UFC 150: The Casual Fan's Guide to the Lightweight Division
Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar are the two best lightweights in the business right now, and will face off for the belt at UFC 150. Photo by Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images.
UFC 150 is fast approaching, headlined by a lightweight championship bout between Ben “Smooth” Henderson and Frankie “The Answer” Edgar with an assist from Donald Cerrone vs. Melvin Guillard. This big card has all eyes focused on the UFC's 155 lb. division.
If you are new to this whole MMA thing, though, hearing all these names get thrown around probably ranges from confusing to off-putting. That is where this article comes in.
Welcome to The Casual Fan's Guide to the UFC's Lightweight Division.
Here, you will get better acquainted with the rich history of what was, for a long time, the UFC's smallest division. While it lacked size, it has traditionally made up for that with exciting fights and a wide variety of styles.
So ladies and gentlemen, get ready to have names named, things pointed out and references cited that will make you seem like a total smartypants around the water cooler.
How Did the UFC's Lightweight Division Become so Good?
Anthony Pettis is one of many great lightweights that consistently deliver great fights. Photo by Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images.
It gets said so often: during fights, online, and around the water cooler.
The UFC's lightweight division is the single strongest division in any given promotion. It has consistently exciting fights, a huge talent pool and extremely skilled fighters therein.
How did this happen? Well, the main thing is the most “average” fighting weight range.
Lightweights range from 5'6" Frankie Edgar to 6'0" Donald Cerrone. A variety of heights and body types make it the most accessible weight class, on the whole.
This is reflected in how the lightweight division is the UFC's largest division. The UFC website has 64 lightweights listed, compared to 51 middleweights, 38 light heavyweights and 32 heavyweights. It is the second most featured division in The Ultimate Fighter history, behind only welterweight (although the UFC did not have a lightweight division during the show's first three seasons).
It really just boils down to numbers. But regardless, the results are absolutely amazing.
Who Are the Best Lightweights Historically?
BJ Penn remains the longest-reigning lightweight in UFC history, and is widely regarded as the best lightweight in MMA history.
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The UFC has had just five champions over the years, compared to eight welterweight champions, twelve light heavyweight champions and sixteen heavyweight champs (there have been five middleweight champions, though this is largely thanks to Anderson Silva's six-year reign).
Part of this is because is because of injuries and ugly contract disputes. Part of this is because of dominant reigns by champions.
Original lightweight champion, Jens Pulver, was belted at UFC 30 and would remain champion for little over a year before being stripped of his title amidst a contract dispute.
The throne would remain vacant for four years, and the division would be disbanded for a while. The lightweights would get a new champion at UFC 64, with Sean Sherk beating Kenny Florian.
Sherk, too, would lose the title outside the cage, after testing positive for steroids.
The title would stay vacant for only a few months this time. It was then taken by BJ Penn, who would provide the UFC with stability at the top of the division for the first time ever.
He would hold onto the belt for over two years, giving lopsided beatdowns to a returning Sean Sherk, and to TUF1 contestants Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez.
Penn, during this time, was actually one of the most dominant UFC title holders ever, earning stoppage victories against all comers. Though Frankie Edgar would take his belt at UFC 112 by a razor-thin decision, Penn is still widely regarded as the single best lightweight fighter in the UFC's history.
While there have been many good lightweights, Sean Sherk, Jens Pulver, and Kenny Florian all take a distant second place behind Penn.
Who Is the Lightweight Champion (and What Is the WEC?)?
Former WEC lightweight champion Ben Henderson claimed the UFC belt by beating down Frankie Edgar. Photo by Al Bello/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images.
Right now, Benson “Smooth” Henderson is the UFC lightweight champion. He will be fighting former champion Frankie Edgar at UFC 150. For now, though, we'll talk about “Bendo”.
Henderson rose to fame under the Zuffa umbrella as part of the now-dead World Extreme Cagefighting promotion (WEC). The WEC, for all you newbies out there, was a promotion purchased by the UFC's parent company, Zuffa, in 2006.
