The UFC lightweight division is considered by many to be the most competitive weight class in all of mixed martial arts — a loaded collection of highly skilled, ultra-talented athletes battling tooth-and-nail to inch one step closer to the top of the mountain.
And for those that are fortunate to get near the summit, the obstacles only get more difficult over the final scramble to the top, as the elite of the elite stand before one another, giving every ounce of themselves in hopes of holding that gold and leather symbol of excellence and achievement.
Saturday night in Las Vegas kicks off a pivotal stretch in the 155-pound ranks that will help determine the direction the division takes in 2024.
As such, there is no better time to map out the key fights and fighters to pay close attention to over these coming months, and offer up a clearer understanding of how this division stacks up as we push towards the highly anticipated championship rematch at UFC 294 in Abu Dhabi.
SATURDAY NIGHT’S MAIN EVENT: RAFAEL FIZIEV VS. MATEUSZ GAMROT
This weekend at the UFC APEX, Rafael Fiziev and Mateusz Gamrot face off in a main event clash between two competitors hovering on the fringes of contention in the lightweight division.
Fiziev, who sits at No. 6 in the rankings, enters off a majority decision loss to Justin Gaethje at UFC 286 in London, which snapped a six-fight winning streak. Across the cage, Gamrot arrives following a hard-fought split decision win over Jalin Turner, and sitting one spot behind his opponent in the pecking order.
A classic clash of styles between one of the best strikers in the division (Fiziev) and one of its best grapplers (Gamrot), the reason this fight also carries greater significance than perhaps some recognize at the moment is because the future plans for a couple of the names ahead of this weekend’s headlining act are currently unknown; more on them shortly.
While nothing is ever guaranteed in the UFC, an impressive victory for either man on Saturday should propel the victor into the Top 5 and the title conversation, and although a championship assignment is unlikely to be next, whomever emerges victorious might only be one win away from competing for UFC gold.
THE EMERGING TALENT: GRANT DAWSON
Here’s what I said about Dawson at the start of the year when including him in my list of Top UFC Prospects:
Because the lightweight ranks are so flush with familiar names at the top of the division, it’s easy to overlook a quality emerging prospect like Dawson.
It’s easy, but it would be a mistake.
The 28-year-old moved to 7-0-1 in the UFC in 2022 with a pair of third-round submission victories. In April, he tapped out Jared Gordon, and in November, he stepped up on short notice and handed former Olympic medalist Mark O. Madsen the first loss of his career, dominating him in the grappler department from start-to-finish.
Dawson was a highly-regarded prospect during his days on the regional circuit, so I’m not sure why so many folks have cooled on him during his unbeaten UFC run. He’s training with an elite squad at American Top Team, knows who he is as a fighter, and is menacing to deal with on the canvas.
There are stiff tests headed his way, but “KGD” remains one of the best prospects in the UFC heading into 2023.
In July, Dawson picked up the biggest win of his career, extending his record to 20-1-1 with a unanimous decision win over Damir Ismagulov, and in a couple weeks, he headlines for the first time opposite perpetual tough out Bobby Green.
It’s a strange pairing given that Dawson sits at No. 10 in the rankings and Green is unranked, but it’s the kind of stiff veteran test the 29-year-old needs to pass in order to take another big step forward in the division.
In a sport where flash and big personalities get you noticed, Dawson is a no nonsense, “handle my business and head home” type who continues to hover just below the radar, but the skills and results dictate that far more people should be paying close attention to the emerging contender.
CHAMPIONSHIP REMATCH: ISLAM MAKHACHEV VS. CHARLES OLIVEIRA
Last October, Islam Makhachev waltzed into the Octagon at UFC 280 and made surprisingly quick work of Charles Oliveira, submitting the Brazilian titleholder in the second round to claim the lightweight strap and extend his winning streak to 11.
Next month, they run it back in the same building.
