounds. Oliveira wouldn't be favored against the other elites in the division, but has potential to pull off upsets against anyone.
Biggest potential obstacle: Defensive wrestlers
No. 5: Michael Chandler | Chances: 4%
Chandler is something of an unknown as far as performing in the UFC. We have seen him succeed in the Bellator cage against Eddie Alvarez and Benson Henderson, both men who held UFC lightweight gold. He has also had slip-ups and losses against opposition that isn't quite on par with the UFC's division elite. Chandler is an outstanding fighter and absolutely deserving of an opportunity to prove his ability to compete at a championship level. Dan Hooker is a great initial opponent for Chandler and provides an immediate measuring stick for Chandler. As already stated, the four men above him on this list have better, cleaner paths to a title shot. A win over Hooker alone may not be enough to put Chandler in the title mix, unless Oliveira vs. Gaethje doesn't happen for several months and the UFC rushes to book a fight between the winners of the UFC 257 lightweight bouts. Hope is alive for a Chandler title reign, it'll just take some great performances and lucky scheduling breaks. It also helps that Chandler has the "shiny new toy" factor going for him, which always bring a bit of extra hype.
Biggest potential obstacle: Getting caught clean in reckless moments
No. 6 - Dan Hooker | Chances: 1%
Hooker is largely in the same boat as Chandler in that getting to a title shot takes winning that fight and then having scheduling break his way to end up in a title fight. He has slightly worse chances than Chandler of actually winning the title just based on match-ups. We've already seen him lose to Poirier and it's hard to imagine him winning a rematch, or beating McGregor, Gaethje or others. In addition, the recent loss to Poirier could make the UFC decide that being Chandler isn't enough to put Hooker in a title fight in his next outing. A Hooker title reign is extremely unlikely, but there's at least something of a visible path to a championship opportunity for The Hangman.
Biggest potential obstacle: Too outgunned at the elite level