UFC in 2018 Mid-Year Title Race Report Part Two: Lightweight to Middleweight

Khabib Nurmagomedov UFC
Khabib Nurmagomedov Credit: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com

We’re nearly halfway through the year, and title races in several UFC divisions are heating up. Others? Not so much. Where are the title-pictures in each of the promotion’s weight classes headed as we enter the second stanza of 2018?

Due to injuries, bad weight cuts, and more, the year has had a start-and-stop feel to the title-races in many of the promotion’s divisions. We’ve still had several title-fights, but haven’t seen any UFC championships change hands yet this year. That is likely to change at some point in 2018.

Despite the messy matchmaking, we’ve been treated to some impressive performances, fun match ups, and even some dolly-drama that still boggles the mind. Given the less-than-straightforward action atop many of the UFC’s weight classes thus far this year, what do we have to look forward to the rest of 2018?

We decided to take a look at the title-races in each and every division in the promotion, and where they could be headed during the next six months. We’ll have four parts, with a few weight classes featured in each part. For part two, we’re breaking down the title-picture for the rest of the year in the lightweight, welterweight, and middleweight divisions. You can check out part one, covering flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight, here.

Lightweight: Who The Fook is the Champ?

Although his most recent combat sports action came in a boxing ring and not the Octagon, the discussion regarding the UFC’s lightweight title picture always begins with former champion Conor McGregor. Where that conversation leads is more the mystery.

If you ask UFC President Dana White, McGregor’s next fight should be against the current champ: Khabib Nurmagomedov. That would seem to be the logical next step, but matchmaking in MMA doesn’t always follow the route that makes the most sense. Insert Georges St. Pierre? You bet.

If you ask Nurmagomedov, GSP is the fight he’d prefer next. Yeah, GSP. The former UFC welterweight and middleweight champion apparently has his sights set on a title-fight at 155-pounds, and the Russian is game. Whether or not Nurmagomedov would actually prefer St. Pierre to McGregor, should the Irishman decide to return in 2018, remains to be seen.

If those are our options, we’re going to lean toward McGregor’s return as the more likely. Don’t discount anything resembling a money-fight out of the question, though. Even with White doing his usual go-round with GSP, he seems to be an option they’re more than considering in the lightweight title picture.

Outside of those three, with former interim title-holder Tony Ferguson on the shelf for an extended period of time, a couple of other fighters have a chance at fighting for the belt before the end of 2018.

Dustin Poirier and Eddie Alvarez will compete in their long awaited rematch at UFC Calgary in late July. The winner will undoubtedly be the number one contender, outside of the unstable mess mentioned above. Both fighters have a history of putting on great fights, and are among the most successful in the promotion in recent years. Either would be easy to promote, and slide into the title-picture with ease.

As great as all of these options are, we are keeping our hopes up for Nurmagomedov-McGregor later this year. Just don’t tell the MMA Gods.

Mayweather-McGregor International Press Tour, Toronto, Budweiser Stage. Credit: Mike McClory/Cagesidepress.com

Welterweight: Dear Tyron, Please Shut Colby Up

We already know what the next title fight in the welterweight division will be. We’re just waiting on when, and it’ll probably be in 2018.

Following Colby Covington’s convincing victory over Rafael dos Anjos for the interim 170-pound belt at UFC 225, the loudmouth has secured his unification bout with champion Tyron Woodley. The trash-talking has already begun. Now that Woodley is nearing his return from a much needed shoulder surgery, hopefully the fighting happens sooner rather than later.

For the rest of the division, a title-fight in 2018 is probably not in the cards, barring a new injury to either Woodley or Covington. Right now, that’s not really a bad thing. Apart from Covington, there isn’t another clear title-contender. Some top candidates are coming off of losses, while others failed to impress in their most recent performances.

Let’s start with the latter: those who’ve won, but bored. Kamaru Usman and Darren Till earned the best victories of their careers earlier this year, over Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson respectively.

While winning is the most important aspect of the fight, entertaining fans isn’t far behind from the promotion’s perspective. Neither Usman or Till managed to do that in their main event bouts. If their next performance lacks in a similar fashion, they could find themselves getting jumped ahead of for a title shot in the near future.

After that, things get a little messy. Three of the best welterweights in the world are all coming off of losses, but each have plenty of previous title fight experience. In addition to Thompson and dos Anjos, former title-holder Robbie Lawler’s last bout was a defeat (to dos Anjos). What’s next in 2018 for each of these fighters remains to be seen, but with a win or two, seeing them fight for the belt wouldn’t be the craziest thing in MMA. Although, that’s a pretty high standard.

Middleweight: Whittaker’s World

We’ve had a couple of 185-pound title-fights in 2018, and if they’re any indicator, we want more. Robert Whittaker earned the first title defense (sort of, as the belt wasn’t on the line) of his career at UFC 225 in Chicago earlier this month, defeating Yoel Romero for the second time in 11 months. After missing weight in both of his title chances this year, and fighting for a version of the middleweight championship in each of his last three fights, it’s safe to say Romero is out of the title picture for the rest of the year.

So, who’s possibly next for Whittaker?

Not Luke Rockhold. Rockhold lost his shot against the champion after getting knocked-out by Romero at UFC 221 for the interim middleweight title. Now, it looks like he’ll be fighting at 205-pounds in his next bout.

We can count out former champ Michael Bisping, too. He retired in May, and this is one of the few MMA retirements we expect to stick. That leaves… not much. The best options? Chris Weidman and Kelvin Gastelum.

It would seem to be clear that Weidman, after defeating Gastelum via third-round submission last July, is the clear front runner. But, since that bout, it’s Gastelum who’s managed to impress. Weidman has been out for an extended period with a thumb injury, and the win over Gastelum is his last appearance. All Gastelum has done in that time is go 2-0 with wins over Bisping and Jacare Souza.

If Whittaker is out for the rest of the year with his new hand injury, then a rematch between Weidman and Gastelum (please, God, not for an interim belt) wouldn’t be out of order. It’d be weird, for sure. But at this point, there isn’t a clear number one contender in the middleweight division. Another win for either would cement their resumé enough to make a bit more sense. That doesn’t mean it’ll happen, but it’d make more sense than either getting the next shot at Whittaker over the other.

Let us know what you think about the title races in these divisions, and where you think they’re headed for the final half of the year! Comment below, on Facebook, or reply on Twitter! Don’t forget to check out the parts that follow this piece for a look at the rest of the title-pictures in each and every UFC division for the rest of 2018. Here’s part one, breaking down the flyweight, bantamweight, and featherweight divisions.