Khabib Nurmagomedov's sudden retirement from mixed martial arts Saturday has left a massive void in the sport in general, and a very specific one in the lightweight division.
The top of the 155-pound division goes from a dominant champion in his prime, to a vacant seat with no obvious heir. The UFC has plenty of good options for what to do with arguably its deepest weight class, but which will it choose?
When asked about the division shortly after Nurmagomedov's bombshell announcement, UFC president Dana White said, "Don't ask me about the future. I have no idea."
Who do you want to see in the next lightweight title fight? 🏆 pic.twitter.com/2NNwbVLQeB— ESPN MMA (@espnmma) October 25, 2020
Here are the most likely options in front of the UFC right now.
Option 1: Book Conor McGregor vs. Dustin Poirier on Jan. 23 for the vacant lightweight championship
This is the most obvious solution. McGregor and Poirier have verbally agreed to face each other on Jan. 23. Obviously, expectations were this would be a non-title fight, but that changes with Nurmagomedov's departure. Poirier is No. 2 in the UFC's official rankings, McGregor is No. 4. They are each coming off a win, although McGregor's wasn't at lightweight, it was a welterweight victory over Donald "Cowboy" Cerrone in January. Nevertheless, it's a justifiable decision to make and has great commercial appeal.
Option 2: Host a mini-tournament in early 2021
I use the word "tournament" loosely here, because the UFC doesn't do "tournaments." White is not a fan of tournaments, in the traditional sense of the word, and never will be. But the UFC could book McGregor vs. Poirier as a non-title fight, and book Tony Ferguson vs. Michael Chandler as a non-title fight, with the understanding that the two winners will face off for the title.
Now, the UFC could essentially create the same understanding by just making the McGregor vs. Poirier fight for a title, and calling Ferguson vs. Chandler a No. 1 contender fight. It's more or less the same, right? But this would be a different way to promote basically the same thing, depending on what narrative the UFC wants to create.
Option 3: Scrap McGregor vs. Poirier on Jan. 23 and book McGregor vs. Justin Gaethje for the vacant lightweight championship
I don't find this one likely, since McGregor and the UFC have already more or less committed to the Poirier matchup (although, contracts have not been signed) -- but it is worth mentioning. Earlier this year, McGregor badly wanted to fight Gaethje. And on Saturday, Gaethje said he's ready to jump right back into camp and fight in the near future. And despite Gaethje's loss to Nurmagomedov on Saturday, no one is saying he's not as good as advertised. Nurmagomedov was just that good to make everyone else look bad. If McGregor suddenly really wanted Gaethje instead of Poirier, whom he beat in 2014, the UFC could pivot. Again, I don't think this will happen, but it's not impossible.