Dana White’s informal lightweight tournament just got one hell of an opening round bout. ESPN’s Ariel Helwani reports (h/t MiddleEasy) that former Bellator champion Michael Chandler is getting set to take on former interim UFC champion and recent title challenger Justin Gaethje. As of yet, no date or location for the bout has been announced.
So, while the UFC president has remained committed to the idea that Khabib Nurmagomedov has not, in fact, retired from MMA, it looks like that’s not going to stop the promotion from finding out who the best active lightweight on the roster is right now.
“Nobody’s in line like they should be next,” White told BT Sport in a recent interview. “[Rankings] 1-9, all those guys are badass and could win on any given day... You could literally put all the names in a hat and pull ‘em out and match ‘em up and every one of those fights are awesome. This isn’t really rocket science.
“Khabib is undoubtedly the best in the world, by a long shot. He’s the champ. The rest of these guys are going to have to fight it out. It doesn’t matter.”
Getting all “these guys” into the cage, however, has looked to be a bit more difficult a process. After a shocking upset win over Conor McGregor back at UFC 257, former title challenger Dustin Poirier appears to be targeting a big-money rematch with the ‘Notorious Irishman’ rather than a shot at what should be a vacated lightweight belt.
Meanwhile, top contender Charles Oliveira has said he won’t compete for anything less than UFC gold. And with a 9-fight winning streak under his belt, it’s hard to argue that he deserves anything less.
Chandler’s long awaited Octagon debut came back in late January, against New Zealand’s Dan Hooker—with ‘Iron’ Mike delivering a first round KO to capture his first UFC victory. He left Bellator on a two-fight win streak, having dropped the promotion’s lightweight belt to Patricio Pitbull back in 2019.
For Gaethje, this would be the first bout for the Trevor Wittman trained athlete since losing to Nurmagomedov back in October of last year. That defeat broke a four fight winning streak, capped by a fantastic 5-round war with Tony Ferguson to win the interim lightweight title.
Assuming the ‘Eagle’ isn’t about to return to competition anytime soon, this bout should put the victor directly into the ‘mix’. But with so many contenders to choose from and no belt in sight, just what that might actually mean isn’t at all clear.