The lightweight division took centre stage at UFC 242 in Abu Dhabi, and did not disappoint.
Khabib Nurmagomedov became the unified champion with his third round stoppage of Dustin Poirier, while there were standout wins for Paul Felder, Islam Makchev and Diego Ferreira.
On the back of a thrilling night of results, here are the fights to make next:
KHABIB NURMAGOMEDOV V TONY FERGUSON
This one is hardly rocket science – it is the only fight that can be made. Attempts have failed in the past but with both fighters now on 12-fight win streaks in the UFC, and the dominant forces in the division, it’s not up for debate anyone. Khabib may want a break, but expect this one early in 2020.
DUSTIN POIRIER V THE WINNER OF JUSTIN GAETHJE V DONALD CERRONE
Even in defeat, Poirier confirmed himself as one of the division’s premier talents and he will be looking to get back on the horse pretty soon. Next weekend sees fourth and fifth ranked lightweights Cerrone and Gaethje go at it – and the winner taking on Poirier would be a mouth-watering prospect.
There is another name that could be thrown in the mix – Conor McGregor. For someone who hasn’t won a fight at 155lbs in the four years he certainly likes to keep his name in the conversation at the top of the division. If he is serious about a UFC return Poirier could be the man to welcome him.
PAUL FELDER V THE LOSER OF JUSTIN GAETHJE AND DONALD CERRONE
The emotion felt from Felder in avenging his previous loss to Edson Barboza was clear for all to see – as was his desire to continue climbing the lightweight ranks. He will move up from his current tenth position in the rankings, and a follow up win over either Gaethje or Cerrone would do nothing to harm his chances of breaking into the top five.
ISLAM MAKHACHEV V KEVIN LEE
Makchev looked slick in defeating Davi Ramos and will be looking to set himself as a genuine top-10 contender. Lee may not be the name on everyone’s list, but this would work stylistically with plenty on the line for both men.
He talked about family. He talked about charity. He talked about respect, and he talked about gratitude. He talked in Russian, in English and even some Arabic, yet the language Khabib Nurmagomedov is most fluent in can’t be spoken.
Violence is the dialect Khabib knows best and during his undefeated, undisputed MMA career, it’s a language no challenger has been to able to understand.
Perhaps the most jarring face Dustin Poirier wore on Saturday night wasn’t the emotional mask which was slipped on post-fight, but rather the look of complete confusion and bewilderment whenever ragged to the mat.
The American challenger cast several glances to his corner in the hope they could translate and help him overcome the language barrier.
But there is and so far has been no solution to understanding Khabib. The man has been wrestling since he was a small boy and there is no preparing for someone so versed in the art of grappling for decades.
We all know the tale of Khabib wrestling bears, and at this point, it might take that rematch to see him finally defeated.
Indeed, the lightweight division is both the most stacked and shallow at the same time. Right now, there is legitimately only one fighter at 155lbs who can feasibly make it 28-1 for Khabib and that is Tony Ferguson.
Despite Conor McGregor’s best attempts to land a left-hand on the spotlight and turn it towards him through the medium of social media, the Irishman is irrelevant where the lightweight title narrative is concerned.
There may now be greater credit given to the one round he took off Khabib last year, the only one the Dagestan-native has lost in his career.
But he was still ‘smeshed’, like all the rest, and despite a top-10 ranking which includes killers in Paul Felder, Anthony Pettis, Kevin Lee, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta, Justin Gaethje, Donald Cerrone, McGregor and Poirier, if Ferguson is defeated next up, the division is virtually dead.
Khabib is the Bane of the lightweights. Poirier thought pressure was his ally, that’s why they call him the diamond, right? Yet he was merely adopted by it, Khabib was born in it, moulded by it.
They came to see one man and left having witnessed an indestructible freak of nature.
This may seem like hyperbole, as if creative licence is running wild, but then watch Khabib up close, witness the piercing speed of his takedowns, the ability to envelop opponents like a python and the way he just siphons the life out of his opponents to render them inanimate, slowly entering darkness, twitching and clinging for air, and it’s hard not to get carried away.
If those watching on felt like they were breathing through a straw, such was the thickness of the air due to the humid atmosphere, then one can only dare imagine what it must have been like for Poirier when Khabib wrapped up the rear-naked choke in the third round.
However, there can be praise for Poirier, although there always seems to be for Khabib’s opponents given any sight of light is examined to prove the champion is mortal.
In the second round he landed clean with a right-hand and went on the charge, pushing Khabib onto the backfoot and on the run.
Predictably, he was taken down, but when that happened in the third stanza, Poirier slapped on a guillotine choke and it appeared tight.
