UFC 254 Aftermath: Where do we go from here? Making the case for a lightweight tournament

This past Saturday, UFC 254 took place on Fight Island in Abu Dhabi and it’s an event that will go down as one of the most consequential in the history of the UFC. In the main event, UFC lightweight champion Khabib Nurmagomedov turned in the most impressive performances of his career, submitting interim champion Justin Gaethje with a triangle choke in the second round. The bout cemented Khabib as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the sport and as the greatest lightweight of all-time. It also reaffirmed his position as one of the biggest stars in MMA and set up a potential superfight with Georges St-Pierre. Except, then Khabib retired.

It was a shocking turn of events for a man at the very pinnacle of the sport one that makes sense in hindsight. Earlier this year, Khabib lost his father Abdulmanap to COVID-19 and was struck hard by the loss. Now, having already staked his claim as one of the best fighters of all-time, there is nothing left for Khabib to prove, and following his victory on Saturday, he revealed that he promised his mother he wouldn’t fight again. At only 32 years old, the sport has lost its greatest champion and one if its biggest stars.

But as they teach you in science class, nature abhors a vacuum. 155 pounds has always been the premier division in MMA and Khabib leaves behind him a lightweight division loaded with talent and stars. There are currently a half-dozen other lightweight contenders that would make sense to throw into a fight for the vacant belt. Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier are in talks to rematch early next year, which may end up being for the vacant belt. Then there’s former Bellator lightweight champion Michael Chandler who was cageside for UFC 254 to serve as the emergency backup fighter for the main event. It’s rumored that the UFC is interested in a bout between Chandler and former interim champion Tony Ferguson. And of course there is Gaethje, who lost his interim title on Saturday but remains the top-ranked fighter in the division.

Any mix of those contenders would be a serviceable way to start the post-Khabib era of the lightweight division, but that isn’t the best way to crown a new champion. Sure, Poirier vs. McGregor is an excellent fight between the No. 2 and No. 4 ranked contenders, and it’s already in the works, but both men were already throttled by Khabib. Crowning either of them champion so soon would just make the belt seem hollow, a trinket given rather than truly earned. To restore the luster to the lightweight title, the UFC needs to have a tournament to crown its new champion.

The UFC is not a fan of tournaments as they are inherently complicated promotional structures to pull off, however, in this instance, it seems the only fitting way to decide who carries the torch for the UFC’s marquee division. They wouldn’t have to put on a massive big eight-man grand prix (though they really should). Instead, the UFC could just put together a four-man tournament with Poirier, McGregor, Gaethje, and Ferguson (sorry Michael Chandler, you are left out in the cold), the four top-ranked fighters in the division. And in this instance, the even making this tournament with traditional seeding structure would work extremely well. Top-ranked Gaethje vs. fourth-ranked is arguably the most exciting fight ever put on paper and second-ranked Poirier vs. third-ranked Ferguson isn’t far behind. Both fights are guaranteed Fight of the Year contenders and the subsequent vacant title fight – be it Conor vs. Tony or one of the three possible rematches – would be as well.

The lightweight division has been the best division in MMA for well over a decade and it just lost its greatest champion. Throwing the belt on whoever wins one more fight doesn’t establish who the best lightweight in the world is, it just gives the UFC a shiny object to put on fight posters and promote. Declaring the winner of Conor vs. Dustin or Gaethje vs. whoever the new lightweight champion would only serve to devalue the belt as a signifier of true excellence. Not only that, but it would be disrespectful to Khabib Nurmagomedov. Khabib retired from the sport the undefeated and undisputed champion and restored legitimacy to the lightweight title. The least the UFC can do is honor that by ensuring that the next person who holds the title at least has to prove the latter.

“Today I want to say this was my last fight. No way I’m going to come here without my father. It was first time after what happened with my father, when UFC called me about Justin, I talk with my mother three days. She doesn’t want me to go fight without my father but I promised her it was going to be my last fight. If I give my word, I have to follow this. It was my last fight here.” – Khabib after his emotional win.

“What this guy’s been through, we’re all lucky we got to see him fight tonight.” – Dana White on Khabib’s last fight.

“Justin looked like he was overwhelmed, it looked like he was panicking, like he didn’t know what to do. The threat was coming from everywhere. From under, from over, from everywhere. It was just a masterful performance.” – Georges St-Pierre on Khabib’s performance.

