UFC 144 Results: State of the Lightweight Division

Andrew Saunders@SaundersMMACorrespondent IIFebruary 29, 2012

UFC 144 Results: State of the Lightweight Division

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    Fans of the WEC immediately began screaming that Benson Henderson validated the skill of the entire organization at UFC 144. The new UFC lightweight champion did much more than that on Saturday night when he denied the always-thrilling Frankie Edgar a third successful title defense. 

    “The Answer” looked spectacular at UFC 144 right up until a vicious up-kick devastated him late in the second round. Although Edgar would rally to pick up the third round on the scorecards, the damage was done. With a badly swollen eye, the predicative ability that Frankie possesses appeared to be gone.

    Now that the always-exciting lightweight division has a new champion, a lot of doors open up. Rising stars will continue to climb to the top. Big names of the past get an opportunity for another crack at the belt. The possibilities are limitless.

    Let’s take a look at some of the top talent in the lightweight division, their current standing and what they need to do in order to earn a title shot in 2012.

Anthony Pettis

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    "Showtime" did it again. At UFC 144, he found himself on highlight reels all night long after delivering an incredible head kick KO of the always-tenacious Joe Lauzon only 81 seconds into the opening contest of the pay-per-view.

    Being the last man to defeat the current champion is certainly a big reason to give Pettis a shot at the belt, but let’s not get totally ahead of ourselves here. In 2011, Pettis found himself on the wrong end of a shutout when Clay Guida grinded his way to a victory over the final WEC lightweight champion. After that, he won a split decision over middle-of-the-pack Jeremy Stephens.

    I’m not suggesting that Pettis doesn’t have the skills to beat Bendo once again. If I did, I think you’d be hard pressed to find anyone else who agrees with me. Instead, I’m suggesting that he has only shined in one of his three UFC appearances.

    Perhaps a win over a top-five guy is needed before warranting a crack at the newly-crowned champ.

Gray Maynard

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    Not even Chael Sonnen has been so close to capturing UFC gold as Gray Maynard. On two separate occasions, Maynard found himself standing over a terribly hurt Frankie Edgar. Depending on who you are, you may attribute a late stoppage to being the only reason that Maynard wasn’t the lightweight champion going into UFC 144 last weekend.

    Regardless, Maynard is a top lightweight who is not to be taken lightly by anyone. With previous victories over Edgar, Jim Miller, Kenny Florian, Nate Diaz and Roger Huerta, “The Bully” has proven that he can beat the best that the lightweight division has to offer.

    Now Maynard is a member of Nova Uniao, alongside top fighters like Jose Aldo, Renan Barao and Shogun Rua. With a new group of training partners to help his game continue to evolve, Maynard will continue to give fits to any opponent who steps into the cage with him.

Nate Diaz

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    Diaz has lightweight wins over surging contender Donald Cerrone, Japanese legend Takanori Gomi and recent contender Melvin Guillard. He has never been finished in the UFC, and two of his losses are via controversial split decision.

    Additionally, if Diaz's recent losses are stuck in your head, get them out of there. His decision losses to the much larger Rory MacDonald and Dong Hyun Kim were at welterweight, and should bear no impact on Nate's place at 155 pounds.

    A win over Jim Miller gives Nate three consecutive wins over top-level lightweights. His standup gives fits to even the best standup artists out there, and he is dangerous off of his back. His style matches up well against the well-rounded Bendo.

    If he wins his next fight via stoppage, I can't see a single reason that he shouldn't be the second Diaz brother to compete for gold this year.

Jim Miller

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    When he squared off against Benson Henderson in August, Jim Miller was riding a seven-fight win streak in the UFC and had a 9-1 record inside the Octagon. His only loss during that time was a decision to Gray Maynard.

    Although he lost to our current champion, he spent the entire bout firing off submission attempts from every position imaginable, despite suffering from a kidney infection and mono during his training camp.

    A win over Nate Diaz only gives Miller two in a row, and his last loss was a performance against the current champion, in which he was dominated. The only way that Miller gets a crack at gold in 2012 is if he finishes Nate Diaz and beats an equally impressive opponent in decisive fashion in early fall.

Frankie Edgar

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    While fighters have gamed the system in order to fight in this class despite their much larger frames, Frankie is a natural lightweight. Guys like Gray Maynard and Benson Henderson who walk around well above the 156-pound limit gimmick their way into the division; it’s just the way that the game is played these days.

    He could play the same weight-cutting games that others do in order to get down to featherweight, where he would no longer be at a size disadvantage, but he has done considerably well in his natural class, twice beating BJ Penn and finishing the much larger Gray Maynard in 2011.

