UFC 302 takeaways: Makhachev eyes double champ, legacy beyond Khabib

A 12-fight UFC 302 card in Newark, New Jersey, was headlined by a riveting title fight performance from Islam Makhachev and Dustin Poirier. In the co-main event, Sean Strickland reminded the world that he’s still one of the best middleweights in the sport. But what’s next for the top stars after Saturday’s card? Andreas Hale and Brett Okamoto offer their final thoughts from New Jersey.

Makhachev successfully defended his UFC lightweight championship with a fifth-round submission against Poirier, but it was arguably the most difficult challenge of his UFC tenure. Poirier proved to be more than a formidable opponent, who showed a steely resolve as he routinely found himself in disadvantageous positions throughout the night. However, unlike his third-round submission loss to Makhachev’s mentor, Khabib Nurmagomedov, Poirier seemed to learn from his mistakes and find a way out of trouble.

But there’s a reason why Makhachev is currently the UFC’s No. 1 pound-for-pound fighter, with some believing that he is an improved version of Nurmagomedov, and he put it on full display by opening his entire toolbox to finally get the finish in the final round.

As impressive as Poirier’s resolve was, Makhachev’s diligence to get the finish may have been even more spectacular as he refused to allow the fight to reach the scorecards. He just had to get creative to get it done. Makhachev tried everything from rear-naked chokes to kimuras early on. Still, Poirier continued to find ways to fight his way out, even managing to stuff multiple takedowns and pull himself off the canvas when the champion grounded him. In a bit of a scramble, Makhachev went for an ankle pick and beautifully used it to open up Poirier’s neck for the finishing sequence that saw him secure the choke.

It was a brilliant performance by Makhachev, who had to fight Poirier (and an extremely pro-Poirier crowd) to pick up his UFC lightweight division-leading 13th consecutive win. While he could defend his title against top contender Arman Tsarukyan, Makhachev is more interested in moving to welterweight.

“It’s my dream. I want to fight for the second belt,” Makhachev said. “I want to feel that energy again because when you defend your belt, it’s not same. I need a new one.”

Makhachev is beginning to escape from the shadow of Nurmagomedov, and a world title in a second weight class would do the trick. With his fourth title defense, he’s also tied his mentor, along with BJ Penn and Benson Henderson, for the most title fight wins in lightweight division history.

At 32 years old and showing no signs of slowing down, there is a distinct possibility that Makhachev can surpass Nurmagomedov should he continue to stay active.

As for Poirier, his future is in question as he’s fallen short for a third time, challenging for undisputed UFC gold.

“I know I could compete with the best of these guys,” Poirier said. “It’s just like if I do fight again, what am I fighting for? Just to fight? I’ve done that 50 times. I don’t know. I got a little girl I love and I got to see. I think this could be it.”

Poirier is arguably the greatest UFC fighter to never win the undisputed championship, and judging by his performance against Makhachev, he appears to have more to give. The question is whether or not he’s interested in making that climb to a championship fight one more time.

If it’s any consolation, Makhachev recognizes Poirier’s talent.

“His coach is working very well and he prepare very good,” Makhachev said. “He defends my takedown and gave me a hard time. He’s a champion, legend of this sport. Thank you, Dustin.”

Poirier clarified that he’ll need to take some time before deciding if this will be his last fight. While he only wants to become a champion, he also stated that he’s not sure what he will do without fighting. If a UFC undisputed title isn’t in his immediate future, a third fight with Max Holloway for the BMF title could ease the pain of his championship loss.

Only Poirier can decide his next step. Either way, fight fans will certainly be pleased if they see him step into the Octagon again. — Andreas Hale

Okamoto on what’s next for top stars after UFC 302

Islam Makhachev, lightweight champion

What should be next: Arman Tsarukyan

Makhachev’s build to possibly the greatest lightweight of all time continues. His next challenge is essentially set. The UFC offered this opportunity in Newark to Tsarukyan first, after he beat Charles Oliveira at UFC 300. He wanted a rest and a full camp, for which no one can blame him. Makhachev beat Tsarukyan in 2019, but it was Tsarukyan’s UFC debut, and he gave Makhachev one of the closest fights of his career. This might not have the same blockbuster appeal of a fight against Poirier, but this should be a sensational 155-pound title fight.

Wild card: Leon Edwards at welterweight

Makhachev desperately wants an opportunity to become a two-weight champ. It’s what he wants most, frankly. I don’t see the UFC booking it in the near future, as both champions still have work to do. But we’re not that far away from it possibly becoming a reality.

Sean Strickland, middleweight

What should be next: Winner of Dricus Du Plessis vs. Israel Adesanya

It’s not official, but the expectation is that Du Plessis will defend his title against Adesanya in August when the UFC visits Australia. Strickland has plenty of history with both. He famously upset Adesanya to win the championship in September, before surrendering the belt to Du Plessis in his first title defense in January. Strickland believed he won that fight, which officially went to Du Plessis via split decision. The only caveat in this plan is Khamzat Chimaev, who faces former champion Robert Whittaker later this month. I have campaigned for a Khamzat title fight for a while now, because it’s simply time to see it. It’s overdue. But in this case, Strickland is the most deserving, regardless of what happens with Chimaev. And Chimaev isn’t exactly active anyway, so who’s to say he can’t wait for his shot after Strickland has his?

Wild card: Winner of Whittaker vs. Chimaev on June 22

That Du Plessis-Adesanya title fight is still a few months away. It wouldn’t be shocking if the UFC looked to set up a No. 1 contender fight before booking one of these two straight to a title. I prefer to see Strickland wait, but this matchup would also be great.

Paulo Costa, middleweight

What should be next: Loser of Du Plessis vs. Adesanya

Costa has proved he can be competitive at the top, and he’s proved he can be a name. His popularity has grown in recent years, despite dropping his biggest fights. Stylistically, either of these matchups would be great. And if it were to be Adesanya, there would be plenty of storylines to sell after the way Adesanya humiliated Costa in 2020.

Wild card: Chimaev

If Chimaev loses to Whittaker on June 22, or even if he wins and the UFC wants to set him up with a nontitle fight, don’t be surprised if the UFC revisits this matchup. It was booked last year, but Costa was forced to pull out due to injury.

Kevin Holland, middleweight

What should be next: Neil Magny

Holland has wanted to fight Magny for a while, and he brought up Magny’s name again to me during fight week. He told me he never turned down a Nick Diaz fight. He wanted to fight at UFC 302, win and have the UFC announce his Diaz fight by the night’s end. UFC went another direction with Diaz, but Holland truly doesn’t care. He just wants to fight frequently, as we all know. Magny is the same way. Frankly, it’s a fight I’m shocked hasn’t happened yet, given how active these two are. Might as well do it now. Book it for any event needing a little fun, and this will do the trick.

Wild card: Caio Borralho

This just seems like a supremely fun fight to me. Borralho is starting to gain notoriety with a 16-1 record and a knockout win over Paul Craig his last time out. Both of these guys have entertaining personalities. Their fight week interactions would be very high energy. And stylistically, it’d be a lot of gas from the opening bell. And I don’t mind seeing Holland as a middleweight. He’s probably better suited for a title run at 170 pounds, but he doesn’t care about a title. If he doesn’t care about it, why should we? Put him in fun fights, and this would be a fun one.

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