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State of the Union: UFC Lightweight Division

In preparation for lightweight title contention on March 14th, UFC Middleweight Josh Samman takes a look at the king of the mountain, as well as the top ten challengers looking to dethrone him.

Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

What does it mean to be top 10? Who are the competitors, how do they fight, how do they match up? It's a question asked a lot of analysts and fans, but not quite so much of the competitors themselves. What does a division look like from inside the UFC rankings?

Champion: Anthony Pettis

Mr. Showtime himself, should he remain healthy, is one of the champions I’m most excited about watching perform in the coming years. He and Duke Roufus seem to have dialed in on an ability to expose cracks in striking dynamics that others don’t seem to have caught onto yet, particularly in the free range of striking stages of a fight, with open stance tactics.

In addition to his striking game he also has great fight IQ, as well as a submission game that none of us saw coming. He gave us a glimpse of it with the astonishing armbar finish of Henderson, and solidified it further by using it to become the first person to ever stop Gilbert Melendez.

I wish we could have seen the oft-forgotten about Aldo-Pettis superfight that was scheduled years ago. Until another opportunity like that arises I am still interested in seeing if the Pettis boat can weather the storm brewing in the deep waters of the lightweight division.

1. Rafael Dos Anjos

RDA is another fighter that provided us with a great "holy shit" moment at Benson Henderson’s expense. That fight, as well as the manner in which he defeated an albeit uninterested looking Nate Diaz, has solidified him as the next contender for Pettis’ belt. While his rise through the rankings has been impressive, winning eight of his last nine fights, I think that the belt remains right where it is, wrapped around the Wheaties filled waist of the champ.

2. Khabib Nurmagomedov

If you are a person to whom numbers appeal, there is just something so delectable about a "0" in a fighter’s loss column. No matter how trivial the manner in which they may have received it, all of the greats; Fedor, Aldo, Jones, they all managed to somehow blemish that column of their record. Nurmagomedov has managed to keep it intact, and it’s the number preceding it that makes it such a thing of beauty. 22 fights is an insane number of bouts in the sport of mixed martial arts to never have tasted defeat even once. When trying to appreciate just how significant this number is, keep in mind just how many ways there are to lose in MMA. Of all his time spent in the cage, he has avoided all consciousness separating blows, avoided a wide array of possible submissions at the disposal of his opponents, avoided losing any two rounds of a three round contest, avoided disqualification, and avoided doctor stoppage. Perfection. As an MMA fighter, this is the record that all of us dream of attaining, and he’s managed to do it. Can he maintain flawlessness through his whole career? No, I don’t think anyone can, but with every passing win the suspense is magnified. Assuming they both remain healthy, I expect a Pettis vs. Nurmagomedov showdown in 2015.

3. Donald Cerrone

The story of Cerrone is one of my favorite in recent MMA history. He started last year with lofty pursuits, proclaiming that he would fight six times in 2014. While he may have missed the calendar year cut-off by just a couple weeks, he still managed to get the job done within 365 days, not only competing six times, but winning each and every contest. Even more astounding was his strength of competitors, knocking off five of the top eleven lightweights in the world. Cerrone joked that once he becomes champion there won’t be anyone left for him to fight because he will have beat them all already. While that may not be far from the truth, he’s got to first get by the seemingly unstoppable force that is Khabib Nurmagomedov.

4. Gilbert Melendez

There isn’t one fighter on the lightweight roster that I want to see with the belt around his waist more than Gilbert Melendez. I think his late career entry into the UFC makes it easy to forget that this was one of the guys lucky enough to have gotten to face stomp fools in Japan almost a decade ago. Even further back than that, he won the first ever WEC Lightweight belt, before going on to defeat Clay Guida for the Strikeforce Lightweight title. I thought he beat Benson in their fight, in a victory that should have put a stamp on the career of one of the greatest lightweights of all time. The judges scored differently though, and that loss saw him bounce back with the glorious violence that was Melendez vs. Sanchez, as well as another spirited attempt at UFC gold at UFC 181. He’ll be looking to climb up the ladder yet again on June 13th in Mexico City against Eddie Alvarez.

5. Benson Henderson

Benson, like his former nemesis Cowboy, is another of my favorite recent stories in MMA. For a half decade I watched Benson fight, and over the course of that whole time I can’t remember once ever rooting for him. I felt his championship was marred with uninspiring performances and questionable decisions, and I was irked by his constant need to bring church into the cage.

