One of the biggest things coming out of Frankie Edgar's move to featherweight is that it lessens the heavy backlog of lightweights having to wait on Edgar to finish up his never-ending line of rematches. Actually, rematches have slowed down the division's rotation of challengers, with only four fighters (Penn, Edgar, Maynard, and Henderson) fighting for the title since 2010. Unless Nate Diaz and Ben Henderson repeat this process, the procession of top contenders waiting for their title shot will get theirs in 2013.
The division has been so chaotic and unpredictable with so many men this close to a title shot or a #1 contender fight stumbling at the last hurdle in the last two years (not to mention the razor-thin title fights themselves). There are several important fights coming up over the next few months featuring 155ers either on the cusp of a title shot or propping themselves up for entry into title contention. I've chosen ten fighters in total, divided them into three tiers from "Front of the Line" all the way to "Back of the Pack", meaning the best of the best and ones who shouldn't be in the discussion.
All rankings listed are from the latest edition of the MMA Nation Consensus Rankings.
Front Of The Line
- #6 Anthony Pettis (fighting Donald Cerrone at TBA card). "Showtime" hasn't really been seen much in the UFC, having fought just three times and only showing off his highlight-reel striking in his last fight, a head kick KO of Joe Lauzon. He's got a loss to Clay Guida and a narrow win over Jeremy Stephens on his UFC resume, but he has a win over Ben Henderson in the final WEC fight ever. Pettis is only 25, extremely exciting, marketable, and his fight with Donald Cerrone has to be a 5-round main event (which likely means the FX 6 show in December) or else the UFC has failed miserably. I'll explain in Cerrone's profile below this, but I think the UFC really should be pulling for a Pettis victory even though both men are incredibly fun to watch.
- #9 Donald Cerrone (fighting Anthony Pettis of course). "Cowboy" is 7-1 in the UFC and is coming off one of the most exciting fights of 2012 even though it lasted just over a minute. His KO of Melvin Guillard marked the first time Guillard had ever been stopped with punches and it's just the 2nd KO/TKO of Cerrone's MMA career. Obviously by fighting Pettis he is in a #1 contender fight, but he has a lopsided loss to Nate Diaz not even a year ago and lost twice to Ben Henderson for the WEC Lightweight Championship, and the rematch wasn't even close. There's no doubt Cerrone is a top-level fighter, but it'd be very difficult justifying a rematch with either the champion Henderson or challenger Diaz should he beat Pettis.
- #3 Gray Maynard (fighting Joe Lauzon at UFC 155). It could be difficult for Maynard to get another title shot this quickly after twice failing to finish a clearly hurt Frankie Edgar, and recently his horrid fight with Clay Guida, but he's clearly the next guy in line behind Cerrone and Pettis. Gray holds a professional win over Nate Diaz (a rematch of a TUF loss to Diaz, which is an exhibition bout) and still has only lost once. He should be heavily favored to beat Joe Lauzon, and it could set him up for another #1 contender match or at least have him closer to a title fight. If he wants to improve his chances with style points, Maynard will almost certainly have to finish Lauzon. Maynard has 2 finishes against guys with 0-5 and 4-3 records respectively, while Lauzon has been stopped in all of his losses except Sam Stout. This is about as easy a chance as Gray has of a finish, so it's all about whether or not he takes advantage of it.
Middle of the Road
#20 Evan Dunham (fights T.J. Grant at UFC 152). This does seem weird given he's ranked #20, but Dunham was "in the mix" as early as 2010 until an inexcusable robbery against Sean Sherk and a KO to Melvin Guillard halted his title run. He's on a two-fight win streak, bloodied up Nik Lentz, and if he beats the Canadian grappler Grant in Toronto he should be given a top 10 fighter again. What should hopefully be fixed by now is Dunham's habitually slow starts, which cost him the 1st rounds of the Efrain Escudero, Sherk, Lentz, and Guillard fights (there was no 2nd round against Guillard obviously). If he can work on his start then it will go a long way towards getting back into the title hunt, as he definitely has shown the striking and grappling ability of a top contender.
