GOAT Talk: Who is the greatest lightweight of all time?

The never-ending debate over who the greatest MMA fighter of all-time is always present within the minds of fans, many favoring names such as Georges St. Pierre or Demetrious Johnson. While it’s important to discuss who rules as the greatest pound-for-pound, figuring out divisional GOATs (Greatest of All Time) is just as important.

Lightweight is known for featuring some of the sport’s most electrifying fighters, with this trend starting generations ago when the likes of Takanori Gomi and Shinya Aoki ruled the scene. But since those days, the division has witnessed many talented athletes reach the pinnacle and cement their status as elite figures; each of the names included today were, at one point, exhibiting elite skills.

Of course, what you will read is entirely subjective to me, the writer, however, I have made an attempt to put forth a solid list that includes the top 5 155-pounders of all time. But first, it’s important that I explain the criteria.

Quality of wins, achievements, and skillset are the three main focal points I concentrated on when assessing who takes what spot. Due to these reasons, names such as the aforementioned Gomi, Aoki, and Benson Henderson will not be featured; they are still legends in their own right, though.

Below are the top five greatest lightweights in MMA history.

#5 Tony Ferguson (25-5) / B.J. Penn (16-14-2)

I was very tempted to place Frankie Edgar in fifth position, but as I am primarily focusing on achievements earned in the lightweight division and lightweight division alone, he narrowly misses a spot. So, to get things going, I’ve opted to tie both Tony Ferguson and B.J. Penn in fifth place. Allow me to explain why.

Modern MMA fans should be well aware of Tony Ferguson, who not so long ago, was the perennial boogeyman of the 155-pound division. For over seven (yes, seven) years, ‘El Cucuy’ ruled lightweight contendership with an ironclad fist, exhibiting a lust for blood and gore while playing his part in numerous ‘Fight of the Night’ affairs. Within his 12-fight win streak are names such as Edson Barboza and Anthony Pettis, yet none come close to fellow great Rafael dos Anjos, his greatest career victory; Ferguson outworked the former champion over the course of five rounds in what can only be described as an elite win. Many anticipated that a title fight with then-champion Conor McGregor would be next, however, Tony got far less than he bargained with a fight against up and comer Kevin Lee. Sure, he was able to sport an interim title following his finish of Lee, but nothing quite compares to the real thing; the official belt.

Ferguson would ultimately be stripped of his interim title due to an injury, and would compete twice more before running into human highlight reel Justin Gaethje. In May of 2020, Gaethje battered his defensively incompetent counterpart en route to a fifth-round stoppage, and it was him this time who claimed the silverware of ‘second best’ – Ferguson’s time at the top was over.

Skillwise, Tony Ferguson was never elite. Yet he always – and I mean always – found a way to win. Though the highly-anticipated showdown with Khabib Nurmagomedov was stolen from us numerous times (a fight that wasn’t favorable for Tony on paper), he was still able to leave his mark on a generation of lightweight fighters. The biggest mark against his career is the fact he wasn’t able to capture an official world title, however, this blame must be shared, as UFC brass refused to give him a championship opportunity on many occasions. To add to this, Ferguson’s colleagues were, and still are, utterly brilliant; in a world with no Gaethje’s, Khabib’s – you name who, Tony would have reigned supreme. For these reasons, he shares our number five position.

Alongside Ferguson, we have longtime lightweight GOAT B.J. Penn, one of Hawaii’s finest fighters and the sport’s more naturally gifted athletes. For close to a decade, Penn had a presence in the MMA world like no other, showing that the ‘wee guy’ often produces the most intrigue.

Penn began his career in the UFC, challenging for the lightweight belt in just his fourth pro bout. While he would suffer defeat at the hands of Jens Pulver, he’d bounce back big, ripping the welterweight title from Matt Hughes only two years later. Although contract disputes robbed him of the chance to defend his throne, Penn would compete elsewhere, even fighting as heavy as light-heavyweight (in fact, Penn weighed in at 191-pounds while his opponent, future UFC champion Lyoto Machida, weighed a whopping 225.) But what really impresses us fans about Penn is his dominating run through the lightweight division, which began in 2007.

Following a rear-naked choke victory over former champion (and the only lightweight to best him) Jens Pulver, Penn had officially announced his return to the weight class. He would go on to batter and choke out Joe Stevenson to claim the vacant title, defending it three times before losing to Frankie Edgar. For his era of competition, Penn fought the best of the best, finishing the aforementioned Pulver, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian, and Diego Sanchez.

Penn’s time at the top could be discussed for hours, and I believe each fan should take the time to revisit his career, especially his epic title-defense against Sherk. The names on his resume may not compare to those of succeeding generations, but being a UFC champion at both lightweight and welterweight is a terrific accomplishment.

#4 Rafael dos Anjos (30-13)

Brazil’s Rafael dos Anjos is a bonafide all-time great, whether people are willing to accept that or not. The schedule forced upon him over the last decade is something very few can compare their own to, with dos Anjos never declining an opponent throughout his UFC tenure. Transitioning from undermined contender to champion, and back to contender again is a path only the most skilled veterans can take, and while he’s towards the tail end of his career, RDA is more than ready for one last championship run.

