September 16, 2016

UFC Fight Night 94: Poirier Must Keep Winning To Stay Aloft In A Stacked UFC Lightweight Division

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.

With Nurmagomedov still waiting for his title shot, that means Tony Ferguson also has to wait, and unlike Nurmagomedov, who seems dead-set on holding out for a title shot (and with his injury concerns, that makes sense), Ferguson has already agreed to stay busy by taking on dos Anjos in the main event of the TUF Latin America 3 Finale this November in Mexico. Not only is a difficult stylistic matchup for Ferguson, but it's a must-win fight for "El Cucuy," who is putting his eight-fight win streak on the line against the former champ. If Ferguson wins, it's going to be difficult to deny him a title shot, but unfortunately for Ferguson, even a knockout or submission win over RDA might not be enough for him to jump past Nurmagomedov, who we shouldn't forget was the last man to beat RDA before his magical title run in April 2014. That shows how long Nurmagomedov has been waiting for a title shot, and it means Ferguson is in the same spot as Max Holloway is at featherweight, in that he's an incredibly exciting fighter who is finishing opponents at a high clip but is a victim of the numbers game.

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.

Which gets us back to Poirier. He's been amazing, but even if he finishes Johnson for his fifth straight win at 155 lbs, it's just really hard to imagine him getting anywhere close to a title shot, even if there are multiple injuries to fighters in front of him. It puts Poirier in a really tough spot, because he has to keep winning but is not getting cupcakes, as he's taking on Johnson, who is ranked #10 at lightweight by the UFC and who stylistically matches up well with Poirier. In means that Poirier is in a similar position to Ferguson in that he's finishing a lot of fights against top guys, but he's just behind in the pecking order, and to keep his spot in line he can't make one mistake. That puts a lot of pressure on a fighter, and though Poirier can handle it, MMA is a wacky sport, and one looping punch on the chin could detail his run at gold in the lightweight division. If anything, Johnson is actually in a really good spot himself, even though he lost to Dariush and Diaz in his last two fights, both because he's the underdog and has less pressure on him to win, and a victory over Poirier would steal his win streak and put him back on the map in the division.

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.

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