The UFC’s lightweight division may be the most talent-stacked weight class in MMA today, but it has also been something of a mess in recent years. But now, as we kick off 2019, the division looks all set for a huge year, with an undefeated world champion at the top and a handful of elite-level contenders jockeying for position ahead of what looks set to be a spectacular year.
Here are the six men whose performances will define the UFC’s best weight division in 2019:
The Champion: Khabib Nurmagomedov
‘The Eagle’ is still undefeated, and now he’s the UFC lightweight world champion. Sure, his title-winning fight came against a last-minute replacement in the form of Al Iaquinta, but he cemented his place at the top of the division with a dominant display to submit Conor McGregor after a tumultuous week at UFC 229.
He has some disciplinary issues to address with the Nevada State Athletic Commission following that fight, but when he returns he’ll have the opportunity to take on and beat the best of the rest and cement himself as the best lightweight champion in UFC history. Despite the murderers' row of challengers lining up to face him this year, the bookmakers still believe 'The Eagle' is the man at 155lbs. As of January 14, sports betting firm Betway has Nurmagomedov as the clear 6/4 favourite to finish 2019 still with the UFC lightweight belt around his waist.
The big question is, who will be stepping up to face him in 2019?
The Former Champ: Conor McGregor
He may not have a world championship belt anymore, but Conor McGregor remains the biggest draw in the sport. And following his losses to Nate Diaz and Nurmagomedov, his rivals no longer think he’s beatable - they know it. And that makes him an even more in-demand opponent than ever.
He’ll get a slap on the wrist from the NSAC for his part in the UFC 229 fracas, but when he returns, it’s sure to be in a huge matchup. The rematch with Nurmagomedov seems inevitable, despite the one-sided nature of their first meeting, with the option of rematches against Dustin Poirier and Max Holloway also offering mouth-watering alternatives. Or, of course, there’s always the trilogy fight with Nate Diaz.
The belt may not be around his waist, but McGregor’s fights remain the biggest thing in the UFC, and that won’t be any different. The UFC just needs to get him back in the octagon again.
The Wild Man: Tony Ferguson
There can surely be little argument against Tony Ferguson being the rightful number-one contender for the lightweight title. Ruled out of a long-awaited title fight with Nurmagomedov after a freak accident on the FOX Sports lot, Ferguson lost his interim title while battling his way back from knee surgery, and he announced his return in spectacular style with a thrilling win over former champ Anthony ‘Showtime’ Pettis at UFC 229.
Ferguson’s wild, crazy fighting style is unlike any other in the sport, and it makes for exciting fights every time he steps into the octagon. And after seeing four previous attempts to match them fall through, the time has come for the UFC to try for a fifth time. Nurmagomedov vs Ferguson shouldn’t just happen - it should happen next. You never know, we might even see them fight more than once this year…
The Nearly Man: Dustin Poirier
In almost any other weight class, Dustin Poirier would have had his shot at world championship gold by now. The Louisiana lightweight is one of the most exciting fighters in any weight class and will throw down with anyone in the world. It’s made for spectacular fights, memorable wars and a remarkable run of form that has carried him to within an ace of a title shot.
It seems incredibly harsh, but Poirier may have to fight - and win - one more time before he gets a sniff of a title shot. And that fight may well come against either Conor McGregor, or the next man in our list.
The Featherweight Champ: Max Holloway
As if the lightweight division wasn’t exciting enough already, arguably the most exciting fighter on the planet is set to join the party. Following Max Holloway’s win over Brian Ortega at UFC 231 in Toronto, UFC president Dana White said he wanted to see the Hawaiian move up to 155lbs for the next chapter of his career - and Holloway didn’t flinch at the suggestion.
It opens up all kinds of fascinating matchup possibilities. A tear-up with Poirier? A battle with Ferguson? Or maybe even a champion versus champion clash with Nurmagomedov? They’re all possible matchups for Holloway in 2019. But perhaps the fight that makes the most sense is a rematch with the last man to defeat him, way back in 2013 - Conor McGregor.
It would be a colossal matchup, and one that would act as a perfect title eliminator while Khabib faced Ferguson or Poirier for the belt.
Lightweight matches to make in early 2019
Khabib Nurmagomedov vs Tony Ferguson
Max Holloway vs Conor McGregor
Dustin Poirier vs Al Iaquinta