The lightweight divisional race has been nothing short of electric in the first half of 2013.
Champion Benson Henderson edged out former Strikeforce title holder Gilbert Melendez in their tilt at UFC on Fox 7 back in April, while several of the division's top fighters experienced turbulence as they were turned back in their respective showings throughout the year's opening six months.
The first half of the year provided plenty of unexpected surprises as well. Divisional darkhorse T.J. Grant put the finishing touches on his quest for a shot at the title as he rolled over Matt Wiman in January and former No. 1 contender Gray Maynard in his most recent outing at UFC 160.
American Kickboxing Academy staple Josh Thomson made a long-awaited and triumphant return to the UFC when he knocked out former title challenger Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 7 in San Jose.
Former WEC title challenger Donald Cerrone bounced back after being knocked out of title contention in the first month of the year. "Cowboy" took a brutal setback courtesy of Anthony Pettis at UFC on Fox 6 in January, but jumped back onto the contention radar by drubbing K.J. Noons at UFC 160.
It goes without saying that the lightweight division is one of the most talent-rich collections under the UFC banner, and after a fast and furious opening six months, the second half of the year is easily shaping up to be action-packed.
Let's take a look at some of the key matchups that will shake-up the title picture to close out 2013.
Benson Henderson vs. T.J. Grant
Lightweight champion Benson Henderson is on a mission to become one of the most dominant title holders in UFC history. The MMA Lab product has made three successful title defenses since claiming the strap from Frankie Edgar at UFC 144 back in February of 2012, earning victories over the likes of Nate Diaz, Gilbert Melendez and Edgar in their immediate rematch at UFC 150.
While Henderson was ruling the championship tier of the division, gritty Canadian T.J. Grant was making his climb. The former welterweight turned lightweight contender has collected five consecutive victories since dropping down into 155-pound waters. The 29-year-old Nova Scotian earned a title opportunity on the strength of his dynamic run and will have the opportunity to square off with the current champion on August 31 in Milwaukee.
Grant solidified his No. 1 contender status by putting on the most impressive performance of his career against Gray Maynard at UFC 160. "The Bully" has been a perennial contender in the lightweight ranks for the past three years and Grant steamrolled the TUF alum in a fashion few expected.
The victory set up a title showdown between a champion looking to define his legacy and the division's hottest fighter. While Grant may not carry much name recognition with the UFC fanbase, he absolutely presents interesting stylistic challenges and is a legitimate threat to Henderson's title reign.
Gilbert Melendez vs. Diego Sanchez
For the past five years, the only thing Gilbert Melendez wanted was the opportunity to prove he is the best 155-pound fighter in the world. And it was a feat he nearly accomplished.
The former Strikeforce champion gave Benson Henderson all he could handle in a gritty five-round affair, But the 31-year-old Californian ultimately came up short on the judge's scorecards, losing a close and controversial split-decision to the reigning champion.
While immediate rematches have been commonplace in the lightweight divisions over the past three years, especially in the wake of a closely contested fights, the UFC decided to keep the avenues of title contention rolling, and Melendez was forced to take a step back down the ladder.
The move will force "El Nino" to fight his way back to another title opportunity and the first step of that journey will come against Diego Sanchez in October.
Despite jumping between weight classes and being caught in career turbulence for the past few years, "The Dream" has committed to making another run at the lightweight title. After suffering a lopsided loss at the hands of B.J. Penn at UFC 107 in December of 2009, the original TUF winner returned to the welterweight division.
Sanchez experienced mixed results at 170 pounds and this prompted the 31-year-old Albuquerque native to once again try his hand in the lightweight division. His first step back produced favorable results as he edged out former Pride superstar Takanori Gomi at UFC on Fuel TV 8 in March.
Following the victory, Sanchez gave the UFC a "wish list" of opponents he'd like to face and Melendez was one of the possible options.
Now the two hard-charging lightweights will scrap it out later this year to determine who stays and who goes in the title hunt. Melendez is eager to earn a shot at redemption in the title realm and Sanchez will be looking to keep his career reinvention alive.
Plenty of Variables at Play in the Title Hunt
While the title race in the lightweight division has certainly heated up this year, at the current time, there isn't a clear cut path to contention.
In addition to Melendez versus Sanchez, there are multiple high-profile bouts on the books in the upcoming months that will certainly have a major impact on where things go in the final months of the year.
Resurgent contender Donald Cerrone will throw down with Rafael dos Anjos in the co-main event of UFC on Fox Sports 1: 2. The bout will carry tremendous significance were Cerrone is concerned. The Jackson's MMA-trained fighter has been on the cusp of contention multiple times since coming into the UFC fold and can ill-afford another setback in his quest to become a champion.
A victory over "RDA" will keep Cerrone in the thick of the hunt, but a loss would most likely push him out of the title picture for the foreseeable future.
Defeating Nate Diaz at UFC on Fox 7 put Josh Thomson in a great position on the divisional hierarchy, but the biggest step is yet to come. Despite the incredible depth of the lightweight roster, the option's for Thomson's next challenge have yet to materialize.
There are plenty of tough fighters lurking around the lightweight ranks, there is yet to be an opponent who makes a tremendous amount of sense. If Thomson is going to make a push to become a UFC champion, he will need to wait for someone who brings an equal amount of risk/reward to the table.
While there are a handful of fighters looking to make a big impact on the title picture, the one fighter who has the most power to do so is Anthony Pettis. The former WEC lightweight champion is undoubtedly one of the biggest talents in the 155-pound division and is a fixture in the title picture in the lightweight division.
That being said, the Duke Roufus-trained fighter is caught in a limbo between two divisions. "Showtime" was originally guaranteed the next shot at the lightweight crown following his victory over Cerrone at UFC on Fox 6, but discarded that opportunity to drop down and face featherweight champion Jose Aldo at UFC 163.
Unfortunately for Pettis, a knee injury pushed him out of the bout, and forced yet another title shot to fall by the wayside. The 26-year-old Milwaukee-based fighter then attempted to politic himself into the main event against Henderson at UFC 164, but UFC President Dana White quickly put that idea on ice.
Nevertheless, Pettis will be returning to action later this year and will have immediate impact on whichever division he chooses to compete in. Whether that will be the lightweight division remains to be seen, but if Pettis does decide to re-enter the 155-pound shark tank, he will automatically jump to the front of the line.
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