Before Zuffa, the WEC was a fully-loaded promotion with weight classes ranging from bantamweight to super heavyweight. Zuffa would, by 2009, whittle down the promotion to just three weight classes (bantamweight, featherweight and lightweight), and absorb the top fighters outside these weight classes including the likes of Chael Sonnen, Brian Stann and Mark Munoz.
Henderson joined the WEC in 2009, beating Anthony Njokuani with a submission in the second round. He followed this up with a first-round knockout of Shane Roller. This quickly put him in position to fight Donald Cerrone for the WEC interim lightweight belt.
He would unify his interim belt with Jamie Varner's and would once again beat Donald Cerrone before losing to Anthony Pettis in the WEC's very last fight (the fight was quite close, but the infamous “Showtime Kick” tipped the scales in Pettis' favor).
It was at this point that the WEC was folded into the UFC, bringing Henderson and all his WEC compatriots along.
Though the fighters were obviously skilled, the UFC was initially skeptical of the WEC's lightweights.
Henderson was first tasked with fighting middle-of-the-pack Mark Bocek. He thoroughly bested him, and then got a huge step up in competition in the form of Jim Miller, who was riding a seven-fight winning streak.
Playing the underdog, Henderson staged a huge upset by absolutely dominating Miller. At this point, he was in the running for a shot at the belt, and was matched against Clay Guida in a bout to determine champion Frankie Edgar's next opponent. Again, he won convincingly.
In his championship bout, he would out-strike and out-muscle Edgar, landing 100 strikes to Edgar's 81 while doing substantially more damage.
He left Edgar battered, bloody and with a broken nose. UFC President Dana White is a huge Frankie Edgar fan, however, and is giving him a shot to retake the belt, even though the decision was not especially close.
Who Are Some Other Top Lightweights in the UFC?
Gray Maynard and Clay Guida are two of the many great lightweights in the UFC.
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One of the crazy things about the UFC's lightweight division is just how many contenders there have been at any given point over the last couple of years.
Ben Henderson and Frankie Edgar are fighting for the belt, but the two of them could both be hit by a bus and the division would barely miss a beat.
Outside of Edgar, there are two more very viable contenders in TUF5 winner Nate Diaz (who is likely next in line for a title shot) and former WEC lightweight champion (and the man to beat Henderson) Anthony Pettis. Either of these two, in all honesty, would have been better opponents for Henderson's first title defense and they certainly have the resume for a shot at the belt.
Next is an enormous collection of skilled fighters.
Former WEC lightweight Donald Cerrone has fought a remarkable six times since the WEC-UFC merger, and sports a 5-1 record.
Former lightweight title contender, and one of just two men to beat Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard is also in this pack with a 9-1-1 (1) record in the UFC.
That group would likely be the clear-cut top six UFC lightweights, but past that is a bunch of names like Clay Guida, Joe Lauzon, Melvin Guillard, Jim Miller, and many more. There are literally about thirty different fighters in the UFC lightweight division worth mentioning but there simply is not enough room here to do so.
Let's just leave it at this group for now.
Who Are the Best Lightweights Outside the UFC?
Gilbert Melendez and Shinya Aoki are two of the best lightweights outside the UFC.
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As stated, 155 lbs is a very accessible weight globally. Because of this, and unlike pretty much every other weight class in MMA, there are many strong fighters outside the UFC.
The top lightweight fighter outside the UFC, bar none, is Strikeforce's Gilbert Melendez.
Melendez sports a 21-2 record, and has not been defeated since 2008, which has lead many people to place him quite high on their top-ten lists.
Strikeforce is also home to well-regarded mid-tier fighters Josh Thomson, K.J. Noons, Jorge Masvidal and Pat Healy.
Bellator FC also has a a handful of strong lightweights.
The biggest name of the bunch is long-time lightweight champion Eddie Alvarez. Alvarez was undefeated in Bellator from its very first event in 2009, all the way until Bellator 58 in November 2011.
