Going into his bout with Nate Diaz this past Saturday night at UFC on Fox 5, champion Benson Henderson seemingly had much to prove. Despite having earned and defended the lightweight title, there was a sense that the 155-pound strap didn't rightfully belong to him—this due, in large part, to his two victories over former champion Frankie Edgar coming in razor-thin and controversial fashion.
In facing a brash opponent the likes of Diaz, "Smooth" finally had an opportunity to silence the critics. The Stockton native had battered and smashed his way to a title opportunity and made no secret that he was bringing the scrap directly to Henderson's doorstep.
Questions lingered as to how the MMA Lab product would react to Diaz's unique methods, but as soon as the action got underway in the night's main event, Henderson wasted zero time in showing the world why he is the undisputed UFC lightweight champion.
For five rounds, the 28-year-old imposed his will on the Season Five TUF winner as he slammed, dropped and hammered the younger of the Diaz brothers. Henderson's pressure was relentless, and he overwhelmed Diaz from start to finish. In moments where Diaz attempted his classic posturing, Henderson made him pay for it in grand fashion, as he dropped the Cesar Gracie-trained fighter shortly after Diaz dropped his hands and extended his chin.
When the final bell sounded, the night belonged to Henderson, and he made his second successful title defense in unquestionable fashion. To most it looked like another night of a champion doing his thing. But to this writer, it was a clear statement made to the rest of the super-competitive lightweight division that Henderson has no plans of going back down the ladder.
Line Them Up
Post-fight press conferences have been known to present their fair share of awkward moments, but when Henderson was continuously questioned about who he would like to fight next, the champion attempted to mask his annoyance while still addressing the question. In a weight class rich with potential contenders, there is no shortage of exciting matchups waiting just around the corner.
At the current time there are a handful of fighters within striking distance of a title opportunity. At next month's UFC on Fox 6 card, there is a showdown between Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis, which could easily determine who gets the next crack at Henderson's belt.
While the current champion has already defeated Cerrone on two occasions under the WEC banner, since "Cowboy" has transitioned to the Octagon, he has been a force to be reckoned with. His only setback since leaving the "little blue cage" of the WEC has come at the hands of Diaz, but the Colorado native bounced back strong with victories over Jeremy Stephens and Melvin Guillard.
Things have been slightly different for Pettis. After defeating Henderson to earn the WEC lightweight championship in 2010, "Showtime" has fallen into a pattern where momentum has been difficult to build. He was originally slated to face the winner of Edgar vs. Maynard at UFC 125, but after that fight ended in a draw and an immediate rematch was scheduled, Pettis was pushed to the sidelines.
Rather than wait things out, the Duke Roufus-trained fighter agreed to a bout with Clay Guida, where he was ultimately defeated via unanimous decision. The loss pushed Pettis out of the immediate picture, but after earning victories over Stephens and Joe Lauzon at UFC 144, the 25-year-old has once again positioned himself in title contention range.
The winner of their bout on January 26th in Chicago could be granted the next shot at the UFC lightweight strap, but there is another name floating around that could put a nix on both fighters' title hopes.
Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez has been battling to be recognized as one of the top 155-pound fighters in the world for years. Fighting outside the UFC banner has made this task all the more difficult, but after building a six-fight win streak and holding the title for more than four years, Melendez has been a staple atop the lightweight rankings.
The biggest issue in this scenario comes with Melendez's current situation with Strikeforce. All signs point to the San Jose-based organization being on its deathbed. But until his contract situation is sorted out and the UFC brings the 30-year-old into the fold, it appears Melendez will remain in limbo. Should Zuffa be able to get this done in somewhat quick fashion, the time line would be perfect for a Henderson vs. Melendez battle of champions.
Chasing Anderson Silva
By earning the lightweight crown and defending the strap on two occasions, there is little doubt Henderson has made the most of his 2012. Since coming into the UFC, he has consistently faced top competition and made the most of every opportunity that has come his way. In becoming champion of an ultra-competitive division, a target has been firmly placed on his back. From listening to Henderson speak, it is a situation he not only enjoys, but also prefers.
He wants to face the best in the world, and he is in the perfect weight class for those tests to come fast and furious. Over the next 12 months, Henderson could be matched up with the likes of Pettis, Cerrone, Melendez, Maynard or even former Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez. This guarantees that the title fights in the lightweight division are going to bring challenges of the highest caliber.
In the past, Henderson has been vocal about his intentions to eclipse Anderson Silva's record of title defenses, a point he reiterated this weekend in Seattle. Should he be able to work his way through the onslaught of talent coming his way, we could finally see B.J. Penn dethroned as the greatest lightweight champion of all time.
Will this ultimately come to pass?
It is too early to answer that question at this time. But I guarantee it is going to be exciting finding out just how far Henderson's talent can take him.