Predicting 2019 for UFC’s lightweight “shark tank” division

Lightweight is the most exciting and stacked division in the UFC.

That makes it even more frustrating at how slowly things are moving.

Champion Khabib Nurmagomedov will go nearly 12 months before he defends his title. Conor McGregor was aiming for a summer return before recently “retiring” for the second time, while Tony Ferguson is dealing with fallout related to several domestic disturbances with his wife.

An interim lightweight title fight will take place this month at UFC 236 when Max Holloway takes on Dustin Poirier, and it should get things moving.

Let’s predict how the 155-pound division plays out in 2019.

Who will face Khabib?

The winner of Holloway-Poirier probably will face Nurmagomedov in a title unification fight sometime this fall.

But given the money behind a potential Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor rematch, there’s at least some question as to whether the winner of this fight will face Nurmagomedov immediately.

Perhaps McGregor would get a rematch if this were two years ago when he was the double champ, not coming off back-to-back losses.

Either Holloway or Poirier would make for an exciting match against Nurmagomedov. Oddsmakers list Holloway as a -230 favorite over Poirier, and I expect Holloway to win.

Nurmagomedov-Holloway as early as September seems like the most likely title defense.

Al Iaquinta vs. Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone

The other high-profile lightweight bout already booked is a main event between No. 4 Al Iaquinta and No. 7 Donald “Cowboy” Cerrone. A win could particularly elevate Cerrone in the rankings, and the winner of this fight could be next in line for a title shot after Nurmagomedov vs. the Holloway/Poirier winner.

Per OddsShark, oddsmakers list this as nearly a pick’em fight (Iaquinta is -120, Cerrone is -110). While Cerrone is enjoying a renaissance, he hasn’t faced a high-level heavy hitter such as Iaquinta in recent times. Expect the New Yorker to win and stake a claim for the title.

Who does Justin Gaethje fight?

Justin Gaethje recently delivered a huge knockout win over Edson Barboza. He’s fifth in the lightweight rankings. He’ll want a fight that guarantees a title shot if he wins, or at least one that will move him further up the rankings.

It would make sense for him to face Poirier and avenge his loss to “The Diamond” from last year. Another option could be the winner of Iaquinta vs. Cerrone.

One wild-card option could be a fight against the No. 1-ranked Ferguson, which most MMA fans would agree would guarantee violence and a Fight of the Year candidate. The winner of such a bout would have a huge claim at getting the next title shot, but even setting up the fight depends on if and when Ferguson becomes eligible to return to the octagon.

Conor McGregor vs. Nate Diaz trilogy

McGregor has said he’s willing to fight someone else before getting a Nurmagomedov rematch. However, he’s also trash-talked Nurmagomedov repeatedly in an attempt to build up a rematch, while also “retiring” for the second time.

The first time he retired was before his second fight with Nate Diaz in 2016, and as coincidental as it may be, a trilogy fight is possible. A big win for McGregor or Diaz against each other could be enough to get the next shot at the winner of Nurmagomedov vs. Holloway or Poirier.

The only obstacle is getting them in the octagon.

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