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Video: Top 10 MMA fighters of 2010s at lightweight

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Long the shark tank of the MMA world, the lightweight division contained the deepest collection of elite fighters during the 2010s, topped by Khabib Nurmagomedov.

It could be argued the 2010s opened and closed with the most dominant UFC champion residing in the lightweight division. Prior to the beginning of the decade, BJ Penn was coming off a dominant performance over Diego Sanchez and nobody saw him losing the belt any time soon. As we all know, he never won another fight at 155 ever again. While I’m not saying Khabib Nurmagomedov is never going to win another fight at lightweight again, he did enter this decade with a similar stature to Penn. When Khabib claimed the crown, he put an end to a tumultuous decade as eight different men laid claim to the UFC lightweight title, nine if you include Tony Ferguson’s interim reign. It wasn’t all that different in Bellator either as there were eight separate reigns of their organization’s lightweight title, though it was only five different men who claimed the belt. At least WSOF had consistency with Justin Gaethje….

1. Khabib Nurmagomedov: It’s hard to argue with undefeated… and Khabib has never lost a fight in his professional MMA career. Adding to the already impressive feat is the manner in which Khabib has been decimating his opponents. Remember his 21 takedowns of Abel Trujillo? How about Khabib telling Michael Johnson he must give up because Khabib “must be champion,” all while pounding Johnson into the mat. Perhaps most memorable was his attack on Dillon Danis, which came only after Khabib forced Danis’ teammate, Conor McGregor, to tap out in one of the biggest grudge matches in UFC history. It could be argued Khabib was the most dominant figure of the decade in all of MMA, not just in the lightweight division.

2. Tony Ferguson: There’s a reason the UFC keeps trying to pit Khabib against Ferguson. Ferguson is currently riding a 12-fight win streak. The beginning of the streak featured some less-than stellar opposition, but he’s been disposing of the best of the division since then… except for Khabib of course. Regardless, names like Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis, Kevin Lee, Rafael dos Anjos, and Edson Barboza have fallen to Ferguson. Ferguson’s confidence and creativity are unmatched, making him the most likely contestant to hang an L on Khabib… if they can ever make it to the cage.

3. Eddie Alvarez: Alvarez had his share of up’s and down’s throughout the decade, but he was also the first fighter to hold titles in both Bellator and the UFC, making two claims on the Bellator title. Even if he came out on the short end of the stick the first time he clashed with Michael Chandler, it was an all-time classic. Their second fight wasn’t too bad either, which Alvarez did win. The Underground King was also the first to hang a loss on Justin Gaethje. With his multiple title reigns in the top two MMA organizations of the decade, it could be argued Alvarez was the most decorated fighter of the 2010s.

4. Dustin Poirier: The Diamond only spent about half of the decade at lightweight, but he made the most of his time at 155. He went 11-3, 1 NC with wins over several of his fellow competitors to be the best lightweights for the decade. Alvarez. Gaethje. Pettis. Even Max Holloway in a lightweight contest. Jim Miller is also a notable name and his win over Diego Ferreira is looking better all the time. Of those eleven wins, eight avoided the use of judges. He also had a stretch of six fights where he took home four FOTN’s and a separate performance bonus. At 31, Poirier still has plenty of time to add to his overall legacy.

5. Anthony Pettis: Pettis is a hard one to place. If we’re going strictly off his performance over the first half of the decade, few can match, much less top, his accomplishments. He went 9-1, captured the WEC lightweight title, the UFC lightweight title, snagged seven performance bonuses, and ended up on the Wheaties box. Then came the second half of the decade, featuring some dalliances at featherweight and welterweight. His record at lightweight: 2-5, including what was officially a catchweight as Michael Chiesa missed weight. To his credit, Pettis never went down easy, but his poor second half of the decade can’t be ignored. Unfortunately, many have forgotten just how awesome his first half of the decade was too.

6. Rafael dos Anjos: It looks like dos Anjos may be nearing the end of the line as he has dropped four of his last five. However, those were all at welterweight. What did dos Anjos do at lightweight? He went 13-5, captured the UFC lightweight title, and put a bad enough beatdown on Pettis when he wrested the belt away from him that Pettis has never been the same fighter since. When dos Anjos was at his peak, only the best of the past decade were able to hang losses on him: Khabib, Ferguson, and Alvarez. Had he been able to make it for his scheduled contest against McGregor in 2016, the legacy of dos Anjos would likely be very different from what it currently is.

7. Benson Henderson: Given his tendency to rely heavily on some favorable – sometimes questionable — judging, many would have just assumed Henderson gone away. Regardless, Henderson, like Pettis, was the WEC lightweight champion and the UFC lightweight champion. Unlike Pettis, Henderson was able to secure a defense of the WEC belt and delivered two more successful defenses of the UFC belt than Pettis. Of course, Henderson also lost both of those belts to Pettis… which is why he’s ranked lower than Pettis. Overall, Henderson went 16-6 at 155, wins over Cerrone, Gilbert Melendez, Nate Diaz, Frankie Edgar, and Josh Thomson amongst his victims. That’s a resume that can’t be ignored.

8. Donald Cerrone: There are two things Cowboy is known for. Coming up short when the lights are brightest and being willing to throw down with anyone, anytime, anywhere. Cerrone fought 26 times at 155 during the decade, more than anyone else on this list. That isn’t even counting the additional 10 times he fought at welterweight. It isn’t like he always lost when facing the elite. Cerrone captured wins over Alvarez and Henderson in the process and secured 11 of his 14 performance bonuses for the decade at 155. Believe it or not, Cerrone isn’t done quite yet either.

9. Justin Gaethje: It’s hard to predict what Gaethje’s record would have been had he fought competition closer to his level for the majority of his career as opposed to doing his thing in the WSOF. Nonetheless, Gaethje won the first 18 fights of his career, defended his WSOF title a total of five times – without officially losing it, vacating it on his way to the UFC – and developed a reputation as the most consistently exciting fighter of his time. No one else has ever won performance bonuses in their first six UFC contests. Since suffering his first two career losses, Gaethje has adjusted and made himself a better fighter, annihilating his next three opponents before the first round was out. Given the amount of damage he takes, we should enjoy Gaethje while we can.

10. Michael Chandler: The three-time Bellator lightweight champion has had several stops and starts to his career. He laid claim to the Bellator lightweight title three times throughout the decade, beating Alvarez to claim it the first time in an instant classic. Even though he came out on the short end of the stick in their sophomore effort, it was a pretty damn good fight too. Wins over Patricky Friere and Henderson were impressive for his resume as well. His accomplishments were enough that many believe he’s the greatest fighter in the history of the Bellator organization.

Honorable Mentions: Conor McGregor, Frankie Edgar, Edson Barboza, Nate Diaz, Will Brooks, Gilbert Melendez.

McGregor did lay claim to the UFC lightweight title… but he only had 4 lightweight contests for the decade, going 2-2 in those. Had Edgar spent more time at lightweight, he assuredly would be on the list too. Barboza was the unsung hero of the division, fighting all the top guys… and coming up short against them. Diaz is a superstar, but his excursions to welterweight and long absences hurt his resume. Brooks fell off a cliff after a stellar run in Bellator. Melendez may have been the best lightweight to open the decade… but he didn’t maintain that status deep enough into the decade.