3 possible next opponents for Islam Makhachev

Islam Makhachev successfully defended his title again ... who should be next for the lightweight champion?
UFC 302: Makhachev v Poirier
UFC 302: Makhachev v Poirier / Luke Hales/GettyImages

Islam Makhachev (26-1) successfully defended his lightweight title in the UFC 302 main event by submitting Dustin Poirier (30-9)(1) in the fifth and final round of their highly anticipated clash. Makhachev battled adversity, had many of his takedown attempts stuffed, and sustained a gash on his forehead from one of Poirier's elbows. His performance solidified his championship merit and his claim as one of the best.

Makhachev has defended his lightweight crown three times and extended his UFC winning streak to 14 straight. The fact Poirier dealt Makhachev such issues and that Makhachev battled through it only further proves what a valiant champion he is.

Many options await Makhachev when he is ready to return to the Octagon. He is not only at the tip of every top lightweight's tongue but is making a case that he deserves to move up to welterweight and challenge for double-champ status. Makhachev's dominance makes it so he has a strong chance against any opponent, even those in higher-weight classes.

Let's examine three possibilities for Makhachev, from his most likely next challenger to a potential super fight should circumstances sway matchmakers toward that outcome.

1. Arman Tsarukyan

Arman Tsarukyan (22-3) is the No. 1 ranked lightweight contender. He and Makhachev also have a history together as Tsarukyan battled him on short notice for his UFC debut in 2019. Despite losing, Tsarukyan gave Makhachev one of his most challenging matches up to that point. Tsarukyan held his own against Makhachev's wrestling, forced scrambles, and took the fight to a decision.

Since then, Tsarukyan has won nine of his last ten fights, defeating top contenders like Beneil Dariush (22-6-1) and former lightweight champion Charles Oliveira (34-10)(1) along the way. His only misstep was a close loss to Mateusz Gamrot (24-2)(1) in 2022. Besides that hiccup, Tsarukyan has performed well and has made his case for a future title opportunity.

Tsarukyan has consistently called for a rematch with Makhachev and doubled down on his callout after his most recent victory against Oliveira at UFC 300. When Joe Rogan asked him what his next move was in his post-fight interview, Tsarukyan said, "I want to fight for the title next." He doubled down on this sentiment later on stating about Makhachev, "I gave him the toughest fight. And I believe in myself and next fight I'll win."

Makhachev hasn't seemed interested in taking rematches and seems to have his sights set on moving up in weight. However, when Makhachev was asked in his post-fight press conference about the prospect of fighting Tsarukyan he said, "I need some new challenge, but if Dana wants it, let's do it."

Dana White seemed interested in rematching Makhachev and Tsarukyan in his post-fight press conference. He said, "I mean, that's the fight to make. I wouldn't even think about moving up till he (Makhachev) had that fight."

Despite Makhachev's dominance, Tsarukyan has made a strong case for himself and seems to have the necessary momentum to swing a title opportunity. Since White thinks it's a great fight to make, these two will likely meet in the Octagon again sooner rather than later.

2. Leon Edwards

Leon Edwards (22-3)(1) is the UFC welterweight champion and one of the greatest fighters today. He has made two successful title defenses and is scheduled to rematch Belal Muhammad (23-3)(1) at UFC 304. Edwards not only has a target on his back when it comes to his own division's contenders, but Makhachev has repeatedly called for a matchup with him while making his case for double-champ status.

Makhachev made his intentions to pursue the welterweight title known immediately after beating Poirier. He stated in his post-fight Octagon interview, "It's my dream. I want to fight for the second belt. I want to feel that energy. Because when you defend your belt, it's not the same. I need a new one."

The desire for fresh challenges has been a major theme for Makhachev. He seems interested in securing his legacy as one of the best and gaining a second title goes a long way in asserting his status.

Rumors swirled that Makhachev and Edwards possibly could have been the UFC 300 main event but this fight never came to fruition. A matchup still seems possible if both men successfully defend their titles against their next opponents. It would be interesting if Makhachev could assert his grappling against Edwards, or if the latter could hold him at distance and pick him apart. This is an intriguing potential fight. As each man runs through his respective division, it becomes more of a possibility.

3. Max Holloway

Former featherweight champion and current BMF belt holder Max Holloway (26-7) set the MMA world ablaze with his buzzer-beater knockout of Justin Gaethje (25-5) at UFC 300. He proved himself a viable contender at lightweight and currently holds the division's No. 9 ranking. He currently seems poised to challenge current featherweight king Ilia Topuria (15-0), but has leverage to be a title challenger at lightweight as well.

Holloway seemed open to a potential fight with Makhachev and even called him out in his UFC 300 post-fight interview stating, "Even Islam. Islam is famous for defending against 45'ers, right?" Of course, this references Makhachev's history with former featherweight champion Alexander Volkanovski (26-4).

Though this may not be the next fight for either man, it remains possible considering how fast plans pivot due to fighter injuries or promotional needs. Given the fact that Holloway and Makhachev are two of the biggest fighters on the current roster, matching them up would garner interest and possibly provide Makhachev with one of his most competitive lightweight opponents.

Holloway is as good a striker as Makhachev has ever been matched up with. On the other side of the equation, Makhachev is likely the most smothering grappler Holloway could face. It would be an intriguing stylistic clash between two of the best fighters working today and a promotional powerhouse. Both men have built stellar resumes to this point and a fight of this magnitude could further solidify their legacies.


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