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Islam Makhachev of Russia reacts after his knockout victory against Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
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Where We Stand: Lightweight Division | October 2023

Islam Makhachev Made A Statement In Abu Dhabi, But Two Top Contenders Are Ready To Make Their Own

Islam Makhachev’s emphatic statement was a simple one. With his first-round, head-kick knockout win over Alexander Volkanovski, the lightweight champion immediately looked around and raised his index finger to his lips to quiet all the doubters that buzzed around to that point. For all the detractors who believed Volkanovski was robbed in their first fight at UFC 284, Makhachev left nothing to debate about this time. Makhachev has now defended his title twice with two clear challengers coming down the road. Should he get past those, he is on his way to cementing himself among the division’s all-time best, but that is always a tall task at 155 pounds.

This is where we stand in the lightweight division:

Champion: Islam Makhachev

Last Fight: KO Win vs Alexander Volkanovski (10/21/2023)

Next fight: N/A

Islam Makhachev of Russia knocks out Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Islam Makhachev of Russia knocks out Alexander Volkanovski of Australia in the UFC lightweight championship fight during the UFC 294 event at Etihad Arena on October 21, 2023 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: Makhachev made major moves in 2023 in terms of establishing his own legacy as the lightweight champion out from under the shadow of his friend and mentor Khabib Nurmagomedov. Besting the consensus pound-for-pound best in Volkanovski twice is a feather in his cap, but now he must return to the dangerous crop of contenders in his division. Oliveira will likely get his rematch after an injury forced him out of UFC 294’s original main event. Although Makhachev blew past “Do Bronxs” in their 2022 title fight, it’s a testament to the Brazilian’s quality that he earned a second shot after picking up a win over Beneil Dariush in definitive fashion. Justin Gaethje is also knocking on the door after sleeping Dustin Poirier via head kick and winning the BMF belt. One could argue Gaethje deserves the next shot, but it’s generally thought that the line goes Oliveira-then-Gaethje. Either way, Makhachev has a duo of title challengers that will greatly bolster his championship resume should he hold on to his belt. 

1) Charles Oliveira

Last Fight: TKO Win vs Beneil Dariush (6/10/2023)

Next fight: N/A

 Charles Oliveira of Brazil celebrates his TKO victory over Beneil Dariush of Iran in their lightweight fight during the UFC 289 event at Rogers Arena on June 10, 2023 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Charles Oliveira of Brazil celebrates his TKO victory over Beneil Dariush of Iran in their lightweight fight during the UFC 289 event at Rogers Arena on June 10, 2023 in Vancouver, Canada. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: To say people were heartbroken over Oliveira having to pull out of the fight is to put it lightly. The Brazilian has become one of the most popular fighters on the roster over the last few years, and he was adamant that his loss to Makhachev was as much him underperforming as it was Makhachev handling the task at hand. His first-round finish over Dariush bolstered that belief, and it was definitive enough to get a rematch with Makhachev. Oliviera figures to be next in line. When that fight comes is murky, but given that Oliveira holds wins over every other contender in the Top 5, he is set up well to get a couple more shots at regaining his title. 

2) Justin Gaethje

Last Fight: KO Win vs Dustin Poirier (7/29/2023) 

Next fight: N/A

Justin Gaethje kicks Dustin Poirier in a lightweight fight for the BMF belt during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)
Justin Gaethje kicks Dustin Poirier in a lightweight fight for the BMF belt during the UFC 291 event at Delta Center on July 29, 2023 in Salt Lake City, Utah. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: Not much has changed for Gaethje since winning the BMF belt in July 2023. He is entrenched as a top contender right behind Oliveira, who he lost to in their title bout in May 2022. After he beat Rafael Fiziev in London at UFC 286, Gaethje mentioned the idea that his career is reaching its last chapter. It was less of a “I don’t know how much I have left in me” statement and more of a sense of awareness that he doesn’t have many chances better than right now to finally obtain a UFC belt. Gaethje turns 35 in November, and so he wants to bring his best to his next title shot. That is likely why he did not step into Oliveira’s vacancy at UFC 294. Whether he gets the crack at Makhachev next or has to wait for the rematch between Makhachev and Oliveira, “The Highlight” knows his moment of truth is coming.

