This post is my view of the UFC's Lightweight division. It's long, but hopefully somewhat informative!
While the UFC's light heavyweight and welterweight divisions are widely regarded as two of the most competitive divisions in MMA, the lightweights simply can't be overlooked given the depth of up and coming talent and the potential for some pretty awesome matchups.
The Title Picture
At the top of the division is BJ Penn, who is widely regarded as the #1 lightweight fighter in the world. Given his dominating victories over Joe Stevenson and Sean Sherk at UFC 80 and 84, respectively, I don't see anyone in the UFC's 155 pound division that will put up much of a fight. Of course, we could easily see BJ vacate the lightweight title should he beat Georges St. Pierre in their rematch, which is expected to happen this January.
Right down the list is Kenny Florian, who will do battle with Stevenson at UFC 91 in November. BJ's other recent victim, Sean Sherk, will do battle with Tyson Griffin at UFC 90 on October 25th. It it unlikely that Sherk or Griffin will be offered title shots any time soon, as UFC President Dana White likes to see guys finish fights, and neither Griffin nor Sherk have been able to do so in recent victories. Plus, Stevenson was shown to be no match for Penn at UFC 80, so it's unlikely that he'll be thrown back in for a rematch any time soon.
My instincts tell me the UFC would like to see Kenny Florian getting in there for a title shot, given his marketability and status as a TUF alumnus. Kenny has finished most of his fights, albeit against competition of mixed quality, and he's a good representative for the sport. But in any case, we're not likely to see a lighweight title fight for the next 8 months, unless BJ vacates it or the UFC strips him of the belt for taking too long to defend it.
The Up and Comers
Here's where things get exciting for me. There are so many guys that are on the cusp of breaking into title contention, and even if some of them aren't destined to be contenters, they're still going to put on some great fights. Here's a fighter-by-fighter breakdown of the names to watch:
Marcus Aurelio - Great submission skills, but at 35 years of age, he needs some quality wins under his belt soon to stay relevant. I think he has a very good chance of beating Hermes Franca at UFC 90 as Hermes doesn't always bring the best gameplan to the table.
Rich Clementi - 'No Love' is in need of a nickname, but with four straight wins, Rich is doing pretty well in the UFC. Also, you have to admire a guy that fought at two straight events (UFC 83 and 84). I expect Rich to have a tough time against Gray Maynard at UFC 90 but I'm also not counting him out.
Mac Danzig - Mac's loss to gatekeeper Clay Guida at UFC Fight Night 15 was a tough break given that he was largely favored to win, but it's not the end of the world given how early Mac is into his UFC career. However, another loss or two would definitely put his long-term viability into question.
Nate Diaz - After what I thought was a pretty lousy performance against Kurt Pellegrino at UFC Fight Night 13, Nate looked much improved against Josh Neer at UFC Fight Night 15 on September 17th. Plus, I like that Nate seems to be craving a step up in competition, and I'm sure he'll be getting it the next time he steps in the cage.
Frankie Edgar - Frankie is a bit undersized for the division, but his solid striking and excellent wrestling skills help make up for it. It's a bit difficult to decide exactly where he ranks in terms of moving up the ladder - of his four wins in the UFC, he only finished one fight, but he has won Fight of the Night twice.
Hermes Franca - I like Hermes quite a bit - he always puts on a damn good show for the fans. However, as Fightlinker pointed out, he need to rethink his strategy when facing wrestlers. Hermes has the striking and submission skills to win; he just needs to put together better gameplans.
Manny Gamburyan - While Manny doesn't get much love from MMA fans (that cheap shot at Jeff Cox didn't help), I think he has the potential to be a force in the lightweight division. His weak standup was exposed by Rob Emerson at UFC 87, but Manny has a nasty submission game and fights at an absolutely furious pace. And let's not forget the fact that before his should injury, he was clearly beating Nate Diaz in their match at the Ultimate Fighter 5 finale.
Clay Guida - Clay is largely regarded as a gatekeeper in the 155 pound division, and while his win/loss record isn't terribly impressive, he gives his all 100% of the time and MMA fans absolutely love him. I don't see Clay as a contender for the title any time soon, but he deserves a spot on any card in need of an injection of excitement.
Joe Lauzon - Looks like a nerd, fights like a beast. I was really hoping Joe would come out on top against Kenny Florian at UFC Fight Night 13. Joe didn't look to be in great shape that night and may have been affected by the altitude in Colorado, and he's already back in the mix with his recent victory over Kyle Bradley.
Gray Maynard - Gray lived up to his nickname "The Bully" when he tossed Frankie Edgar around for three rounds at UFC Fight Night 13. Gray's wrestling is excellent, but he'll need to build a more well-rounded game, as well as a more colorful personality to get in line for a title shot.
Kurt Pellegrino - Batman has a mixed record inside the octagon, and he recently admitted to having some issues with self-confidence inside the cage. However, Kurt always puts on a good show and if his head remains screwed on straight, he can make his mark on the lightweight division.
Roger Huerta - I don't know if it's even worth bringing up Roger, because he looked awful against Kenny Florian at UFC 87, and his record has been padded with weaker opponents. Plus, I can't imagine he's in good standing with the UFC after complaining about money issues in the August issue of FIGHT! Magazine.
And if you look back to the PPV broadcast of UFC 87, the Florian/Huerta fight was actually aired BEFORE the relatively meaningless Manny Gamburyan/Rob Emerson bout. You'd think hometown favorite Huerta would mean airtime closer to the end when more people are watching. Plus, if Huerta was interviewed post-fight, it wasn't aired on the pay-per-view.
Unless we hear otherwise, consider Roger to be on ice.
Stay tuned for my next post, as I'll be discussing the top 5 lightweight matches I hope to see in 2009!--------------------
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