When Benson went toe to toe with Cowboy for the third time, it was Henderson who came up on the wrong end of a decision, finally feeling the sting of questionable MMA judging. His response was best comically summed up by Tommy Toe Hold, and while it was easy to poke fun at, shortly after the fight he made good on his promise to fight anyone on short notice that the UFC offered him, including the monstrous welterweight Brandon Thatch.

For two rounds we watched Thatch batter Henderson around the cage like a bully beating up his little brother. Benson moved backwards more than we had ever seen in his career, and looked to be just delaying the inevitable, acting as an extremely mobile punching bag at best. It seemed as if there was no chance for Henderson, as he ate one massive combo after another, responding only with seemingly insignificant body shots and failed takedown attempts.

Then, something happened. We heard Anik and Stann mention Thatch’s admitted reluctance to engage with Henderson on the ground, and for most of the fight it looked like it was not going to be a factor. Suddenly, Benson finally asserted himself in the third round, in what may have been a surprising moment to both fighters. "Hey, I can take this thing to the ground" in Henderson’s head, while Thatch may have been thinking "Oh shit, he can take me down."

What followed was one of the most significant momentum shifts in an MMA fight that I'd ever seen. There was no winning by lucky punch or fluke submission, no bad judges on this score card. Instead, Henderson gained confidence with each and every passing moment on the mat, until finally in the fourth round he decided it was time to finish the fight, something he had done only once since 2010.

Aside from all of that, he did it with a fucking toothpick in his mouth. In the world of MMA, where each and every fighter is looking for something, anything, that can set himself apart from the crowd, Ben and his damn toothpick are oozing with novelty, esophageal safety be damned.

After all those years of watching Henderson fight, I finally became a fan, in an instant. If a toothpick in his mouth and Jesus in his corner are what Benson needs to put on performances like the one he did against Thatch, then preach on brother, preach on.

6. Michael Johnson

Michael Johnson’s most recent performance was, as usual, analyzed and laid out beautifully by BE’s Connor Ruebusch. Besides handling a dangerous Barboza in his own backyard, he’s now strung together four wins in a row, and is calling for a fight with the former champ in Henderson. Before Anthony Johnson entered title contention in the UFC, teammate Rashad Evans once proclaimed that Johnson was the Blackzilians best shot at winning a championship, and should he win his next fight we might see him get that chance.

7. Josh Thomson

Thomson, like Melendez, is a former Strikeforce lightweight champion, and has fought nothing but top competition for the better half of a decade. His last three losses have all come via split decision, which would probably eat away at the best of us, and while I'm a fan of Thomson, I tend to wonder how much he's got left in the tank for another go around. An injured rib forced him out of a scheduled bout against undefeated prospect Gilbert Burns, and when he does come back, I'd prefer to see him against someone ranked a bit higher. Maybe a rematch with Bobby Green?

8. Edson Barboza

Barboza was one of those guys that I felt was teetering on the line of casual fan awareness, owning arguably the most sensational head kick in MMA history. He will forever be a staple of UFC highlight reels, and I feel he could have been propelled into stardom had he just put on an exciting performance against Johnson. Instead, he was stifled in a bout that many expected him to win, and will be forced to restart the journey back to the top. I say put him against Myles Jury next.

9. Myles Jury

At 15-0, I thought that Jury may have been the one to stop Cerrone’s momentum. In retrospect it was a case of "too much too soon", in a bout that was much more one sided than many expected. At just 26 years old, he's still got tremendous room for growth, and trains with a wealth of talent at Alliance MMA. If not a matchup up with Barboza, maybe put him against Thomson when he comes back?

10. Eddie Alvarez

For years we watched Alvarez dominate the Bellator cage at 155 lbs, all without a seemingly good measuring stick for how talented he really was. That is, until Michael Chandler came along, and the two gave us one of my favorite fights in MMA history. The question still remained though as to how Alvarez (or Chandler) would stack up against the UFC’s top lightweights. I thought the Cowboy fight was a perfect one for us to determine just where in the division he belonged, and while he came up short in that bout, I would say he is facing an even bigger challenge in Melendez in his next bout.

Those close to the Alvarez or Melendez camps, or perhaps those that have been following either fighter long enough, will know that the matchup between the two is something that several MMA organization have tried to make happen over the years. Zuffa has finally got it done, and while I am usually partial to fighters based out of Florida, I think we see Eddie going 0-2 in the UFC come June 13th.

Who wins their upcoming fights? Who beats Pettis? What weight class gets dissected next?