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Fortunes changed for five at UFC on FOX 29

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Dustin Poirier defeated Justin Gaethje at UFC on FOX 29.
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

No matter how much he does what would get anyone else a one-way ticket out of the sport, Conor McGregor, remains front and center in regards to all decision-making in the UFC’s deepest division.

On Saturday, when Dustin Poirier (23-5, 1 no contest) overcame the low-kicking game of Justin Gaethje (18-2) to finish him with big punches early in round four, Poirier overcame a leg that was a mess, and in doing so, the immediate talk was where Poirier stands when it comes to the title picture.

UFC president Dana White gave him the endorsement of being a top contender. But for every top lightweight, they can’t make a deal until the dealer, McGregor, calls in his cards.

If McGregor really wants champion Khabib Nurmagomedov (26-0) next, nothing will stand in the way of making that fight. He says he does, but he says a lot of things. If he doesn’t, then things get more tricky. The logical top contender is Tony Ferguson (23-3). But White has claimed he’s not going to try and make that fight since it has now fallen apart four times. It’s gotten to that point that even someone who doesn’t buy that the supernatural exists would still figure there’s a curse on it ever happening.

At that point, Poirier or Eddie Alvarez would join Ferguson in the title picture. Poirier has gone 7-1, with a no-contest vs. Alvarez, since moving up from featherweight three years ago. Alvarez is 4-2 since coming to UFC from Bellator, but is a former champion. They had a fight that ended in a no-contest, and Poirier claims Alvarez has continually turned down the rematch.

The problem is until McGregor makes his move, the matchmaking for anyone who could be considered for a title match now — like Poirier, Ferguson, and Alvarez — would be on hold.

The good part is, no matter what McGregor does, with fighters like Nurmagomedov, Poirier, Gaethje, Ferguson, Edson Barboza and Kevin Lee, there are a multitude of options at the top. Almost every matchmaking decision will end up with several main events that look great on paper.

Another piece of the puzzle falls this coming Saturday when Barboza (19-5) faces Lee (16-3) in the main event from Atlantic City, N.J. Both are coming off losses, Lee to Ferguson and Barboza to Nurmagomedov. The winner isn’t likely to challenge for the title right away, but of the potential challengers, there are odd men out who could easily face the winner.

So let’s break down fortunes changing for five from Saturday and try and lay out potential next matchmaking.

DUSTIN POIRIER If we go with the idea that McGregor is getting the next title shot, then Poirier vs. Ferguson makes for a great top contenders fight in more ways than one. It’s not only a viable fight that could headline on FOX or be a strong support fight on a pay-per-view, but it would match up two fighters who have great track records of providing the most exciting fights around.

JUSTIN GAETHJE Gaethje has had three fights in the UFC. All three were Fight of the Year candidates. That’s the good side.

The bad side is that he’s 1-2 in those fights, suffering both losses via stoppage. Worse, between those fights, and the wars he fought with Luis Palomino and others before UFC, and the question is if, at 29, the cumulative damage of those fights will keep him from ever reaching the top rung.

Logical matchmaking would seem to indicate the loser of this coming Saturday’s Barboza vs. Lee fight would make a great opponent. But if McGregor is out of the picture and Poirier goes with Nurmagomedov, I’d go unconventional with Gaethje vs. Ferguson. Yes, Gaethje has lost two in a row and Ferguson has won his last 10. But Ferguson vs. Gaethje would be a heavily anticipated fight that would be expected to deliver another Fight of the Year candidate.

ALEX OLIVEIRA Oliveira (18-4-1, 2 no contests) submitted Carlos Condit (30-12) in the second round, coming back from a first round where Condit had him in a lot of trouble.

The win should get Oliveria a major name, and Robbie Lawler (28-12) would be a big one. Once again, it’s a viable fight that looks great on paper.

ISRAEL ADESANYA Adesanya (13-0) showed an apparent hole in his game on Saturday, as he had trouble getting back up after being taken down by Marvin Vettori in round three. But he still got a split decision win.

What looks like both a test and also someone aggressive enough to bring the fight to Adesanya would be Eryk Anders (10-1), who is coming off a competitive loss to Lyoto Machida.

MICHELLE WATERSON Waterson (15-6) scored a split-decision win over Cortney Casey (7-6).

While Waterson won, and notably won the first two rounds implementing a wrestling-based game with takedowns, there was a clear reality watching the fight: Casey looked one, perhaps even two weight divisions bigger.

It’s a credit to Waterson that she’s gone 3-2 in UFC while being greatly outsized in every fight. Until the UFC implements an atomweight division, Waterson’s prospects are limited. Her possible next opponent could be Felice Herrig (14-7) or Cynthia Calvillo (6-1).