Makhachev built on his title victory with a unanimous decision win over featherweight champ Alexander Volkanovski at UFC 284 in February, using his superior size and wrestling to get the better of the Australian in a fight that was even closer than the scorecards indicate. As for Oliveira, he rebounded with a first-round stoppage win over surging contender Beneil Dariush at UFC 289 in Vancouver, showing the same resolve and ability to rally that carried him to successful title fight victories over Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje.
The Brazilian challenger has maintained that last October was an off night and that he will reclaim the title, while the champion has shown no signs of being open to relinquishing the belt, which is why the excitement surrounding this rematch is palpable.
How this one plays out will obviously have a massive impact on the direction the division takes in 2024, as a Makhachev victory would close the door on this rivalry — at least for now — while an Oliveira win could trigger a trilogy fight in the first half of next year.
All eyes will be on Etihad Arena and this championship clash on October 21.
THE OUTSIDER: ALEXANDER VOLKANOVSKI
As was just mentioned, Volkanovski ventured up a division in February to challenge Makhachev for the lightweight title, and came up just short.
The final scorecards read 48-47, 48-47, and 49-46 in favor of the champion, but even that doesn’t reflect that Volkanovski had the biggest individual moment of the fight, knocking down Makhachev in the final round and push hard in hopes of securing the finish. He showed he can more than hang with the lightweight ruler, and has made no bones about wanting another shot at the lightweight strap.
The Australian standout returned to his natural surrounds in July and absolutely walloped Yair Rodriguez in a one-sided title unification bout at UFC 290, but his next matchup has yet to be announced.
If he’s sticking around at featherweight, it’ll be top contender Ilia Topuria that he faces off with next, but with every month that passes without an announcement, the more a potential “Champion vs. Champion” showdown with whomever holds the lightweight belt in the main event of UFC 300 next year feels like a possibility.
BMF: JUSTIN GAETHJE
Here’s a perfect example of how much things can change in the span of a year.
When Makhachev and Oliveira faced off last October, Gaethje sat as the most recent fighter to fall to the Brazilian champion, and after two failed attempts to claim the lightweight title, it felt like he might not get another chance to challenge for UFC gold.
Fast forward a year and Gaethje is right back in the mix thanks to his March victory over Fiziev in London and his knockout win over Dustin Poirier to claim the symbolic “BMF title” at UFC 291 in July.
Gaethje is one of the most consistently entertaining, all-action fighters in the sport and even if you feel not enough has changed to shift his fortunes in a potential bout with Makhachev or rematch against Oliveira, you can’t deny that the curiosity to see how things would play out in the Octagon is there and you get that tingly feeling just thinking about it.
There are only a couple matchups that make sense for the soon-to-be 35-year-old standout at this point, given everything he’s accomplished: one final championship opportunity or a matchup with…
THE NOTORIOUS ONE: CONOR McGREGOR
Let’s put al the cards on the table right out of the gate:
McGregor is currently not enrolled in the USADA testing pool and according to the program’s guidelines, needs to go through six months of testing prior to competing in the UFC again.
He coached opposite Michael Chandler on the most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, with his team of prospects getting whacked by the veterans on Team Chandler, and was expected to face “Iron Mike” once the season wrapped. But it’s nearly October, that pairing has not been announced, and the further away we get from the season being done, the less likely it seems that the opposing coaches will ever do battle.
McGregor hasn’t fought since breaking his leg in the second round of his third fight with Dustin Poirier in July 2021, and he’s just 1-3 over his last four fights, which stretches all the way back to his title fight loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in October 2018.
He’s perpetually in the news for all the wrong reasons, doesn’t appear in a hurry to get back into the Octagon — at least not to face Chandler — and could very well be passed his “best before” date as a fighter, and yet he still garners more interest and attention than anyone else in the division and the sport, which is why he has to be included here.
Because of his star power, it would be surprising if McGregor isn’t a part of UFC 300 — which, in theory, would be the April 2024 pay-per-view — and matchups against Chandler, Gaethje, or a trilogy bout with Nathan Diaz all make sense.
