Which UFC star will win the race to the lightweight crown?

Can Conor McGregor win the race to succeed Khabib? Or can American wildcard Michael Chandler stun the Irishman AND the rest of the world? A host of top lightweight contenders are set for a scramble to the summit in a monumental 2021

  • 2021 is set to be a monumental year among the UFC’s lightweight contenders 
  • Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement has opened the door for a host of names 
  • Conor McGregor and Dustin Poirier kick off the action in their January 23 bout
  • Sportsmail profiles each of the top contenders for the lightweight crown 

And so the scramble to reach the summit begins. 

Khabib Nurmagomedov’s shock retirement from the UFC in October has left fans and pundits split over who is likely to take the throne vacated by the dominant Dagestani.     

It sets up what will surely be a mammoth 2021 among the 155-pound ranks, with a host of big names vying for the top spot, including a former two-weight champion, three former interim champions and a fresh face from a rival organisation.

Sportsmail previews the runners and riders for the UFC lightweight crown.   

Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement has started a scramble to the top among the pretenders

The UFC’s lightweight division is wide open with 2021 a mouthwatering prospect for fans

Justin Gaethje

Where better to start than the man who has most recently been left in the wake of Khabib? 

Justin Gaethje was on the receiving end of the same as 28 other fighters before him – namely, the unfathomable strength and power of the undefeated Dagestani.

Justin Gaethje will want another shot at the title having just been beaten by Nurmagomedov

The result is what will be remembered in years to come, but Gaethje did not give a bad showing in the two-round contest, landing strong leg kicks and connecting with some big shots up top. 

Gaethje has refined his game since suffering defeats to Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez, and comprehensively outboxed Tony Ferguson in May this year. 

The American’s frenetic pace, coupled with his hand speed and vicious leg kicks, makes him a top contender for the lightweight throne, and he will be hoping he will be the first to have a shot at the belt vacated by Nurmagomedov.  

Dustin Poirier

For Dustin Poirier, January 23 presents not just a chance to avenge a past defeat, but also an opportunity to send a strong message to UFC chief Dana White over his credentials as a title challenger.

The ‘Diamond’ gets the new year off to a flying start for the organisation with a mouthwatering rematch against Conor McGregor, whom he suffered defeat against back in 2014. 

Dustin Poirier has the chance to kickstart 2021 by sending a strong message to Dana White

The Diamond takes on Conor McGregor on January 23 and a win could book his shot at the title

Poirier, like Gaethje, suffered at the hands of Nurmagomedov in Abu Dhabi last year, but responded with an impressive win over lightweight rival Dan Hooker in June. 

The 31-year-old is a UFC veteran, having joined the organisation in 2010 after enduring a troubled adolescence in and out of juvenile centres before fighting ‘found’ him. 

Poirier defeated Gaethje back in 2018 but there would certainly be an appetite among fans to see that fight again post-Nurmagomedov. A win over McGregor would virtually book his place in the title fight.  

Charles Oliveira

Perhaps the most unfamiliar name among those on this list, but overlook Charles Oliveira to your peril.

The Brazilian has been among the UFC ranks for some time, having joined in 2010 and spending the early part of his career at featherweight. 

Charles Oliveira is the dark horse among the lightweights and is on an eight-fight winning run

But Oliveira has reaped the rewards of moving back up a weight class. A loss to Paul Felder has onset a run of eight wins on the bounce, culminating in the dominant victory over Tony Ferguson at UFC 256 this month. 

Nineteen of the Brazilian’s 30 MMA wins have come by way of submission, and he showcased his expertise on the mat against El Cucuy, widely regarded as a specialist off his back. 

Oliveira is enjoying a purple patch and you would not bet against him earning himself a title shot in the latter stages of 2021 should he keep up his good run.  

Tony Ferguson

You can’t help but feel for Tony Ferguson. The 37-year-old had for some time been viewed as the thorn to Nurmagomedov’s side, the one person who stood a genuine chance of handing the Dagestani his first career defeat. 

On five separate occasions Ferguson and Nurmagomedov agreed to settle their differences in the octagon. On five separate occasions the fight fell through. 

Tony Ferguson has been among the top contenders for years but his chance may have gone

El Cucuy suffered back-to-back defeats in 2020 and will need a big year to turn things around

And now El Cucuy is on the outside looking in. Gaethje ended the Californian’s 12-fight unbeaten streak in May with an impressive performance and Nurmagomedov was correct in predicting the former interim champion would not be the same again. 

The recent defeat at the hands of Oliveira spells an ominous time for the eccentric martial artist. 

You get the sense that Ferguson will never stop fighting, given his pure love for the sport, but whether we will see him competing at the level required to earn a title shot remains to be seen. 

Conor McGregor

His plans for a 2020 ‘season’ were massively derailed, but should all go to plan, Conor McGregor could well make 2021 his most triumphant year in the UFC.

The Irishman dramatically retired from the sport earlier this year, mostly due to frustration at not being able to compete amid Covid-19, but his return against Poirier on Fight Island could be the start of a very fruitful year for the Notorious.

Conor McGregor will be eyeing his former title as he prepares for another return to the UFC

The UFC that the former two-weight world champion returns to is very different from the organisation he almost single-handedly brought to public consciousness back in 2016. 

For one, McGregor does not hold the bargaining power he once enjoyed when he reigned supreme. Since his hiatus, more stars have been nurtured and it can be argued that some have grown tired of the Irishman’s antics outside the octagon.

There are also questions over whether the 32-year-old will ever return to the devastating knockout specialist that blitzed the featherweight ranks and saw him make history as the first ‘Champ Champ’. 

But, make no mistake, a win over Poirier will get the McGregor machine up and running once more and it could make for a very exciting year for all involved.  

Michael Chandler  

This one is a real wild card. Michael Chandler is a new arrival to the UFC and, having triumphed as lightweight champion of Bellator, is ready to chance his arm with the biggest names in the sport.

The decision to make the 34-year-old a standby option for the Nurmagomedov – Gaethje title fight shows just how highly the top brass at the UFC rate Chandler, and what their plans are for him further down the line. 

Chandler holds a 21-5 record and has the ability to mix it up with nine wins coming by way of knockout, seven via submission and five decisions.

Michael Chandler is looking to prove himself having signed from rival promotion Bellator

White faces a conundrum in who he pits Chandler against for his first bout in the UFC

The conundrum for the UFC is where does Chandler fit in all of this? As a new arrival, the American is currently unranked, but you would imagine he slots somewhere among the five names above. 

Handing Chandler a title shot would come as a slap to the face to the likes of Gaethje, Poirier and Oliveira, so it is likely he will have a fight before a shot at the title. 

But throwing a newbie among the seasoned sharks at lightweight could have serious repercussions. The UFC will remember what happened with ONE champion Ben Askren when he took on Jorge Masvidal, with that five-second knockout virtually ending Funky’s career. 

What the UFC do with Chandler could have a big impact on where the lightweight title ends up this year.  

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