#14 Joe Lauzon (fights Maynard at UFC 155). Lauzon might be one of the most entertaining fighters the UFC has ever seen, but he's never really had a quality list of names on his resume. The majority of men he's beaten are out of the UFC (like Curt Warburton and Jason Reinhardt) or gatekeepers like Jeremy Stephens. His huge upset over Melvin Guillard rushed him to the top way too quickly and predictably Anthony Pettis wrecked him in 95 seconds. He just beat Jamie Varner in one of the best fights of 2012, but Gray Maynard is a gigantic leap in competition. Historically he's stumbled against the best competition (Florian, Pettis) or not shown the gas tank to compete at the highest levels like when he gassed against George Sotiropoulos. As I mentioned earlier, Maynard should beat Lauzon, but what J-Lau has that Maynard doesn't is killer instinct. He's finished all of his wins and could threaten with submissions off of his back if/when Maynard takes him down. It would be hard to deny Lauzon bigger fights if he upsets Maynard, and I don't think any fan would object to high-profile Joe Lauzon matchups.
#22 Paul Sass (fights Matt Wiman at UFC on FUEL 5). Paul is an interesting case because he's "Sassangled" two of his three opponents in the UFC, and heel-hooked Michael Johnson in the other. Wiman is a grizzled veteran who has never been submitted and pushes a relentless pace, and Sass needs to show he has something beyond his submission game. His striking is still a huge question mark as well as his durability, having gone past the 2nd round just once. If he answers both with flying colors then he should be nearing the top 15 heading into 2013.
Honorable Mentions: T.J. Grant, Khabib Nurmagomedov, and Diego Sanchez (who is returning to LW next year).
Back of the Pack
- #10 Jim Miller. It pains me to say this being a Jim Miller fan, but it's highly unlikely he becomes a serious contender again. One of the biggest problems for Miller is that he has never beaten a top 10 ranked fighter in his entire career, despite amassing a 7 fight win streak from 2009-2011. Nate Diaz, Ben Henderson, and Gray Maynard, the top 3 fighters in the UFC's LW division, all beat him and beat him with relative ease. Henderson came close to a TKO finish at times, Diaz became the first man to stop him, and Maynard got an easy 30-27 across the board. Miller fits the profile of a very good fighter who just doesn't have enough to be "elite". Of course, he's only 29, but with each lopsided loss to a top contender it becomes harder and harder to justify him being in the title picture in the near future.
- #16 Melvin Guillard. He's 1-3 in his last 4 and even though he's the same age as Miller (who he lost to in January), he's been in the fight game for a long time and has had enough chances to prove himself worthy of belonging with the elite in the division. The closest he came was in 2011 after a five-fight win streak, but Joe Lauzon derailed everything. Guillard has too many losses (and stoppage ones at that) to a mixture of top fighters and fringe contenders to be in the title picture now or ever again. A fight with Jamie Varner would definitely be perfect for an FX card.
- #7 Clay Guida. The funny thing with Clay Guida is that other than the Kenny Florian fight, he's never been dominated in a UFC fight despite facing a very difficult list of opponents. He's competitive when he loses and has the Anthony Pettis win on his record, but his inability to provide any offense on the feet or strikes on the ground -- he has shown a solid submission game lately -- coupled with the turgid Maynard fight pretty much assures he won't be contending at 155 again. He is a high-level gatekeeper at this point, and will remain that way unless he ever ponders a drop to 145.
- Unranked Edson Barboza. For all of his flashy kicks and amazing KO of Terry Etim, Barboza really hasn't shown much dominance in his UFC career. He obviously crushed Mike Lullo but that's Mike Lullo. His fight with Anthony Njokuani wasn't won until that dramatic spinning hook kick at the end of the 3rd round. The Ross Pearson win was very close and arguably a Pearson win, and even the Terry Etim KO was not a formality until Barboza provided us the KO of the year. Jamie Varner blowing him out on short notice is a bad defeat and undoes almost all of his early success. The Brazilian is young and can still improve, but for now he should be facing the likes of Sam Stout before venturing into more difficult territory again.
It's exciting times in the UFC's LW division, but now what will happen in the post-Edgar era? Will Diaz and Henderson have an amazing trilogy? Is Evan Dunham going to return to contender form? What will Paul Sass do against someone he can't submit immediately? All exciting things to find out over the next few months as we draw towards the final quarter of 2012.