On Sunday, Islam Makhachev successfully defended his lightweight title against Alexander Volkanovski, the UFC’s No 1 pound-for-pound male athlete, at UFC 284 in Perth to most likely usurp his rival in the overall rankings.
Makhachev, who claimed the belt for the first time in Abu Dhabi last October, defeated the featherweight champion by unanimous decision, extending his win streak to 12 – the longest active winning run in the UFC – and inflicting Volkanovski’s first loss in 23 bouts.
Makhachev, 31, is now expected to take off an extended period of time, which includes observing the Holy Month of Ramadan, before he returns to the octagon later this year.
For his comeback, the Dagestan native should have no shortage of willing opponents. Here we take a look at which fighter Makhachev could face next.
If anyone deserves the title shot, it’s surely Dariush. The division’s No 4-ranked contender rides an eight-fight win streak – his most recent victory came in Abu Dhabi in October – and was unlucky with an untimely injury last year that derailed his bid for gold.
Certainly, he has the wrestling, striking and submission skills to make this a great match-up. The UFC are apparently working on Dariush against former champion Charles Oliveira for May, although that is yet to be confirmed. Could they be tempted to go straight to Makhachev-Dariush this summer instead?
The last man to hold the belt before Makhachev, the Brazilian remains a plausible next opponent despite his loss to the champion in Abu Dhabi in October. The second-round submission defeat at Etihad Arena snapped Oliveira’s 11-fight win streak, when Makhachev dominated from the off, but the former later said he simply had a rare off night.
If Dariush doesn’t happen, or Oliveira wins their touted match-up in May, then the No 1-ranked challenger at lightweight has genuine claim for the almost-immediate chance at redemption.
The division’s No 2-ranked contender has fought twice for the title in the past two-and-half years, and come up short in both. However, given his CV (29-7 in pro MMA, former interim champion), standing, and the fact he’s coming off a huge win against Michael Chandler, Poirier will always be in the conversation.
The American remains a marquee name in the sport, not just at lightweight. And, having failed in his long-held attempt for undisputed against Khabib Nurmagomedov, Makhahcev’s teammate and close friend, in Abu Dhabi there’s a clear storyline there.
On Sunday, not long after a first defeat in close to a decade, the Australian tweeted that he had watched back the bout – and thought he definitely won. Without doubt, Volkanovski pushed the lightweight champion to the brink, with Makhachev conceding it represented the greatest test to date of his 25-fight pro career.
And, although Volkanovski will return to featherweight to defend his crown, he probably still offers Makhachev his sternest challenge going forward at 155lbs. This, though, may be one for further down the line.
Justin Gaethje/Rafael Fiziev
OK, this sits as the least likely of the options for now, but the winner of the highly anticipated bout at UFC 286 in London would still vault towards title contention.
For sure, the match-up between former interim champion Gaethje and the surging Fiziev (six-fight win streak) promises fireworks, pitting against one another the No 3- and No 6-ranked lightweight contenders. Victory would conceivably push either to just behind Dariush-Oliveira in the line for a shot at gold. For Gaethje, could another bid for the belt prove third time lucky?