Five UFC fights to make after Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement, featuring Conor McGregor and Justin Gaethje

Russian's exit leaves a champion-shaped hole at the top of the lightweight division

Alex Pattle
Friday 30 October 2020 11:50 GMT
Khabib Nurmagomedov retires from UFC

In the main event of UFC 254 last weekend, Khabib Nurmagomedov submitted Justin Gaethje in the second round to retain his lightweight title before retiring undefeated with a record of 29-0.

The Russian's exit leaves a champion-shaped hole at the top of the division, with a number of fighters now fancying their chances of filling it.

Meanwhile, in the co-main event on Abu Dhabi's 'Fight Island', former middleweight titleholder Robert Whittaker earned his second consecutive decision win since losing his belt to Israel Adesanya a year ago, likely setting up a rematch with 'The Last Stylebender' and leaving his defeated foe Jared Cannonier with the prospect of climbing back towards a shot at the champ.

Here are the fights to make after UFC 254:

Khabib Nurmagomedov retired after defeating Justin Gaethje
Khabib Nurmagomedov retired after defeating Justin Gaethje (Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Conor McGregor vs Dustin Poirier for the vacant lightweight title

Poirier (26-6) has a much greater claim to be involved in a title fight than McGregor (22-4), who has not won at 155lbs in four years, but this bout seems very likely to be taking place in January and UFC president Dana White would love to attach the vacant lightweight title to it – make no mistake about that.

It seems an easy option, in all honesty, and would only add more hype and intrigue to a contest that already has a fair amount of both of those. McGregor knocked out Poirier early in the first round when the pair met at featherweight in 2014, but 'The Diamond' has come a long way as a fighter in the time since that bout, and has an elite resume at lightweight – where he was interim champion last year.

Plus, if McGregor were to win the belt, he'd have the opportunity to do something he is often criticised for never having done: defending a world title.

Conor McGregor is set to return to the Octagon in 2021
Conor McGregor is set to return to the Octagon in 2021 (Getty)

Justin Gaethje vs Dan Hooker

Gaethje's stock did not fall particularly far in losing to Khabib, no matter how emphatically the Russian defeated 'The Highlight'.

There's an argument for the American facing McGregor or rematching Poirier for the vacant lightweight strap, but there's no need to rush Gaethje (22-3) back into a title shot. He's proved over the last two years that he's a fighter transformed and he'll likely be hanging around the top of the division for the foreseeable future.

There are a few enticing options for the former interim champ, but a scrap with New Zealand's Dan Hooker (20-9) would be guaranteed carnage.

Tony Ferguson vs Michael Chandler

This fight could serve as the co-main event to McGregor vs Poirier – if that match-up is in fact put together – with the winner between Ferguson (25-4) and Chandler (21-5) taking on the victor between 'Notorious' and 'The Diamond'.

Ferguson was undefeated in 12 bouts and seven years before Gaethje put on a masterclass against 'El Cucuy' earlier this year to rob the world of every MMA fan's biggest dream fight: Ferguson vs Khabib. That contest was planned on five different occasions and fell through every time, but there is still a future for the 36-year-old Ferguson in the UFC, even without Khabib.

One win would likely get the former interim champion a title fight, and who better to face than the UFC's newest recruit? Former Bellator lightweight titleholder Chandler, who weighed in as a back-up for last week's main event, wants to prove he's UFC calibre, and defeating someone as experienced and dangerous as Ferguson would accomplish that unequivocally.

Israel Adesanya is in line to rematch Robert Whittaker
Israel Adesanya is in line to rematch Robert Whittaker (Getty)

Robert Whittaker vs Israel Adesanya

A year ago, Adesanya (20-0) masterfully defeated Whittaker (22-5) in the Australian's backyard, finishing 'Bobby Knuckles' in the second round after knocking him down at the very end of the first.

Whittaker did not look himself that night, and while that's not to say that he would beat Adesanya in a rematch, the Aussie's performances in the 12 months since certainly suggest that a second fight between the pair would be more competitive.

Whittaker won a tense, tactical battle against Darren Till in the summer, outpointing the Liverpudlian before returning to 'Fight Island' to earn a decision victory over Cannonier last week. Whittaker looked impressive against Till and sublime in beating Cannonier – almost finishing the American in the third and final frame.

There are no other immediate options for Whittaker – or Adesanya, for that matter – so a rematch between two men who are seemingly in a different league to the rest of the division makes sense.

Jared Cannonier vs Paulo Costa

A significant number of fans expected Cannonier (13-5) to KO Whittaker at UFC 254, and so did Adesanya.

Before losing to the Australian, Cannonier was 3-0 at middleweight with three KO/TKOs since dropping down to the division in late 2018, but he is still seemingly a little reliant on his power – rather than possessing an undeniable all-round skillset.

The would-be title challenger should next face the would-have-been champion Paulo Costa (13-1), who was pieced apart by Adesanya in September. Both Cannonier and Costa were perceived by many as championship quality but were shown – respectively – by the current titleholder and his predecessor that that's not quite the case yet.

A fight between the two would have a high chance of ending in a KO, and would keep the winner near the top of a stacked middleweight division.

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