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UFC lightweight champion Islam Makhachev is the apex predator in shark-infested waters of lightweight. Justin Gaethje, Charles Oliveira, Arman Tsarukyan and Max Holloway are all trying to impress and earn a shot at the crown at UFC 300. The depth of talent at 155 pounds is valuable to the sport's health and fans' entertainment. It's also tough terrain for anyone attempting to climb the ladder.

Makhachev had two leading title challengers at the end of last summer: Oliveira and Gaethje. Oliveira ran over respected contender Beneil Dariush at UFC 289 and Gaethje scored a Knockout of the Year contender against Dustin Poirier at UFC 291. Oliveira supporters argued his 2022 win over Gaethje should notch him the title shot first. Gaethje backers countered that Oliveira should not get a rematch so soon after being stopped by Makhachev, especially with Gaethje coming off back-to-back wins.

Gaethje's case for a title shot was undermined by events that played out in the last six months. Makhachev vs. Oliveira 2 was delayed, the champ did not return as soon as expected and the UFC needed star power for its milestone card in Las Vegas on Saturday. Gaethje lost even more leverage once UFC CEO Dana White announced Oliveira vs. Tsarukyan as a title eliminator. Not one to complain, Gaethje plans to make himself undeniable by being the first to finish Max Holloway with strikes.

"I just want to make a case that I should be that guy," Gaethje told CBS Sports ahead of his ceremonial BMF title defense. "I think in a perfect scenario they're calling Oliveira vs. Tsarukyan a title eliminator, so the winner fights him next in June or July. And then I fight the winner of that fight in November in Madison Square Garden. That's what I'm trying to speak into reality."

Check out the full interview with Justin Gaethje below.

Gaethje is overdue for his second UFC title shot. The BMF champ told ESPN MMA he was loosely promised a title shot in February against the winner of Makhachev vs. Oliveira 2, a fight originally scheduled for UFC 294 in October. Makhachev instead faced Alexander Volkanvski for a second time after Oliveira pulled out due to a facial laceration. The February fight never materialized for reasons unknown to Gaethje and he still finds himself waiting behind Oliveira.

"He got finished quick and then he had his opportunity and he got cut," Gaethje said of the injury that forced Oliveira off the Makhachev rematch. "It's not necessarily his fault but if it's anyone's fault, it's his or his coaches' fault."

The winners of Oliveira vs. Tsarukyan and Gaethje vs. Holloway are the top choices for a UFC lightweight title shot. It should be a no-brainer. Yet the champion complicated things by calling out Dustin Poirier after the latter beat Benoit Saint-Denis at UFC 299. The problem is that Poirier's two most recent losses are to Gaethje and Oliveira.

"[Makhachev] has to fight somebody and it is hard for him to believe that Tsarukyan, Oliveira, Holloway or I would be ready or want to fight in June," Gaethje said. "I'm not sure why June is his date especially with this fight happening now. It could be July or August. It's all what-ifs. Even in his mind, it's what-ifs. You can't have a fight if you don't have an opponent. 

"I think if I'm Makhachev I want to take that [Poirier] fight because I think that I win that fight and I get paid the same and it's a title defense. There's nothing wrong with him doing that but he's going to fight the winner of Oliveira-Tsarukyan in June or July and the winner of that fight is going to have to fight me in November."

Gaethje is the rare example of a fighter who has become wiser but no less offensively potent with age. A more thoughtful approach to fighting and longer breaks between bouts has not impacted his ability to cash Performance or Fight of the Night bonuses. This refined, patient Gaethje plans to hold out for a title shot should he beat Holloway at UFC 300.

"I don't see why it would be any later than the end of this year," Gaethje said.

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