Following a two-fight skid in 2016, dos Anjos made the move to welterweight. At this stage in his career, he had already amassed a resume fit for the Hall of Fame, boasting wins over a prime Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone (twice) and Benson Henderson; the manner in which he defeated these men makes it all the more impressive. And if you thought for a minute that he’d be receiving an easy ride ten pounds north of lightweight, I’ve got news for you. Rafael would run through Tarec Saffiedine, respected contender Neil Magny and former champion Robbie Lawler in less than six months, asserting himself as the new dog in the yard.

Ultimately, dos Anjos would lose an interim title fight against Colby Covington – a fight that should never have been booked in the first place considering RDA was the main contender. And with his title opportunity gone, matchmakers would later feed him to future King Kamaru Usman.

As it stands, dos Anjos is in the win column, returning with a split decision victory against Paul Felder last November. Considering he went from looking physically shot in January (against Michael Chiesa) to bloodying and beating Felder months later is a truly special thing. With a number next to his name and fights left on the contract, expect him to continue adding names to his resume.

Rafael dos Anjos is an elite talent who was underappreciated in his prime and continues to be in the present day. With his accolades, quality of wins, and overall resume, he thoroughly deserves to feature in everybody’s top 5 lightweight list.

#3 Eddie Alvarez (30-7-1)

“The Underground King.” “The most violent man in MMA.” “The former Bellator and UFC lightweight champion.” Eddie Alvarez.

It is a travesty that casual fans know Eddie Alvarez as “the guy” who was brutally embarrassed by Conor McGregor while attempting to defend his lightweight title, as his performance that night does not reflect his layered skillset. A multi-faceted fighter, Alvarez is a veteran of numerous promotions, having competed for DREAM, Bellator, ONE and the UFC. In fact, he made his debut all the way back in 2003, smashing through the regional scene before making a name for himself in Japan.

Just like dos Anjos, Alvarez has a resume that will stand the test of time, with wins over Justin Gaethje, Shinya Aoki, and even the Brazilian himself. But what stands out about “The Underground King” most are his accomplishments and set of skills, as, on any given day, the chances of Alvarez burying your favorite lightweight fighter are more than high.

Since 2019, he has been under contract with Asian outfit ONE FC, where he’s since compiled a record of 1-2. If Alvarez were to capture gold in ONE, it would add to his already-large legacy, placing him with Cris Cyborg as the only two fighters to seize three world titles in three major organizations – a truly magnificent feat.

All in all, there is no tribute fitting enough for the career of Eddie Alvarez. He is undoubtedly one of the more skillful fighters we’ve seen at 155, and when you throw that alongside his accomplishments and list of victims, it’s easy to see why he’s one of the division’s greatest.

#2 Dustin Poirier (27-6-1)

Dustin Poirier may well be the most beloved fighter in MMA today (alongside past foe Max Holloway), and it’s no fluke. From model sportsmanship to numerous charitable contributions, “The Diamond” has stolen the hearts of spectators and fellow athletes across the world; his work inside the Octagon is just as compelling.

When Poirier announced in 2015 that he would be stepping up to lightweight, many had their doubts over the potential success that awaited – nobody could anticipate what would lay ahead. Four wins in his new weight class over some notable names boosted him to main event status, where he would meet the dangerous Michael Johnson. Poirier would encounter another major career setback, losing viciously in the opening round via knockout. Yet this defeat (in hindsight) had more of a positive effect than negative one.

Dustin would amass a terrific five-fight unbeaten run, finishing former champions Anthony Pettis, Justin Gaethje, and Eddie Alvarez (back-to-back-to-back, as well). This earned him an interim title fight with featherweight champ Max Holloway; although currently 1-0 against Hollway, Poirier entered as a betting underdog. What transpired was, in no other words, the greatest fight in MMA history. The two told a story; painted a picture. And it was Poirier that walked away with a gold belt around his waist.

The Louisiana native would go on to lose to the division’s greatest ever fighter, Khabib Nurmagomedov, before bouncing back against Dan Hooker and global star Conor McGregor – the latter being his largest and most high-profile win to date. Currently, the promotion is chasing a trilogy matchup between Poirier and McGregor, and it’s not far-fetched to imagine the winner receiving the next crack at the crown.

A fan-favorite with a penchant for fire-fights, Poirier will go down as one of the best pound-for-pound fighters of his era. With victories over five former champions, seven ‘Fight of the Night’ performance bonuses, and world-class attributes, it’s hard to argue against him taking second.

#1 Khabib Nurmagomedov (29-0)

No words can describe the sheer absurdity of Khabib Nurmagomedov’s accomplishments.

Entering the UFC at 16-0, few could predict that Nurmagomedov would retain his undefeated record, let alone the path of destruction he’d leave behind him. Justin Gaethje, Dustin Poirier, Rafael dos Anjos, and Conor McGregor are all resume makers, and the fact Nurmagomedov has all four on his record is an unmatched achievement (especially considering they were all in their prime, too).

Everybody is well aware of the skills and gameplan “The Eagle” brings to the Octagon, with his cage-wrestling and smothering top game having an immediate effect in each of his appearances. What (casual) fans fail to understand is that despite Nurmagomedov only having four UFC championship fights, what matters most is the quality of opposition faced and how he dispatched of them; this is why he ranks higher than the likes of Jon Jones on the GOAT list. And with only a handful of rounds lost throughout his UFC tenure, it’s self-explanatory why Khabib sits in the pole position at lightweight.

He’s both the best and greatest lightweight to ever grace the sport, and I expect it to stay that way for quite some time.

What is your lightweight top 5? Who did we miss? Let us know in the comments!