Who deserves the next lightweight title shot, Gaethje or Makhachev?

Justin Gaethje guarantees wild entertainment and threatened to RIOT if his title claims are ignored… but Islam Makhachev has been mauling rivals for fun on a nine-fight win streak – so who deserves the next shot?

  • Justin Gaethje delivered brilliant performance to defeat Michael Chandler
  • Prior to his UFC 268 win he said he would ‘riot’ if he misses out on a title shot
  • Islam Makhachev is other contender to face Charles Oliveira or Dustin Poirier 
  • So which of the lightweights will be given the nod by Dana White? 

Justin Gaethje warned that he would ‘riot’ if he misses out on a title shot next – and that was before he delivered a brutal, brilliant display to beat Michael Chandler. 

The American banished the ghost of Khabib Nurmagomedov by finally stepping back into the octagon and putting his name right back in the frame. 

UFC 268’s curtain-raiser on the main card was always going to be full of thrills and spills but Gaethje may have even exceeded expectations with a wildly entertaining combination of heart and technique. 

Islam Makhachev (left) and Justin Gaethje both have legitimate claims for the next title shot 

Lightweight champion Charles Oliveira is taking on Dustin Poirier on December 11 and the victor will surely face either Gaethje or Islam Makhachev next. 

Both men have legitimate claims but only one will be given the nod from the UFC.

So who is more deserving of the next opportunity? Here, Sportsmail assesses the arguments for both men.  

Charles Oliveira (L) and Dustin Poirier (R) fight for the belt on December 11 


Recent record

This is the weakest argument for the American. It had been more than a year between his failed title shot against Khabib and Saturday’s victory. 

The Dagestani blew him away with a second-round finish and few predicted the man who retired as pound-for-pound No 1 would brush Gaethje aside in the manner he did. 

In normal circumstances, it would take more than just one win to earn another opportunity. But the fact that Khabib retired does inevitably change things. 

There was a power vacuum and the lightweight division is only just coming through an uncertain 12 months. 

Gaethje was superb in a battle of skill and will against Michael Chandler at UFC 268

Dustin Poirier turned down a title shot, Charles Oliveira won the vacant belt and in the eyes of many, a true champion will only be crowned when they meet on December 11. 

Gaethje may have only fought once since last October but Chandler came in fully motivated, prepared and chucked the kitchen sink at his countryman.

There’s no doubting he is top competition and it was a statement win, even without a finish.

What has he said? 

Before Saturday’s win, Gaethje claimed: ‘Absolutely it does (get me a title shot). If not, we riot… If I win Saturday and I don’t get a shot, I riot. Like, there’s no way I can let that happen and go away quiet.

‘I know a lot of people just call me a little b**** for whining but I don’t know. I guess I just sit back, let my manager do what he’s supposed to do and make the right thing happen. 

‘It kind of threw things into the loop when Khabib retired. I waited for someone to fight, there was no fights available up until this point, and this is the perfect fight to get me right in that picture.’

The American failed to find a finish against Chandler but it was still a great performance 

And in the wake of his win, he added: ‘Hopefully it’s [Charles] Oliveira down in Brazil or Poirier in Louisiana, I don’t give a f***. I’m ranked No 2 . I just got an impressive win. Of course, who else?’

Well, he knows exactly who else it might be. And he even addressed the point, arguing Makhachev’s win over Dan Hooker was not as impressive as it seemed. 

‘He’s lost four out of his last five I believe, Hooker’, said Gaethje. ‘It was a late replacement fight. It’s not like he trained for that fight. He (Makhachev) still has not fought a top-calibre fighter in the UFC. That’s my mindset.’

Pay-per-view lure

There’s a reason Gaethje is nicknamed ‘The Highlight’. He is never in a dull fight and seven of his eight fights in the UFC have earned either Fight of the Night or Performance of the Night bonuses.

He is confident enough on the mic but the real selling point is his history of absolute wars. 

Gaethje takes exception to being called a wild or chaotic fighter and believes he is far more tactically astute than fans give him credit for. 

Gaethje had been out of action since losing against Khabib Nurmagomedov last year

He marches forwards, lands brutal leg kicks and slowly tries to hammer his way to victory on the feet despite his collegiate wrestling background.

There’s a reason the UFC opted to open the main card on Saturday with Gaethje vs Chandler, which the fighters themselves dubbed the ‘people’s main event’. 

A clash between him and Oliveira would inevitably sell well.

Match-up on paper

As a spectacle, Gaethje matches up well with almost anyone. His defensive wrestling is sensational, meaning he can force opponents to stay in his world on the feet. 

