Where there was confusion, there is now clarity. Just over a year ago, Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement rocked the lightweight division and a battle for the Dagestani’s vacated belt began.
Over the past 12 months, that battle has leveled off somewhat, with Charles Oliveira and Dustin Poirier the outright champion and No. 1 contender after a stellar 2021 for both men.
The Brazilian and the American will go head-to-head at UFC 269 in December, with the victor becoming the undisputed king of the 155-pounders, but a battle remains between a handful of contenders looking to put themselves in pole position for a tilt at UFC gold in early 2022.
Justin Gaethje (R) and Michael Chandler (L) reunite on Saturday at UFC 268 in New York
Justin Gaethje and Michael Chandler are both fully aware of what’s expected of them this weekend at Madison Square Garden.
This is not a new experience for either man. Gaethje, No. 2, and Chandler, No. 4, were even on the receiving end of memorable wins that propelled them to a title shot.
In May 2020, Gaethje intervened at short notice to upset Tony Ferguson and book his title fight against Nurmagomedov, but lost to the Dagestani via a second round at Fight Island.
Chandler made a sensational UFC debut at UFC 257, taking a first-round knockout victory over Dan Hooker to announce himself on the big stage after signing with Bellator.
Khabib Nurmagomedov messed up the lightweight division when he retired last year
The American wrestler went a whisker away from grabbing the lightweight belt, beating Oliveira in a massive first round before the Brazilian rallied and knocked out the 34-year-old to spread his hopes for championship status across two organizations.
It’s fair to say that Gaethje is feeling pretty frustrated heading into this UFC 268 bout. The Highlight has been forced to bide his time as the puzzle pieces fall into place, despite being flagged as a strong favorite to fight for the title after Nurmagomedov’s retirement.
Gaethje is adamant he will clinch the title with a win over Chandler, and has warned that there will be laughter if he is denied a ramp at the lightweight belt.
“Even if he (Chandler) wins, they probably won’t give him a title shot,” Gaethje told reporters on UFC 268 media day on Wednesday. “The only reason he got the first one was because it was perfect timing.
The division has cleared up with Charles Oliveira crowned new champion last May
Oliveira will face Dustin Poirier at UFC 269 with the Diamond as the absolute No. 1 contender
“Yeah, like I said, if I don’t get the chance, we’ll revolt. We’re going to battle. I must be biased on this. I won’t be here much longer, so if I get snubbed again, yes, I’ll have to do something about it. Whether that causes a stir.
“I have to let my manager do his job. I have the best manager in the game. We all know what needs to happen if I get this win on Saturday night, so hopefully you will all rise up with me.”
Gaethje was not shy to express his disappointment at being left out of the lightweight picture while Poirier, Oliveira, Chandler and Conor McGregor were in action in 2021.
Chandler – in a move that violates the UFC trash talk convention – sympathizes with his rival’s position and admits he would feel the same hurt if he were forced to endure the same silence.
Gaethje has experience pushing himself to a title shot after beating Tony Ferguson
Chandler also shone under the bright lights, beating Dan Hooker on his UFC debut
“I’ll sit here and admit that when Khabib retired and there was a pool of all of us, maybe Justin Gaethje deserved to fight for the title more than I did, more than Charles Oliveira,” Chandler told MMA Fighting.
“I think there’s some resentment, and that’s fine. Fully guaranteed. I would have thought the same. I think he was in contract negotiations. I know clearly Dustin [Poirier] and Conor [McGregor] were tied up, so there were only so many options the UFC had at the time.
“With the debut I made, I had a lot of momentum and I was ready to say yes. That’s one thing I’ve done. I said yes. I have said yes to Justin Gaethje several times, whether the fight was actually offered to him or not, I know that that fight was being worked on for January 23rd. Maybe there was before May, I don’t know, there was talk of it.
“When you’re in the UFC lightweight division, everyone’s so good and everyone’s such a big name that there’s going to be some fighting for the position. He was left out there, so I’d be just as mad as him, making you want to punch people in turn. It’s part of it. Anyway, we’ll let our struggles speak for themselves.’
Gaethje has had a frustrating year and Chandler sympathizes with his rival’s turmoil
There’s no doubt that Gaethje and Chandler are ready for a shot at the title fight winner Oliveira and Poirier, but there’s a resurgent lightweight breathing heavily down the quartet’s neck.
Islam Makhachev is in revolt. The Dagestani is Nurmagomedov’s protégé and was trained by the Eagle’s late father, Abdulmanap, as well as AKA chief Javier Mendez.
Nurmagomedov has long claimed that Makhachev is the heir to his throne and fans caught a glimpse of the 29-year-old’s title details after he obliterated Hooker at UFC 267 last weekend.
Makhachev made light work of the Kiwi to secure a first-round kimura entry and send a strong warning to the 155-pound division. In the eyes of the Dagestani, he should be ahead of Gaethje and Chandler in the pecking order for a title shot.
A big performance is needed with Islam Makhachev pushing for a shot at the lightweight title
Dana White could speed up plans for the Dagestani if he’s not impressed on Saturday night
“It used to be top 11, top 15, this guy is top 6, now we need to talk. Nine fights win streak, I’m ready for title fight. Everyone, it doesn’t matter. This division now, sleep a little now it’s my time to work on this division,” he said after his win.
‘These are all old men’ [Gaethje and Chandler], they have often fought for the title, they fight for business. I’m here to keep this belt for many years to come.”
UFC president Dana White has insisted Makhachev needs one more win before he gets his title shot, but a lackluster display from Gaethje and Chandler could speed plans and put the Dagestani next in line.
But Makhachev will know deep down that this will be anything but a slumber party. Gaethje is blessed with dynamite power with 19 of his 22 knockout victories. Chandler is also dangerous with his hands – just ask Hooker.
This three-round affair has fireworks written all over it. Blink your eyes and you will miss it.