Khabib even admitted post-fight it was “close” to putting him away. It didn’t, he reversed then earned the 28th straight win of his career and a second successful defence of the lightweight title.
The choke saw him submit another body of work to suggest he is the pound-for-pound No1 in the sport. There will also be debates which centre on Khabib’s standing as the most dominant fighter MMA has ever seen.
But beneath all the dominance is respect. One touching moment after the violence had dissipated into the steamy atmosphere was with Khabib and Poirier donning each other’s signature shirts as the champion offered to sell the American’s tee to help raise funds his charity, The Good Fight Foundation.
And while the narrative shifts toward Khabib’s standing from a fighting perspective, what is undeniable now is that he is one of the most important Muslim athletes on the planet.
In a world which has seen Islamophobia spread across all four corners, having a role model Muslim like Khabib in the corner is empowering.
When he talked post-fight about his family, charity, respect and gratitude, it showed that while MMA is so obviously brutal, through athletes like Khabib it can be a vehicle to deliver the right messages as well.
The most clear one of all, however, is that no other lightweight comes close to him.
Undefeated, undisputed and undeniably the biggest star in MMA right now.
Khabib Nurmagomedov is the unified UFC lightweight champion, and following an electric performance in the main event slot of UFC 242 at The Arena on Yas Island, where the UAE is concerned, he is the people’s champion, too.
The Muslim-fighter’s third-round rear-naked choke submission of a very game challenger in Dustin Poirier generated the type of weight for his reputation only the top-heavy pressure of his suffocating wrestling pedigree can equal.
Powered by the partisan crowd, Khabib siphoned the energy and concurrently the hope out of Poirier, who did impress with a stinging right-hand in the second round and an attempted guillotine choke shortly before the arrival of the end in the third stanza.
However, 28 different questions have been posed to Khabib during his unblemished career and so far he has answered every one in the same emphatic fashion, by ‘smeshing’ each opponent.
They say pressure makes diamonds, and Poirier has certainly earned his alias, but in that case what on earth is Khabib?
Created on the hills of Dagestan, the various composite metals of granite and iron have combined to birth an immovable force of nature.
And make no mistake his triumph has presented a gleaming new jewel to adorn the UAE sporting calendar.
The expectations heading into the promotion’s long-awaited return to these shores was enormous.
To rival other mainstream sports held here, such as the Formula One, golf, tennis and so on, MMA needed its own grand night.
But unlike the dull nature of UFC 112, this numbered event delivered from top to bottom. In terms of pure sporting spectacles, there are few rivals for MMA.
The conditions in Abu Dhabi added a somewhat bittersweet ingredient to what is a unique fragrance as well. Indeed, the stinging aftershave of blood and sweat, blended by the smothering heat of The Arena produced a signature scent of pure violence.
The humidity turned the fighters into rain dancers, sweat droplets spraying out of the Octagon and slapping onto onlookers for an experience which is hard to match elsewhere on the sporting landscape.
Indeed, no other can offer the collision of flesh on flesh which rings through the ears or the sight of these phenomenal athletes wielding every fibre of their shredded muscle in the name of sport and entertainment.
The heat and humidity only added to the drama, the incandescent lights turning the Octagon into a sauna.
It was like breathing through a straw at some points and when the main event arrived, it was as if the crowd had saved its collective breath, sucking in every ounce of oxygen throughout the evening to release a burst of support for Khabib.
But beneath the raw violence was respect. It was the theme of the event, hallmarked by Khabib’s post-fight speech and very much reflected by the Abu Dhabi crowd rising to their feet and applauding an emotional Poirier during his post-fight interview.
This event showcased the best of MMA.
Overall, it was an excellent night of action, one which provides the perfect tonic to the lacklustre affair of UFC 112 nearly a decade ago.
Arguably it is the most significant aspect of this card in that from an entertainment standpoint, it serves as the ideal opener for the five-year deal with the Abu Dhabi Culture and Tourism Authority, giving MMA’s premier promotion momentum in an emerging market, which was certainly not the case in 2010.
It was an especially good evening for some of the fighters competing closer to home in the UAE.
Palestinian-American Belal Muhammad and Morocco’s Ottman Azaitar both scored popular victories in the capital, the latter producing one of the night’s highlights with the detonation of a thunderous right-hand on the ear of Teemu Packalen setting off an explosion of noise inside the arena.
However, there was no sound louder than the chorus of ‘Khabib’ which shook the arena’s foundations when he was crowned the undisputed UFC lightweight champion.
They came to see one man, and left having witnessed an indestructible force.