By Adam Martin
It's difficult to say which UFC division is the most stacked with title contenders at the moment, but there's no doubt the lightweight division is right up there, and the main event of this weekend's UFC Hidalgo card only makes things more complicated.
In the five-round headliner, a surging Dustin Poirier takes on Michael Johnson in an incredible matchup between two of the most exciting strikers in the division, both of whom are presently ranked in the Top 10 in the UFC's official rankings. Poirier, ranked #7, is currently riding a four-fight win streak in the lightweight division with victories over
Bobby Green, Joseph Duffy, Yancy Medeiros, and Carlos Diego Ferreira. Since moving up to 155 lbs following a knockout loss to Conor McGregor in his last featherweight outing, Poirier has looked otherworldly, taking out Green, Medeiros, and Ferreira via first-round knockout and beating the life out of Duffy in a decision victory. With improved striking, heavy hands, and a slick ground game, Poirier has all the tools to make a run for the title, and with increased durability and chin strength since moving up a weight class, he has the confidence he needs in order to go further in his quest for gold.
The problem for Poirier is that the lightweight division is so ridiculously stacked with title contenders right now that Poirier can't have a misstep; he needs to keep winning, and winning impressively, if he wants to break into the top 5 and get closer to a title fight in a division where one loss can put you at the back of a long line.
At the front of the line, of course, is UFC Lightweight Champion Eddie Alvarez, who knocked out former champion Rafael dos Anjos in the summer to take the title. Alvarez is holding out for a big-money title fight against McGregor, the featherweight champion, which actually only further complicates the pecking order for a title shot, since McGregor adds yet another deserving title contender to a division full of them.
If not for McGregor moving up -- and it's not confirmed yet, but it seems likely that this fight will main event the UFC 205 card at Madison Square Garden in New York City -- then Khabib Nurmagomedov, who is a perfect 23-0 in his MMA career, including a 7-0 record in the UFC, would probably be next in line for the title shot. But with Alvarez holding out for McGregor, Nurmagomedov is likely going to have to either wait or take another fight to keep his spot in line.
And hey, if RDA goes in there and beats Ferguson to snap his eight-fight win streak, it would be hard to deny the former champ a rematch with Alvarez. Speaking of rematches, Donald Cerrone, who beat Alvarez in his UFC debut two years ago, has been asking for a title shot, though the UFC is denying him that fight and insisting he stay at welterweight, where he's won three in a row. Cerrone is definitely deserving of an Alvarez rematch considering he beat him, but he too is the victim of a numbers game, and oddly enough, he is probably closer to getting a welterweight title shot than a lightweight title shot.
The names listed so far are just some of the top contenders, as other top fighters like Edson Barboza, Nate Diaz, and Michael Chiesa, plus even guys like Will Brooks and Beneil Dariush, are at the top of their game right now. They are all just stuck in a really deep division, and there's only one belt to go around.
The lightweight division is chock full of deserving title contenders, but only one man can hold the belt and only one man can challenge for that belt at any current time. That means the rest of the contenders have to keep winning, and winning impressively, if they want to keep their spots in line. The division is constantly changing, and it will be interesting to see who wins the main event of UFC Fight Night 94 between Poirier and Johnson, and how the winner does so, because it affects all the other contenders in the division. But at the end of the day, the fighters can't worry about what anyone else is doing, they have to worry about their own games.
UFC Fight Night 94: Johnson vs. Poirier takes place on September 17, 2016 at State Farm Arena in Hildalgo, Texas.