    I hope that Frankie sticks around, but the pastures at featherweight appear to be greener right about now. If Frankie can pick up 2012 wins over guys like Clay Guida or Jim Miller, he can find himself right back at the top of the division by the year’s end.

    Featherweight is Frankie’s only shot at gold this year.

Edson Barboza

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    With his knockout of the year performance over Terry Etim back in January, delivering another pair of highlight-reel finishes would put him within arms reach of Bendo by the end of the year.

    After securing UFC wins over Ross Pearson, Terry Etim, Anthony Njokuani and Mike Lullo, undefeated lightweight Edson Barboza is one of few in his division who maintains a perfect record.

    Barboza is taking a big step up in competition in his next bout when he squares off against twice-beaten phenom Evan Dunham.

Evan Dunham

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    Speak of the Devil…

    First things first, let’s address the mistake that Dunham made last year. When you are paired up against Melvin Guillard, do not try to go punch for punch. It is the quickest way to ensure that you have a quick night.

    If you are willing to forgive the one night of boneheadedness in Dunham’s career, you can see the incredible level of skill that this young lightweight has put on display. His UFC 119 bout with Sean Sherk showed that he can beat a former world champion.

    Let’s be clear: Evan Dunham won that fight.

    If Dunham gets past Edson Barboza in May, that’ll make three in a row over escalating levels of competition. Granted, Barboza has yet to prove himself to be a real contender, but he is a quality name with a big-time record and highlight-reel performances.

    If Dunham beats Barboza, expect a fall bout with a top-five opponent.

Clay Guida

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    I’ve got to include Clay Guida in this list, because he just refuses to go away. We originally dubbed him “The Ultimate Fighter Killer” after he beat TUF champions Mac Danzig and Nate Diaz before taking on Diego Sanchez in one of the most action-packed fights of all time.

    Those kinds of memories are sure to make you some fans in the UFC brass.

    Guida has won four of his last five, but that loss was to the current champion. Perhaps that rematch is one that can be revisited somewhere down the line, but I doubt it.

    The lightweight division is chock full of contenders and new challenges for Bendo. As long as he’s got the strap, it looks like Guida will be out of the title picture.

Sean Sherk

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    "The Muscle Shark" has fought only once since May of 2009, and it came in a very controversial win over then-undefeated Evan Dunham. Since that time, Sherk has had a 17-month layoff from fighting. Whether it be injuries or a lack of matchups, he just can’t seem to find his way into the Octagon.

    Entering his 13th year in MMA at the age of 38, Sherk may only have a few fights left in the tank. His competitive spirit, hand speed and wrestling prowess may find him back into the Octagon against top talent. The cream always rises, and Sherk has lost only to world champions in the past.

    Who are the only men to defeat Sherk at lightweight? BJ Penn and Frankie Edgar.

    Never count Sherk out. I expect a 2012 return to the UFC. We will see how kind the layoff has been to him and reserve judgment until then.

Donald Cerrone

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    "Cowboy" Cerrone took the UFC lightweight division by storm in 2011. He was nearly the first man in UFC history to score five wins in a calendar year when he took on Nate Diaz in December. Outboxed and outclassed, Cowboy had to settle for the disappointing decision loss in that bout, which scored him a bonus check of Fight of the Night.

    Cerrone has gone toe to toe with Bendo before and had mixed results. Their first fight was an instant classic that elevated both men into the big leagues. Their second fight was over as quickly as it started, with Bendo still holding the belt. A third bout is possible, but Cerrone is losing 0-2.

    Expect Cerrone to deliver big in his upcoming bout with Jeremy Stephens. He has never lost two in a row and will do whatever it takes to get back into the title hunt. If he respects Stephens' power and works the fight to the mat, then you can count on Cerrone locking up another Submission of the Night performance.

    No title shot in the immediate future for Cowboy. He has to prove that he can put the Diaz loss behind him. If he rattles off three more wins in 2012, then next year looks promising.

BJ Penn

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    Retired? Not so fast!

    BJ Penn may have hung up his gloves after his October affair with Nick Diaz, but the UFC landscape was very different at that time. Penn left the lightweight division after his second loss to Frankie Edgar, primary because he knew that his history with the champion would keep him out of the title picture as long as "The Answer" held the gold.

    A return to the lightweight division could see Penn in title contention with as little as one big win. Put him against any guy on this list as a tune-up fight. If he wins, put him across from the new champ.

    BJ Penn vs Ben Henderson could be a battle for the ages. Both guys could fight comfortably at welterweight if they wanted to. Both guys have excellent standup. Benson has great takedowns and BJ has great takedown defense. BJ has incredible submissions. Bendo has incredible submission defense.

    On paper, this one could be a chess match, but when you look at the aggressive nature of both men, it could wind up being a war of the ages.