Tony Ferguson could become the first established lightweight contender to fight since champ Khabib Nurmagomedov’s retirement last month, claiming that he will return against UFC newcomer Michael Chandler before the end of 2020.

“El Cucuy” has had a stop-start year, seeing his fight with Russian title holder Nurmagomedov canceled for a fifth time in April as the pandemic caused disruption to the organization of the fight and prevented the Dagestani from traveling.

The 36-year-old then surrendered the interim lightweight crown in a surprisingly heavy defeat to Justin Gaethje the following month, losing a bruising encounter in the fifth round before continuing to voice his hopes of a meeting with Nurmagomedov.

With the division looking wide open in the aftermath of Nurmagomedov’s retirement following his resounding victory over Gaethje last month, Ferguson and Chandler – who left Bellator MMA to join UFC as an initial understudy for Nurmagomedov’s title defense – are both targeting the title.

A post shared by @TonyFergusonxt (@tonyfergusonxt)

We definitely need that in final PPV this year.

This is the type of news I’m looking for🙌……Last card of 2020 Ferguson vs Chandler would be awesome 😁🔥🔥🔥🔥🔥

Ferguson is aiming for a return to form after his 12-fight winning run, stretching almost seven years, was halted by his defeat to Gaethje.

“Michael Chandler, you putz,” he announced to his following of more than 2.3 million followers on Instagram, likening himself to the Dark Knight alongside an illustration showing spotlights illuminating his nickname in a black sky. “You asked for it.”

Three-time Bellator light heavyweight champion Chandler made an impression with his attitude and conditioning ahead of Nurmagomedov’s long-awaited return on “fight island” in Abu Dhabi, looking sharp in gym sessions and keeping fans updated as he weighed in on fight week despite his likely lack of action.

As rumors spread that Dustin Poirier and Conor McGregor were dithering over a deal to fight at UFC 257 in January earlier this week, Chandler attempted to work his way into the reckoning by accusing them of “holding up contracts”, pledging that he was “ready to sign”.

After that fight was reportedly agreed on the same day, Chandler asked Ferguson: “Where you at?”

Looks like Dustin and Tony are the ones holding up contracts. I’m ready to sign when you are @thenotoriousmma@magllc@paradigmsports

You can’t just jump ahead of the line.. you ain’t smelled any competition in the @ufc yet!! That’s crazy!!

Ferguson told his challenger: “Let’s close out 2020 in style. Added to the list, b*tch.”

Fans reacted with excitement at the prospect of a big-name scrap before the end of the year, although the organization of the potential bout is uncertain after a year in which UFC president Dana White has admitted that setting up fights has often been a logistical nightmare.

Others queried Chandler’s right to compete with contenders when he is yet to demonstrate his credentials for the promotion.

“You can’t just jump ahead of the line,” said one. “You ain’t smelled any competition in the UFC yet. That’s crazy.”

A Chandler supporter argued that his eye-catching final Bellator performance, when he knocked out Benson Henderson in the first round, had earned him his shot.

“Go watch Chandler vs Henderson,” they said, addressing their reply to “the casuals”. “You will see why this man is a phenomenon.”