Woe is Dana White and the UFC in this the winter of their discontent. Injury, contracts, feuds, and stepped up competition have caused the promotion, soaring over the last 18 months, to come crashing to earth. Gone are the following fights: Brock Lesnar vs. Shane Carwin, Tito Ortiz vs. Mark Coleman, Jon Fitch vs Thiago Alves, Rashad Evans vs Rampage Jackson, Antonio Minotauro Noguiera vs. Cain Velasquez, and Anderson Silva vs. Vitor Belfort is still up in the air. The UFC was building their entire fall and winter arond Lesnar, Rashad/Rampage, and Silva/Belfort. Dan Henderson's contract status continues to be a problem, and hurts right after Hendo has finally acheived a level of mainstream MMA popularity thanks to his KO at UFC 100.
But the one person and the one division that looks to save the UFC's winter doldrums is BJ Penn and the lightweight division. Unlike other UFC divisions, this one is not riddled with injuries, its not shallow, its not weak, and there is the great formula of a dominate champion with very strong challengers three of four deep. And it all starts with BJ Penn. Penn is a charismatic, polarizing, talented, and big draw champion. Nothing is boring with BJ Penn, a fighter that has literally fought everyone, a list that is the whos who of MMA from GSP to Renzo Gracie to Lyoto Machida and nearly everyone in between. He's proud, outspoken, and one of the most creative fighters in the cage. His constant battle with his own cardio makes his fights consistantly interesting if anything to see how Penn himself will perform.
And if nothing is boring with BJ Penn, neither is his opponent in Novemeber - Diego "Nightmare" Sanchez. In fact, the Penn vs. Sanchez is the one fight in the future on all the upcoming UFC shows that I really feel like is can't miss. Its two fighters that are similarily driven, strong and strange personalities that try new and akward training techniques. Sanchez is all action, a big fighter who won TUF at middleweight and lost two fights at welterweight out of nine before dropping down and beating top lightweights Joe Stevenson and Clay Guida (in a classic). The Penn-Sanchez fight, in my mind, has a chance to be a true classic MMA fight that people can point too like they do Griffin-Bonner. And the build-up will be even better with those two running their mouths.
But the division continues to be strong below Penn and Sanchez. On that same card, there is a loser's bracket fight between Kenny Florian and Clay Guida. Guida is the every-man fighter, who's relentless energy and toughness sometimes mask just how underrated is total skills are. If he can beat Florian, Guida will have finally possibly climbed to the top of a division he has been both its gatekeeper and its heart. With Florian, he needs a Sanchez victory badly. I'm sur ehe would want another crack and Penn, but that fight is too fresh and Penn won pretty convincingly. A real case could be made, however, to buy into a Sanchez-Florian rematch. I would guess that if Sanchez loses, he will get Florian no matter what. Beyond whats on the line for both, the Florian-Guida matchup has a chance to be another barnburner similar to Sanchez-Guida. Florian can be ceribrial, but he's also an aggressive muay thai fighter, and Guida seems to have a way to get the best out of everyone he fights.
Below these two hovers a man that looks to be a potential beast at 155: Gray Maynard. He's beaten everyone, and he hasn't been fed bums either: Jim Miller, Rich Clementi, Frankie Edgar, and Roger Huerta is nothing to sneeze at. Maynard is big and powerful, a punishing wrestler who stylistically looks to be perhaps the best possible challenger to Penn, the best to emulate the grueling takedown pressure wrestling the Georges St-Pierre used to bury Penn at UFC 94. His fight at UFN 20 against Nate Diaz is just one more step up in talent for him. A win here will probably give him a top tier fighter and then a title shot. Maynard hovers over all challengers, serving notice I believe that they better get their shots while they can because I'm not sure of anyone ranked higher than Maynard can actually beat him.
And underneath Maynard sits a bevy of ultra-talented and hungry fighters. Jim Miller, Frankie Edgar, Kurt Pelligrino, and Tyson Griffin are all fighters who have had big wins in their career and have seemed to be just on the cusp of superstardom. Nate Diaz started strong before falling two straight times to top-tier competition. Joe Daddy Stevenson remains near the top as he slowly rebuilds himself under the tutelage of Greg Jackson in New Mexico. Stevenson is someone to watch, he seems to be the top-level gatekeeper. If you can beat Stevenson, you might be ready for Penn. Both Florian and Sanchez beat Joe Daddy on the way to fights with Penn. Sean Sherk is in a similar position as Stevenson, and a fight between the two would tell alot where they stand. Sherk needs to get over the idea that he can outbox fighters with his short reach and get back to his punishing wrestling and ground n' pound game. Then there are Josh Neer, Aaron Riley, Spencer Fisher, Shane Nelson, Kurt Pelligrino, Matt Wiman, Hermes Franca, Gleison Tibau, and Melvin Guillard that fill out shows with exciting fights.
And finally, the last two TUF winners have looked tremendous in their debuts: Efrain Escudero and Ross Pearson showed domination in their UFC debuts over sturdy vets Cole Miller and Aaron Riley.
So while the UFC's heavier divisions are ravaged by injury, contracts, controversy, and lack of depth - lets sit back and enjoy the UFC lightweight divison where a dominate and entertaining champion sits on at throne lusted after by a set of challengers that runs ten deep and who nearly all have incredibile skill themselves and pose legitimate problems for The Prodigy