Ben Henderson retained his UFC Lightweight title last weekend on the UFC on Fox 7 card when he earned a split decision victory over Gilbert Melendez. Henderson is without a doubt the best Lightweight on the planet as he has nearly cleaned out the deepest division in the sport in his amazing run spanning back to his WEC debut back in 2009.
While a dominant champion is something the UFC likes because it makes for a strong marketing push, but it also creates the problem of finding challengers. The UFC is on the cusp of this problem with Henderson and they have done themselves no favors by tying up the best and most interesting match up in a mostly pointless Super Fight.
Don't get me wrong Anthony Pettis vs Jose Aldo is going to be a very fun fight to watch, but in terms of relevancy it is somewhat lacking for a variety of reasons. Pettis has never fought at 145 pounds before, hasn't done anything to warrant an instant title shot at a different weight class, which is something normally reserved only for reigning champions, and jumped the line of Featherweight contenders.
Pettis was, however, in line for a Lightweight title shot, and he by far presents the most interesting match up for the Lightweight champion. Pettis is the last fighter to defeat Henderson, when he used the famous Showtime kick to wrest the WEC Lightweight title away from Henderson in the dramatic final WEC event. Pettis missed out on the promised title shot when the UFC and WEC merged because of a Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard rematch and Pettis' loss to Clay Guida caused him to go to the back to the contender's line. Pettis has worked his way back to the top of the contenders heap, and he is already committed to his match with Aldo.
This leaves Henderson in need of a challenger for his next match, and the pickings are slim. An immediate rematch with Gilbert Melendez would be a mistake and has not been mentioned what-so-ever, so it seems safe to assume that match is out. A rematch with Nate Diaz was taken off the table thanks to Josh Thomson's head kick TKO win on the same card. Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone have already been victimized by Henderson and neither seems to warrant a rematch at this time. Josh Thomson, Rafael dos Anjos, and Khabib Nurmagomedov have not yet done enough in the UFC to have earned a chance at Henderson.
This leaves the match between TJ Grant and Gray Maynard as the most likely source for a Lightweight challenger that will share the cage with Henderson, and Dana White as said as much. While both are excellent fighters, neither match up would be nearly as compelling as the Pettis fight. Maynard is skilled, but his style isn't exactly fan-pleasing, and the Clay Guida fight has left a bad taste in many fans' mouths. Grant, while a hardcore fan favorite in the division, is not nearly well known enough or tested enough to make for a good foil for Henderson.
The Pettis fight seems to be the one to make, the story line of Pettis' amazing win over Henderson would make a great selling point, their styles match up in exciting ways, and Pettis deserves a shot at the Lightweight title. But the earliest fans will see this match up will be the end of 2013, and that is assuming Pettis defeats Aldo. In that case, we could get a clash of champions that really wouldn't be that much more hyped that Pettis simply facing Henderson as a challenger. In that scenario, the winner could have then faced Jose Aldo in a Champion vs Champion fight that likely would have been a much bigger fight.
But if Pettis loses to Aldo it likely derails his Lightweight contender-ship and leaves the Lightweight division in an even greater bind, and basically forces Henderson to go looking for Super Fights after his next successful title defense. The UFC has caused itself long term problems by springing for the short term gain of Aldo vs Pettis. If Pettis was able to fight Henderson this summer, the UFC would have more time to solidify Lightweight contenders and would have a doozy of Lightweight title fight that could legitimately carry a Pay-Per-View card or a Fox event.