UFC lightweight reset: Is there a logjam behind Makhachev and Tsarukyan?


It was an important and emotional experience for the UFC’s lightweight division in Newark, New Jersey, this past weekend.

Islam Makhachev defended the 155-pound throne against Dustin Poirier in the main event of UFC 302, submitting the living legend in the fifth round. Of course, the big question after the fight was whether Poirier would announce his retirement. He didn’t, but he indicated it might have been his final appearance in the Octagon — more on this later.

Makhachev has made it known he wishes to move up to 170 pounds. That might be a tough request for the UFC to grant, considering lightweight is arguably the promotion’s deepest division. At the same time, Makhachev has already beaten three of the top-four-ranked men in the division, so he certainly has a case to move up.

Let’s take a second to reset the lightweight division following Makhachev’s third title defense.

What weight class will Makhachev’s next fight take place?

Lightweight, 99.9%. The UFC already offered Arman Tsarukyan a title shot after he defeated Charles Oliveira at UFC 300. Tsarukyan could have fought Makhachev at UFC 302 but chose to take a breather and benefit from a full camp. Sometimes, the UFC doesn’t like it when a fighter turns an opportunity like that down, but it worked for everybody in this case. The UFC didn’t mind promoting Poirier in that spot Saturday. He was a good name, he was deserving and he had a good story. Plus, Makhachev wanted to fight him.

Now, Tsarukyan is the clear-cut No. 1 contender. The UFC promoted that fight against Oliveira as a No. 1 contender bout, and it doesn’t intend to renege on that. It’s the fight to make for the division. The only thing that could throw a wrench in it is whether UFC champion Leon Edwards beats Belal Muhammad at UFC 304 in July in Manchester and cuts a promo inviting Makhachev to his weight class. If Edwards publicly pursues Makhachev, it might be a game changer, especially if he’s willing to meet Makhachev in the relatively unfriendly territory of Abu Dhabi in October.

That all seems unlikely. And even if Edwards did call for it, there’s no guarantee the UFC would go with it. Again, the UFC does want to honor its title fight offer to Tsarukyan. Makhachev vs. Tsarukyan at 155 pounds later this year is a safe bet, but Edwards does represent a curveball.

This division is great, but might we be looking at a logjam shortly?

Unfortunately, yes. Even if Poirier doesn’t retire, he won’t take on an up-and-coming lightweight just for the sake of it. We know that. So if he doesn’t retire, he might sit on a ranked spot at lightweight, which isn’t ideal. The same can be said for Justin Gaethje. These two have done the company a solid in recent years. They gave younger fighters (Rafael Fiziev and Benoît Saint Denis) opportunities. So they aren’t going to eagerly do it again, and no one can blame them for that. But it still means they’ll be holding up ranked slots.

Oliveira’s future is in the air. Michael Chandler is in the same boat. And not only are we talking about the highest-ranked guys here, but these are also the biggest names. As wild as it sounds, as deep as lightweight is, it might have a hard time producing a real No. 1 contender for Makhachev, behind Tsarukyan in the immediate future.

So which fighters have the best chance of breaking through?

The answer has to be Mateusz Gamrot, simply because of his skill level. He has significant hurdles to overcome, though. Including:

  • As mentioned, none of the guys who ranked ahead of Gamrot will want to fight him.

  • His grappling-heavy style is not fan friendly, making a breakthrough more difficult.

  • He doesn’t have a true signature win. He has quality names on his résumé, but some of his decision wins were controversial, and his victory over Fiziev in 2023 was injury related.

The trendy answer is Fiziev. He has style, both in and out of the Octagon. Plus, he’s marketable and he has never fought Makhachev. But he’s ice cold at the moment, coming off back-to-back losses to Gaethje and Gamrot.

Sometimes, the answer can be a fighter in another promotion, but that’s not applicable here. The most appealing option outside of the UFC for Makhachev is Bellator MMA champion Usman Nurmagomedov — the same Usman Nurmagomedov who was escorted out of UFC 302 because he leaped over the Octagon to be the first person to hug Makhachev for submitting Poirier. They’re teammates, and practically brothers.

The best breakthrough candidate to truly make a compelling fight with Makhachev is the BMF, Max Holloway. But Holloway is expected to return to 145 pounds, and as much as a matchup between Makhachev and Holloway would carry star power, the obvious size difference leaves it less feasible.

So what does the next year of lightweight actually look like?

Do not be dismayed. This division is arguably the marquee weight class of the UFC. It just offers some serious challenges to UFC matchmaking.

As of today, the best forecast for the coming year is that Makhachev meets Tsarukyan in a rematch of a bout Makhachev won back in 2019. If Makhachev wins, he will move up and challenge for the welterweight belt in the first half of 2025.

At that point, I believe the UFC would make an interim title — to reward potential challengers in the division, for sure, but also to build someone as a threat to Makhachev. Chandler will have a good shot at being involved in that if he beats Conor McGregor at the end of this month at UFC 303. Oliveira would be in the running. Gaethje would, too, although the timing would not be in his favor.

I think the coming year sees many familiar faces fighting familiar faces, while some of the younger contenders work to make a name for themselves — similar to what has already been happening during Makhachev’s title reign. The only difference is that Makhachev will get his opportunity to move up, and we could see an interim belt as a result.

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