3) Dustin Poirier

Last Fight: KO Loss vs Justin Gaethje (7/29/2023)

Next fight: N/A

Dustin Poirier: One Of The Baddest | UFC 30th Anniversary
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Dustin Poirier: One Of The Baddest | UFC 30th Anniversary
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Outlook: Poirier was ready to jump into the deep end and fight Makhachev on less than two weeks’ notice just like Volkanovski, and for that he has to be respected. Ultimately, the shot went to Volkanovski, but there’s a similar sense of urgency to Gaethje regarding Poirier’s awareness of his championship aspirations. “The Diamond” turns 35 in January, and the former interim champ is probably a definitive win away from putting his hat into the title shot ring. For the last six years, perhaps nobody has fought a tougher strength of schedule than Poirier. Fighting down the rankings likely doesn’t interest him, but as it stands right now, he’s not quite on the inner circle of the title picture. 

4) Beneil Dariush

Last Fight: TKO Loss vs Charles Oliveira (6/10/2023)

Next fight: N/A

Beneil Dariush of Iran punches Mateusz Gamrot of Poland in a lightweight fight during the UFC 280 event at Etihad Arena on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)
Beneil Dariush of Iran punches Mateusz Gamrot of Poland in a lightweight fight during the UFC 280 event at Etihad Arena on October 22, 2022 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: Dariush debatably had as much right to a title shot as anybody when the calendar turned over to 2023. To that point, he had compiled an eight-fight win streak and also was supposed to fight Makhachev in a main event in February 2022. A year later, Makhachev would fight Volkanovski instead of Dariush, who instead took a fight against Oliveira to cement his case for a title shot. That fight ended in a first-round loss, halting any momentum he had built up to that point. Dariush, 34, likely needs to string a couple big wins together before getting back to contention, but with Oliveira and Gaethje lined up to face Makhachev, the timing works in his favor. A fight against the surging Arman Tsarukyan is rumored, and if he can turn away a hot prospect like that, he could find himself in a No. 1 contender bout once again.  

5) Michael Chandler

Last Fight: Submission Loss vs Dustin Poirier (11/12/2022)

Next fight: N/A

Michael Chandler kicks Dustin Poirier in a lightweight bout during the UFC 281 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)
Michael Chandler kicks Dustin Poirier in a lightweight bout during the UFC 281 event at Madison Square Garden on November 12, 2022 in New York City. (Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: “Iron” is stuck in a bit of purgatory after coaching opposite Conor McGregor in The Ultimate Fighter. The former title challenger has been an all-action addition to the lightweight division since joining the roster in 2021. He is just 2-3 in five appearences, but he also has two first-round knockouts, two Fight of the Night bonuses and one Fight of the Year accolade to his name. At 37, waiting for McGregor seems worth the financial benefit, especially as Gaethje, Oliveira and Makhachev sort out their matchups. Between his fan-friendly style and the fact that Chandler keeps himself in phenomenal shape, it’s fair to think he could keep Father Time at bay a little longer than most in the lighter weight classes and manifest one more shot at a UFC belt.  

In the Mix: Matuesz Gamrot, Arman Tsarukyan, Rafael Fiziev

Outlook: The Top 5 of the division is seemingly encased in amber, which is all the more impressive when looking at the fighters desperately hoping to get their way into the title picture. Matuesz Gamrot and Rafael Fiziev had their chances against Dariush and Gaethje, respectively, and fell short. Gamrot picked up a pair of wins in 2023, a split decision over Jalin Turner and a TKO win via injury over Fiziev when “Ataman” injured his knee, but neither were particularly definitive. Fiziev is likely out for the foreseeable future as he recovers from the injury, and by the time he returns, the picture could look significantly different. 

Tsarukyan, however, has yet to get his big chance to catapult himself from hot prospect to title contender. The 27-year-old has had a hard go of it finding Top 15 opponents, but if he does end up fighting Dariush, that is the opportunity for which he has been waiting.