“With Khabib retiring, I’m No. 1. Poirier and McGregor are going to fight. They haven’t made it official, so if McGregor wants to bounce out and get the belt, I’m right here.” – Justin Gaethje after the loss.

“It’s the fight that makes sense right now. Adesanya has a lot of options, but the fight that makes the most sense is Whittaker.” – Dana White on the co-main event.

Stock Up
Khabib Nurmagomedov: In the bout many said was the toughest test of his career, Khabib turned in his greatest performance. He brawled with Justin Gaethje on the feet and then obliterated him on the floor. If he’s not the GOAT, he at least cemented himself in the conversation.

Robert Whittaker: Many people were writing Bobby Knuckles off and now those people are left eating crow. Whittaker has proven himself to still be among the elite of the elite at middleweight and may well have earned a second chance at Israel Adesanya.

Phil Hawes: Hawes has been a much-hyped prospect for a while now and he just turned in an 18-second KO. He may have been the biggest winner of the week outside of Khabib and the lightweights who no longer have to be afraid of Khabib.

Lauren Murphy: The opponent may have been overmatched but Murphy did what you’re supposed to do against inferior opposition and then got on the mic and dropped the most eloquent demand for a title shot of all time. Lucky has got next at 125.

Neutral
Justin Gaethje: There’s a strong argument Gaethje’s stock went down, such was the level of domination Khabib showed over him; however, with Khabib retiring, Gaethje seems like the frontrunner to be one-half of the vacant title bout.

Jared Cannonier: While Cannonier lost a title shot by coming up on the short end of the judges’ cards, he also put on a fantastic scrap with the former middleweight champion, and this time with one who isn’t incredibly old. Cannonier very much remains a concern at 185 pounds.

Alexander Volkov: Volkov stopped Walt Harris but looked much the same as he ever has. The win keeps him “in the mix” at heavyweight but doesn’t demonstrably raise his profile or the fans’ hopes that he is a future champion.

Stock Down
Walt Harris: Harris had been building some momentum in the heavyweight division but now with two losses in a row, “The Big Ticket” is just another guy in the division.

Stefan Struve: God love Struve but considering his medical history, it’s always terrifying to watch him compete and for whatever reason, the man has never learned how to not get hit with overhand rights.

Alex Oliveira: Oliveira spent the build up talking about a different undefeated MMA fighter instead of his opponent, blew weight, and then got tapped in the first round. Not exactly a great weekend.

In the grand scheme of things, nothing too terrible went down from a promotional/refereeing/judging standpoint but some classic MMA tropes did certainly rear their heads. First and foremost, the judging was pretty poor, we were just saved from it by all the finishes. Aside from the presence of a split draw (always the sign that something is amiss) two judges gave Justin Gaethje the first round and one judge scored Casey Kenney-Nathaniel Wood a 30-27. Not anyone’s finest hour right there.

The other thing to mention though Daniel Cormier. Full credit to DC who handled the difficult job of commentating his good friend’s fight very well. However, it remains insane that not only did the UFC allow that, but that the commentary booth only had Cormier and Jon Anik. Given Cormier’s extensive history with Khabib, and the fact that it’s now a well-known fact that fighters can hear commentators in the empty arena setting, DC should have been asked to abstain from calling the main event and left the booth to Anik and a third commentator. It ended up not mattering but it’s still shocking it happened in the first place.

Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Georges St-Pierre: If, for some reason, Khabib isn’t done yet, none of the possible lightweight fights seem as fun anymore. This fight is pretty dumb, but undeniably a good time and the perfect ending to a thus far perfect career.

Justin Gaethje vs. Conor McGregor: This will always be the fight to make as it is the most exciting fight in the history of the sport. Now they can even put the belt on the line for it.

Robert Whittaker vs. Israel Adesanya: I don’t think Whittaker has any chance in a rematch with Izzy, but given his accomplishments in the division and these two wins, the man deserves the opportunity.

Jared Cannonier vs. Paulo Costa: Costa has already called for this fight and it seems like the appropriate step for both men.

Alexander Volkov vs. Alistair Overeem: Winnable and losable fight for both men, who are both coming off wins over Walt Harris.

Lauren Murphy vs. Valentina Shevchenko: I could have put “The winner of Shevchenko vs. Jennier Maia” but I did because Shevchenko is winning that fight. Murphy is the next logical cannon fodder to feed to the most dominant champion in the UFC now that Khabib is gone.

Magomed Ankalaev vs. Johnny Walker: Two light heavies who are athletic and can crack. Great step up for Ankalaev.