He was beaten by the fast-rising and undefeated Michael Chandler, who is currently the second-best-ranked lightweight outside the UFC.
Finally, Rick Hawn looks the part of a potential superstar. He was a finalist in Bellator's 2011 welterweight tournament, and he recently dropped down to lightweight. He then won the 2012 lightweight tourney.
Internationally, submission wizard Shinya Aoki is still held in high esteem in spite of losses to Gilbert Melendez and Eddie Alvarez. He is currently a free agent, with the collapse of Japan's Dream promotion, but has indicated that he is reluctant to join the UFC because of family obligations.
What Does the Top Ten Rankings Look Like?
Donald Cerrone and Nate Diaz are two fighters that appear on most top ten lists.
Mark J. Rebilas-US PRESSWIRE
Even though there are many, many great lightweight fighters, the top ten is a lot clearer than other divisions.
Benson Henderson is widely regarded as the top dog in the division, followed by Frankie Edgar. Past those two, Gray Maynard, Nate Diaz, and Gilbert Melendez typically fill out the top five. Anthony Pettis sometimes makes the cut into this group, but he more often than not ends up on the outside looking in.
From there, UFC fighters Clay Guida, Jim Miller and Donald Cerrone often get placed amongst the best fighters in the lightweight division. Joe Lauzon, and Bellator's Michael Chandler and Eddie Alvarez sometimes pop up at the bottom of the top ten.
You can check out Bleacher Report's current top ten here.
Must-See Fights in the Lightweight Division
Frankie Edgar's rise to the top of the lightweight division has provided many exciting fights.
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UFC 35: Jens Pulver vs. BJ Penn I
One of the earliest lightweight title fights in the UFC, it was a hard-fought battle between two of the best fighters of the time.
UFC 80: Joe Stevenson vs. BJ Penn
The fight that started Penn's reign as champion. Penn demolishes Stevenson and begins his time as one of the UFC's most dominant champions.
The Ultimate Fighter: United States vs. United Kingdom Finale: Diego Sanchez vs. Clay Guida
Regarded as one of the most exciting fights in MMA history, Sanchez and Guida were locked in a thrilling, back-and-forth brawl unlike any other.
UFC 107: BJ Penn vs. Diego Sanchez
Penn's last win as a lightweight—he demonstrated his prowess in all aspects of MMA and dominated a very tough Diego Sanchez.
WEC 43: Donald Cerrone vs. Benson Henderson I
Bendo beats out Donald Cerrone to become the WEC's lightweight champion, vaulting himself into MMA stardom and showing that he was one of the best in the world.
Strikeforce: Evolution: Gilbert Melendez vs. Josh Thomson II
Gilbert Melendez wins a great one to unify the Strikeforce lightweight belt and establish himself as the promotion's top dog.
UFC 112: BJ Penn vs. Frankie Edgar I
Frankie Edgar wins an extremely close decision to take the belt away from BJ Penn, after more than two years on top of the division.
WEC 53: Benson Henderson vs. Anthony Pettis
Another nail-biter, Bendo and Showtime have a high-flying, barn-burning, knock-down, drag-out battle that finishes with the legendary “Showtime Kick”, sending the WEC off in style.
UFC 125: Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard II
One of the grittiest fights in UFC history, Maynard got a title shot after Edgar usurped his chance to face BJ Penn. The problem? Maynard beat Edgar in 2008. The two battled to a draw which was, truly, the best decision nobody ever wanted.
UFC 136: Frankie Edgar vs. Gray Maynard III
The "little three-match that could" added another chapter to one of the best rivalries in modern MMA, this time coming to a definitive conclusion in the form of Frankie Edgar's best finish (a fourth round knockout).
UFC 144: Frankie Edgar vs. Benson Henderson I
Another war involving Frankie Edgar but, this time, it did not go his way. Henderson and Edgar battled hard and Henderson ultimately showed why he is the best lightweight in MMA today.