UFC’s Lightweight Division More Stacked Than Ever

Frankie Edgar (James Law/HeavyMMA)

Abundance of contenders crowd the top of the weight class

It was less than two weeks ago a new champion was crowned in the UFC lightweight division when Ben Henderson bested Frankie Edgar at UFC 144.

Tuesday, the news broke that a rematch between the two fighters was set for sometime this summer, and while the top of the mountain at 155 pounds will take a bit to settle, the divisional picture is far from being problematic.

The announcement throws a wrinkle into the title plans of Anthony Pettis, but looking at it from an overall competitive aspect, things have never been hotter in the lightweight division.

Two years ago, it was the exact opposite. With BJ Penn staking his claim as the best in the world and shelling out beatings to the likes of Sean Sherk and Diego Sanchez, there didn’t appear to be consensus No. 1 contender to his throne. Both Edgar and Gray Maynard were making their ways up the ladder, but it seemed a long shot either could derail “The Prodigy.”

Edgar would go on to get the nod to challenge for the title, and after defeating Penn in back-to-back affairs, the tides shifted and the changing of the guard began. On the same card that Edgar defended his title, Maynard would remove Kenny Florian from the picture, as well. Shortly after came the WEC/UFC merger, which injected a handful of future contenders into the mix. And it wasn’t long before 155 became one of the most competitive divisions under the Zuffa banner.

While 2011 may have been the year the weight class put itself on the map, the stage is set for 2012 to be downright cutthroat for those vying for their shot at crown. Every fighter in range of such an opportunity, minus current champion Henderson, has faced a setback over the past eight months – and this has only served to make the divisional picture that much more interesting.

Jim Miller saw a seven-fight winning streak snapped, but has since battled back into position. His recent win over Melvin Guillard helped to keep him at the head of the pack rather than be reshuffled into a deep roster. The New Jersey native will next face Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 3, and while nothing is ever set in stone, for the time being it appears the winner will get the next opportunity to fight for the lightweight title after Edgar and Henderson rematch this summer.

Unfortunately for Guillard, the submission loss to Miller, and to Joe Lauzon before that, will push his championship ambitions back for the time being. Prior to those fights, the “Young Assassin” was on a red-tear and has the potential to climb back into a contender role should he be able to string a few wins together.

After suffering back-to-back losses in the welterweight division, “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 5 winner Diaz has returned to the lightweight division like a man possessed. Diaz has never looked better. Riding the momentum of his submission victory over Takanori Gomi and the thrashing he put on Donald Cerrone at UFC 141, Diaz now finds himself closer than he’s ever been to a UFC title. Employing a similar style as his older brother, Nate’s turned up his boxing skills a notch and the results have been impressive. No longer just a threat on the ground, Diaz’s ability to overwhelm his opposition and tremendous accuracy while doing so have earned him a place in the divisional upper tier.

Pettis decided not to sit on the sidelines while the Edgar vs. Maynard trilogy played out, and the result proved to be costly as he dropped a decision to Clay Guida. The former WEC champion drew criticism for taking a fight in between his promised title shot, and while the loss dropped his stock for a short time, 15 minutes with Guida will ultimately prove to be a valuable learning experience. One of the sport’s most unpredictable strikers, Pettis has shown positive signs that he will not only be able to adapt to the power wrestling style of the division, but thrive, as well. He bounced back from the Guida fight with a win over Jeremy Stephens and a brutal head kick knockout against Lauzon at UFC 144. The Henderson vs. Edgar rematch undoubtedly puts a kink in his road to the top, but at 25 years old, time is on his side as his career progresses.

Maynard spent his entire year in 2011 either preparing for or fighting Edgar, and following his loss at UFC 136, change is in the air for the former No. 1 contender. After suffering through injuries and in-house tension throughout his training camp, Maynard decided it was time for a new look. “The Bully” left his longtime home at Xtreme Couture and relocated to the West Coast, where he has spent time training at the American Kickboxing Academy and with sports fitness specialists the Marinovich brothers. In a quest to further develop his skill set, Maynard also traveled to Brazil to train with featherweight champion Jose Aldo as he prepared to defend his title against Chad Mendes. While Maynard does not currently have another fight scheduled, a summer return is expected where he will look to get back on the fast track towards UFC gold.

There is a similar sense of urgency with lightweight livewire Guida. “The Carpenter” used his blue-collar, workman-like style to put himself into the title conversation as he rolled off four wins in a row before dropping a hard-fought decision loss to Henderson. With wins over fellow contenders Pettis and Diaz, it won’t take another four wins to regain his status in the current divisional fray. But with his next bout uncertain, the speed of his return will more than likely hinge on the quality of opponent and the strength of his performance.

As fights are announced and the dust settles on bouts already scheduled, the UFC lightweight divisional race will continue to rage throughout 2012. In addition to the previously mentioned lineup, fighters such as Cerrone, Edson Barboza and Evan Dunham all will be looking to stake their claims among the elite in the weight class. While it wasn’t always the case, the current 155-pound roster is stacked, and having an over-abundance of talent isn’t a complaint the UFC will be making any time in the near future.

It will be interesting to see who is left standing when the action unfolds and who will be holding championship gold when the year draws to a close.

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