The Big Picture: A Motion for Meritocracy

By: Eric Stinton
Jan 27, 2021

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Dustin Poirier at the UFC 257 post-fight press conference explained his status in the Ultimate Fighting Championship’s lightweight division: “I lost to Khabib [Nurmagomedov], then I came out and put on a ‘Fight of the Year’ for you guys and got my hand raised against a Top 5 opponent after that. Then I come in here, Khabib doesn’t want to come back and I knock out one of the biggest fights you can get. Khabib reiterates he doesn’t want to fight anymore. Dude, I’m the champ.”

He has since doubled-down on this assertion, and it’s hard to argue with his point. Since 2017, Poirier has gone 7-1-1 in one of the sport’s toughest divisions. His only loss was against an all-time great in Nurmagomedov, and included in those seven wins are victories over four former UFC champions and a title contender. If Nurmagomedov is in fact done—and it looks like he is—Poirier has done more than anyone to lay claim to the division.

Being the uncrowned king of the lightweights is a dubious distinction to hold, but it’s also fitting for someone like Poirier, who has never had any favors done for him. Consider what his roads to the title have been, including the current path he’s on. Before getting his first shot at Nurmagomedov, he beat Jim Miller, Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, Eddie Alvarez and Max Holloway for the interim belt. Compare that to the five fights Nurmagomedov had leading up to his title shot against Al Iaquinta: Pat Healy, Rafael dos Anjos, Darrell Horcher, Michael Johnson and Edson Barboza.

Nurmagomedov is undoubtedly the superior fighter, but Poirier can easily claim to have had the hardest path to a lightweight title shot ever. Conor McGregor got a title shot in his lightweight debut, though it’s not for nothing that he was the featherweight champion at the time. Alvarez beat Pettis and Gilbert Melendez before getting his title shot; Dos Anjos beat Jason High, Benson Henderson and Nate Diaz to get his title shot; and Pettis beat Jeremy Stephens, Joe Lauzon and Donald Cerrone to get his.

This is not to disparage any of those runs so much as to emphasize just how much more Poirier has had to do to get the same opportunity. Even now, his two-fight streak against McGregor and Dan Hooker—who was ranked fifth and on an impressive three-fight tear of his own when they fought—is more than a lot of champions in the past did.

This puts Poirier in a strange spot. He has already handily defeated Gaethje, McGregor and Hooker. Tony Ferguson is coming off of two straight lopsided losses and is nowhere near the title; likewise, dos Anjos’ current one-win streak at lightweight puts him at least a few fights away. That accounts for the current Top 7 fighters in the UFC rankings, though they are likely to change sooner than later after UFC 257. The only real options based off competitive merit—which is not always how title shots are awarded, unfortunately—are Charles Oliveira and Michael Chandler. As impressive as Chandler looked in the UFC 257 co-main event, Poirier was rightfully dismissive of the former Bellator MMA champion: “Respect to Chandler, but fighting a new guy to the UFC—who just beat a guy who’s coming off a loss that I just beat—for the belt? That’s just not exciting to me.”

The most sensible option, though perhaps not the sexiest in terms of mainstream appeal, is Oliveira. This is the fight that needs to happen, not just because both fighters have earned it and it’s a banger of a matchup, but because it puts the division on the track that it always should have been on.

The history of the UFC lightweight title is a strange and discursive one, especially considering how deep and dynamic it has been. Chandler may have jumped to the front of the line based off of his Bellator credentials, his performance at UFC 257 and his post-fight promo, but how nice would it be to simply see the fighters who have consistently put in work get rewarded for their efforts? Oliveira debuted in the UFC in 2010—about two weeks before Poirier debuted in World Extreme Cagefighting—and has quietly fought top-shelf competition ever since. Plus, it’s not like it would be a snooze of a fight, either. Both Poirier and Oliveira are in the Top 10 for the most finishes in the history of the lightweight division.

Luckily, Poirier doesn’t need convincing: “I’ve been watching [Oliveira] for 10 years in the UFC. In two different weight classes, he’s fought the best of the best over and over again, and he’s been knocked down and got up time and time again. He’s proven himself, and he’s proven what mixed martial arts and what perseverance and what believing in yourself is. I respect that.”

So do we, Dustin. I know it’s wishful thinking to hope the UFC makes this fight. A Poirer-McGregor rubber match for the title would be a significantly bigger attraction, and there’s good reason to give Chandler the shot based on his overall career accomplishments and the fact that, at 34 years old, he may be on the wrong side of his prime.

Still, Poirer and Oliveira have put in more work than just about anyone else in the division, and at some point, there has to be some meritocratic reward for that. In a weight class as stacked as lightweight, it really is as simple as having the best fight the best.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at Advertisement
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