Charles Oliveira is a jiu-jitsu genius but would have real issues taking Gaethje down and while the Brazilian has much-improved stand up skills, it would seem to favour the American on paper. 

Poirier is incredibly well-rounded and crucially already has a KO win against Gaethje on his record from three years ago. 

Would there be an appetite to see a rematch or are fans and the UFC chasing a new narrative with the emerging Russian superstar?

Dustin Poirier has already beaten Justin Gaethje by knockout in the octagon 


Recent record

The man labelled ‘Khabib’s protege’ is really coming out of the former champion’s shadow now. 

The win against Hooker was his ninth in succession, a consistency that is very difficult to argue against. 

One criticism levelled against the Dagestani is the calibre of opponent he has faced. Most of the time, this has been because the top lightweights are avoiding him, nevertheless it is a valid point. 

Hooker is by far the highest quality opponent he has faced and he dealt with him easily, finishing a man Poirier went the distance with. 

Is one fight against a top-15 opponent enough to justify a title shot? One more against a high-ranked fighter would advance his case.

Islam Makhachev earned the biggest win of his career with the submission of Dan Hooker

What’s been said? 

In the immediate aftermath of the UFC 267 win, the Russian argued: ‘Next fight, it has to be for the title, or a contender fight, because I have a nine-fight winning streak. ‘Who in my division has this? Just the champion. 

Dana White is of the opinion that Makhachev is not quite there yet, saying after his win over Hooker: ‘Yeah, he’s ready for somebody in the top 5 – top 5, top 3, whatever becomes available. And then obviously, if he gets through that, he’s in line for a title shot.

But Makhachev says he would breath new life into a division where many of the top fighters have already fought. 

Makhachev has been mauling his opponents and looks every inch the future champion 

‘And I feel my division is a little bit asleep right now,’ he added. I have to wake up my division, because we have to change some things. 

‘The old guys from the top-five, they’ve already fought for the title – [Michael] Chandler, [Justin] Gaethje. That’s why we have to change something.’

And the UFC president admitted: ‘Yeah, he’s not wrong about that. And you never know how this is gonna play out. You never know who’s gonna get injured, who’s fighting who, who’s gonna lose, who can’t fight on such and such a date. Anything’s possible.’

Pay-per-view lure – 

On the one hand, Makhachev is not the wildly charismatic leading man the UFC would like him to be despite his performance on the mic two weeks ago being his best effort yet. 

The Dagestani fighters do not tend to be natural showmen and lives their lives by strict social and religious codes, putting humility high up on the agenda. 

So as a marketer, Makhachev leaves plenty to be desired and Gaethje has the edge here. 

The Dagestani is improving on the microphone and can be a favourite in the middle east 

But in terms of global interest, Russia and the middle east can back him in the same manner in which they fell for Khabib. 

Given Khabib’s ongoing influence as a coach and mentor – support for Makhachev is by extension seen as support for Khabib and to have another Muslim fighter vying for a title would be a huge boost for that community. 

The UFC already have a strong relationship with Abu Dhabi and having Makchachev continue to unlock that lucrative market will appeal to the company’s paymasters. 

Match-ups on paper

Here’s where the UFC might steer away from Makhachev for the time being. As entertaining as it can be to watch a world class grappler maul their way to victory, as Khabib did so effectively, casual fans prefer a stand up fight. 

Makhachev has more polished striking than Khabib but ultimately if he comes up against Poirier or Oliveira, he will be looking to impose himself on the ground. 

Khabib found success with exactly that gameplan against Poirier in Abu Dhabi but it would be trickier for Makhachev against Oliveira. 

Even off his back, the Brazilian is incredibly dangerous and can find a submission out of nowhere. 

If they were to fight for the belt, it would be one of the purists but arguably the least marketable match-up of all the options.  

Makhachev’s aggressive wrestling will cause issues for any of the top lightweights 


Perhaps this is recency bias but Gaethje has mixed it with the very best and underlined his status as the top contender with the Chandler win. 

He guarantees excitement, is a banker for pay-per-view numbers and matches up well with both Poirier and Oliveira.

Makhachev is on a phenomenal run but White’s assessment that one more top level fight is needed certainly makes sense. 

Gaethje and Makhachev both have strong cases for the next title shot and it seems inevitable that they will meet somewhere along the line – perhaps it could even be an eliminator early next year…

Gaethje may have only won a single fight since losing to Khabib Nurmagomedov but the former champion’s retirement changes the picture 

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