BIG GAME HUNTERS: DUSTIN POIRIER, MICHAEL CHANDLER
Perennial contenders and Top 5 fixtures, Poirier and Chandler are each at a strange point in their respective careers.
Neither is in a position to challenge for the title at this moment — Poirier got knocked out by Gaethje in July, Chandler hasn’t fought since losing to Poirier last November at UFC 281 — and neither has shown a real interest in building back to contention by facing a couple of the dangerous talents stationed behind them in the divisional rankings.
They are each in the “prize fighter” stage of their careers where they’re looking for big matchups against fellow established stars, but the trouble is that there aren’t many stars around for either of them to fight.
Poirier has long sought a bout against Nathan Diaz, with the two being booked to face off in 2018 before “The Diamond” was forced to withdraw due to a hip injury and the contest was scuttled. Chandler has been sitting patiently waiting for the opportunity to face McGregor, was was the obvious selling point to coaching opposite the Irishman on this most recent season of The Ultimate Fighter, but that hasn’t come together as of yet and seems less likely with each passing day.
They can’t even fight each other at this point because Poirier beat Chandler inside the distance less than a year ago, so while it would surely be fun to watch, it’s not exactly a “gotta see this one again” type of fight at the moment.
Poirier has been content to pick his spots over the last couple years and will likely continue to do so going forward, while Chandler seems forced into the same position.
Time will tell what comes next for these two veteran standouts.
WAITING IN THE WINGS: ARMAN TSARUKYAN
It’s wild that it’s taken this long to get to Arman Tsarukyan in this piece, but it’s also fitting because it feels representative of the miserable position the 26-year-old out talent is in at the moment.
Tsarukyan debuted in the UFC in April 2019, giving a still ascending Makhachev all he could handle. He won his next five fights after that to land a main event pairing with Gamrot last summer, which resulted in a debated unanimous decision loss to the Polish contender.
Since then, he’s posted a unanimous decision win over Ismagulov, a criminally under-appreciated technician who has only lost to very good competition over the years, and a third-round stoppage victory over Joaquim Silva, a Brazilian journeyman who was the only man willing to step in when Renato Moicano was forced to withdraw from a scheduled bout with Tsarukyan earlier this year.
That fight took place in June and there haven’t been any mentions of what is next for the talented Armenian grappler.
In theory, he should be facing someone like Poirier or Chandler — big name talents stationed ahead of him in the rankings that would catapult him to a new level of recognition should he emerge victorious — but neither seem likely.
The best case scenario for Tsarukyan as it stands now is a pairing with Beneil Dariush, who was stopped in the first round by Oliveira in June and sits four spots ahead of him in the rankings.
Perhaps more than anyone in the division, Tsarukyan looks the part of a legitimate championship threat and is someone everyone should be focused on in the division.
OTHER NAMES TO KNOW:
Dan Hooker is perpetual on the fringes of contention, an absolute savage in the Octagon, and the kind of veteran talent that is always going to find himself paired off with surging prospects or fellow veteran stalwarts… Jalin Turner has lost back-to-back fights to Gamrot and Hooker, but is still just 28 years old, won five straight prior to that, and you could make a case that he won each of those last two outings…
Benoit Saint-Denis is 4-0 with four finishes since returning to the lightweight division, most recently putting away Thiago Moises at the start of the month in Paris to establish himself as someone to watch… Joel Alvarez is 5-2 in the UFC, with losses to Ismagulov and Tsarukyan, which tells you the kind of company the 30-year-old Spaniard keeps…
Nurullo Aliev is only 22 years old and just 9-0 for his career, but might be the best young prospect in the division; his fight with Mateusz Rebecki at UFC 295 will be pivotal in determining his next steps…. Daniel Zellhuberposted his second straight win last weekend at Noche UFC and has some intangibles that make him an interesting 24-year-old to track going forward in the lightweight ranks…