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1. Khabib Nurmagomedov (29-0) Maybe 30-0 won’t become a reality, but Nurmagomedov put about a perfect a stamp as one could on his mixed martial arts career with a second-round submission of Justin Gaethje in the UFC 254 headliner on Oct. 24. “The Eagle” withstood some heavy artillery from his opponent — including some powerful low kicks — while continuing to apply constant pressure. Eventually, Gaethje wilted on the canvas, as Nurmagomedov choked him unconscious at the 1:34 mark of Round 2. In the aftermath, Nurmagomedov announced his retirement, leaving behind a legacy that includes a 13-0 UFC mark and a record-tying four championship victories in the brutal lightweight division.
2. Dustin Poirier (26-6, 1 NC) Coming off a disappointing loss to Khabib Nurmagomedov in a 155-pound title bout at UFC 242 last September, Poirier displayed his championship mettle against Dan Hooker in the UFC on ESPN 12 main event. “The Diamond” dropped the first two rounds to his Kiwi opponent before picking up the pace down the stretch to earn a thoroughly entertaining unanimous decision at the UFC Apex in Las Vegas. Poirier has won five of his last six Octagon appearances and remains a dangerous force at the top of the division. An attempt to book Poirier against Tony Ferguson at UFC 254 ultimately fell flat at the negotiating table, and now the promotion has reportedly offered the American Top Team product a rematch with Conor McGregor.
3. Justin Gaethje (22-3) Gaethje attacked as best he could against Khabib Nurmagomedov, but he was no match for “The Eagle” on the ground. Although the former World Series of Fighting title holder had some success on the feet, particularly with low kicks, the grappling exchanges were another matter entirely, as Gaethje fell victim to a triangle choke 1:34 into Round 2 of the UFC 254 headliner at the Flash Forum in Abu Dhabi on Oct. 24. While Gaethje had a four-bout winning streak snapped, he remains very much in the 155-pound title picture following Nurmagomedov’s retirement.
4. Tony Ferguson (25-4) It had been a long time since Ferguson had tasted defeat in the Octagon, but Justin Gaethje made “El Cucuy” look average in the UFC 249 headliner. Ferguson was battered for the majority of five rounds before one final Gaethje jab brought a halt to the contest at the 3:39 mark of the final frame to claim the interim lightweight belt. Not only did the Californian’s 12-bout winning streak come to an end, but the loss might have closed the book on the long-running Ferguson-Khabib Nurmagomedov saga, a fight that was canceled on five different occasions. A proposed matchup with Dustin Poirier at UFC 254 didn’t come to fruition when the promotion couldn’t come to terms with Poirier.
5. Charles Oliveira (29-8, 1 NC) Oliveira can no longer be ignored as a serious threat in the UFC’s lightweight division. “Do Bronx” earned his seventh consecutive victory – and finish – at UFC Fight Night 170, as he submitted former interim title challenger Kevin Lee with a guillotine choke in the third round of the evening’s main event. The promotion’s all-time submission leader has come a long way since his Octagon debut in 2010, and he could be on the verge of even bigger things in the very near future. A proposed clash with Beneil Dariush at UFC on ESPN 16 fizzled when Dariush was forced to withdraw from the bout.
6. Dan Hooker (20-9) Hooker took it to Dustin Poirier for the opening 10 minutes of the UFC on ESPN 12 main event, attacking with a multi-faceted arsenal that had the former interim champion reeling near the end of Round 2. While Poirier ultimately survived, Hooker faded down the stretch to lose a unanimous decision in a contest that will wind up on more than a few “Fight of the Year” lists. Hooker, who had designs on challenging for lightweight gold, had a three-bout winning streak snapped in defeat.
7. Kevin Lee (18-6) Not only did Lee miss weight ahead of his UFC Fight Night 170 headlining bout against Charles Oliveira, but he faltered in the Octagon as well, falling to “Do Bronx” via third-round submission in Brasilia, Brasil. “The Motown Phenom” appeared to be revitalized after a head kick knockout of Gregor Gillespie at UFC 244, but there is no ignoring the fact that the interim title challenger has dropped three of his last four promotional appearances.
8. Paul Felder (17-5) Felder’s split-decision loss to Dan Hooker in the UFC Auckland headliner was such a grueling defeat that “The Irish Dragon” was left to contemplate the end of his mixed martial arts career in the immediate aftermath. Regardless of whether retirement is in the cards for Felder, the Roufusport product could have very easily emerged on the other side of the judges’ scorecards on Feb. 22, and more than a few observers scored it in favor of the part-time UFC analyst. Assuming he sticks around, Felder has still won five of his last seven bouts and remains a sure bet for action if he’s on the card.
9. Donald Cerrone (36-15-1) Cerrone battled Niko Price to a majority draw in the UFC Fight Night 178 co-main event on Sept. 19, but “Cowboy” was far from pleased with his performance, saying it felt like his fifth consecutive defeat inside the Octagon. Though the record book indicates differently, the BMF Ranch founder is nonetheless winless in his last five promotional appearances and hasn’t tasted victory since besting Al Iaquinta in May 2019. While UFC president Dana White wants to have a conversation with Cerrone about retirement, the popular veteran has vowed to soldier onward after a few months off.
10. Edson Barboza (21-9) After a near-miss against Dan Ige in his featherweight debut, Barboza was far more decisive in his sophomore 145-pound outing, taking a clear-cut unanimous verdict over Makwan Amirkhani at UFC Fight Night 179 in Abu Dhabi. Barboza looked as explosive as ever with his striking, as he floored Amirkhani twice in a dominant second frame while halting a three-bout losing streak.
Other Contenders: Gregor Gillespie, Al Iaquinta, Islam Makhachev, Patricio Freire, Diego Ferreira.
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