The UFC lightweight division will receive a new influx of talent courtesy of the soon-to-be-dead WEC in January.
The winner of next month’s Ben Henderson/Anthony Pettis fight will face off against the winner of the Frankie Edgar/Gray Maynard bout in a title unification bout, which could shake things up in a major way.
Note: We create our rankings based on how good we believe the fighters are right now, not using MMA math.
Matt Brown: He beat BJ Penn twice. Twice. And the second time was just a clinic. He’ll have his hands full with Gray Maynard in January, the only fighter to have defeated the current champ.
Jeremy Botter: Edgar receives far less respect than any other UFC champ despite dominating Penn for ten rounds. He could also find himself without the title belt come January, because Gray Maynard is going to present a much tougher challenge than Penn.
2. Gilbert Melendez
Matt Brown: There’s a pretty good crop of lightweights that fight outside of the UFC and Melendez tops that pack. Wouldn’t we all love to see Bellator and Strikeforce work out a deal for a Melendez vs. Eddie Alvarez battle?
Jeremy Botter: I’d love to see Melendez take the next step and face Eddie Alvarez, but the reality is that it’s not a smart fight for Scott Coker to make. The Strikeforce brand is much stronger than the Bellator brand, which makes it a zero-upside fight for both Melendez and Strikeforce. Melendez likely faces Shinya Aoki for DREAM on New Year’s Eve.
3. Gray Maynard
Matt Brown: I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again, just win. Folks label Maynard as a boring fighter, but flashy losses don’t get you bonus checks or title shots. Maynard’s stand up is much improved and it is the job of his opponent to neutralize his excellent wrestling.
Jeremy Botter: Maynard goes into his fight with Edgar as a favorite, and for good reason. He’ll hold a big size advantage and a distinct advantage in the wrestling department, which means he’s going to give Edgar plenty of problems. I suspect we’ll see a new lightweight champion come January.
Matt Brown: Perhaps we’ve seen the best days of BJ Penn. His last performance against Frankie Edgar looked very uninspired. When all things are clicking, he looks unbeatable. However, throughout his career, the “best BJ Penn” only shows every couple fights.
Jeremy Botter: Penn’s bout with Matt Hughes is going to be a good indicator of where the former lightweight champion is at in his career. A win could mean he stays at welterweight and pursues another bout with Georges St. Pierre. A loss? Retirement looms.
5. Shinya Aoki
Matt Brown: Fans in the US got a little glimpse of Aoki in a tough loss to Gilbert Melendez in Strikeforce. Since then, he’s rattled off three wins and has proven to be one of the most creative submission fighters in MMA.
Jeremy Botter: Aoki thrives against lesser competition in Japan, but he’s still one of the best lightweights on the planet. He’ll get another crack at Gilbert Melendez soon, this time in the familiar confines of the DREAM ring.
6. Eddie Alvarez
Matt Brown: Alvarez walked through former UFC lightweight Roger Huerta and has since publicly talked of his desire to fight Gilbert Melendez. I’m crossing my fingers.
Jeremy Botter: Alvarez completely dismantled Huerta, in startling fashion. The only true big fight left outside the UFC for him is one with Gilbert Melendez, but as I noted above, I can’t imagine Strikeforce making the fight. It just doesn’t make any long-term business sense.
Matt Brown: Remember, we rank how good we think the fighters are, not using MMA math. I thought Dunham beat Sean Sherk and solidified himself as one of the brightest prospects in the division. He’ll have a chance to redeem himself when he takes on Kenny Florian in February.
Jeremy Botter: Dunham lost nothing by losing to Sherk. In fact, his performance on that night only increased his standing in the division, and a victory over Florian would put him in immediate title contention. I suspect we’ll see Dunham challenging for the belt in 2011.
8. Kenny Florian
Matt Brown: 2-2 in his last 4 fights, Florian will need to string together at least 3 or 4 wins to get back into the title picture at 155. Does the 34 year-old still have it in him? The UFC is going to find out as Florian will tangle with Evan Dunham Super Bowl weekend.
Jeremy Botter: People began calling for Florian to drop to 145 pounds and face Jose Aldo almost immediately once the UFC/WEC merger was announced. That’s not going to happen, as Florian walks around at 180 pounds and says he can’t make the cut. Instead, he’ll stick around and present tough matchup problems for every opponent he faces.
9. Tatsuya Kawajiri
Matt Brown: For fans only familiar with UFC fighters, find HDNet in your cable lineup. Quality fighters such as Kawajiri are regularly featured on DREAM and K1 cards that air regularly on the network.
Jeremy Botter: Kawajiri’s loss to Shinya Aoki was yet another instance of his failure to perform against top-level competition. Kawajiri’s losses over the years include Vitor Ribeiro, Takanori Gomi, Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez. He beats everybody else, though.
10. George Sotiropoulos
Matt Brown: All George has done is win every fight since coming to the UFC. In fact, his last loss was in 2006 against Shinya Aoki. Eye-popping performances against Joe Stevenson and Kurt Pellegrino started talks of when Sotiropoulos might get his shot at the belt.
Jeremy Botter: Sotiropoulos faces Joe Lauzon at UFC 123. That’s a tough fight, especially given how great Lauzon looked during his last outing. A win would put Sotiropoulos near a title shot, and for good reason.