UFC Lightweight Picture Clears Up at UFC 127

Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard

photo by Josh Hedges/UFC.com

Clearing up a murky lightweight title picture

No division has greater depth and more worthy title contenders than the 155-pound weight class. While the January 1 battle between defending champion Frankie Edgar and the only man to beat him thus far, Gray Maynard, was supposed to result in one or the other reigning atop of the division, the resulting draw only created new opportunities to debate who sits where in the lightweight pecking order.

Sunday morning in Sydney, the picture will start to become a little clearer, as the first of a series of contests between viable contenders enters the Octagon at UFC 127.

George Sotiropoulos probably has the most compelling case for a title shot amongst the pack of lightweights at the top of the division. The Australian jiu-jitsu ace has earned six-straight victories in the UFC, five of those wins coming at the 155-pound limit. In his last three outings, Sotiropoulos has knocked off divisional stalwarts Joe Stevenson, Kurt Pellegrino and Joe Lauzon, pushing his record to 14-2 and establishing himself as a threat within the division.

Standing alongside Sotiropoulos as a man worthy of a title shot is Jim Miller, who will face unbeaten wrestler Kamal Shalorus in his home state at UFC 128.

The younger half of the Fighting Miller Brothers, the 27-year-old lightweight has also won six straight inside the Octagon and eight fights overall in the UFC. Though he lost to Maynard in his third UFC appearance and hasn’t faced the same assortment of recognizable names as Sotiropoulos in recent fights, Miller has beaten more quality opponents in total than the Australian, and a second consecutive finish over the Shalorus could certainly allow him to climb into the top spot.

What about their opponents? While neither Siver or Shalorus have the momentum of Sotiropoulos or Miller, a victory for either over a proven commodity would definitely put them “in the mix,” as Dana White would say.

That mix also includes Anthony Pettis, the last WEC lightweight champion, who decided to accept a tough fight against Clay Guida instead of sitting on the sidelines waiting for a title shot later in the year.

Opting to face a guy like Guida speaks volumes to the emerging superstar’s confidence and character; while he could have gone the Rashad Evans route and waited his turn, Pettis took the toughest fight available to him, and a win will cement his standing as the top UFC lightweight contender.

Guida has strung together a trio of wins since dropping back-to-back bouts in late 2009, and a win over Pettis would be huge. A four-fight winning streak and his rampant popularity might be enough to place him in a title bout; at the very least, it would set him up alongside Miller and Sotiropoulos as fighters with a strong claim to being next in line.

Melvin Guillard inserted himself into the conversation with an electrifying performance against Evan Dunham at UFC Fight for the Troops 2.

Since he began working with Greg Jackson, Guillard has seemingly realized the vast potential many saw in him during his up-and-down early days in the UFC. He went 3-0 in 2010 and started off 2011 with a win, dropping the highly-regarded Dunham in just under three minutes.

With the top of the division as close as it is right now, Guillard probably needs one more good win to truly be recognized as a contender, but he should get that chance soon. A meeting with the winner of the Miller-Shalorus showdown would certainly help provide further clarity within the division, and it would be an entertaining fight.

Dunham is now a notch below this group after losing to Guillard, and is joined there by Mark Bocek and Ben Henderson. Those two meet at UFC 129 in April, with the winner throwing their name into the collection of fighters all jockeying for position in the lightweight division.

Bocek looked very good in submitting fellow black belt Dustin Hazelett in what turned out to be “McLovin’s” last UFC appearance.

In Henderson you have a former WEC lightweight champion who was on the wrong end of Pettis’ “Showtime Kick” back in December. Despite the loss, Henderson’s accomplishments in the WEC cannot be overlooked; in the span of a year, the 27-year-old Arizona native defeated Anthony Njokuani, Shane Roller, Donald Cerrone and Jamie Varner, winning and defending the WEC lightweight title in that time period.

He followed up his win over Varner with a quick submission win over Cerrone in a rematch of their 2009 battle that landed on a number of Fight of the Year lists. A bounce-back win over a proven veteran like Bocek would put him right back in line for a step up in competition to bring him one step closer to contending.

What makes all of this even more interesting is that the entire division has been overturned in the span of one year.

Gone are former champion B.J. Penn and perennial contender Kenny Florian. Penn jumped up to welterweight, while Florian will drop to featherweight this summer.

Former title challenger Diego Sanchez has returned to welterweight as well, while Joe Stevenson has lost back-to-back bouts and assumed gatekeeper status.

Outside of a handful of match-ups, the guys at the top of the division haven’t really faced each other either; Miller has faced both Edgar and Maynard, but that bout happened before both fighters joined the UFC.

Joe Silva has a blank slate when it comes to cleaning up the lightweight title picture, and it starts this week.

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