Contender or Pretender for the UFC's Top 10 Lightweights

Nathan McCarter@McCarterNFeatured ColumnistJuly 1, 2013

Contender or Pretender for the UFC's Top 10 Lightweights

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    UFC lightweight champion Benson Henderson remains at the top of the heap halfway through 2013. The talented lightweight will defend his championship for the fourth time later this year against TJ Grant.

    Henderson has shown a good array of skills in recent years, but has also shown vulnerability. The champion has had several close calls in his recent fights.

    The lightweight division has many quality fighters jockeying for position to be the next contender. Of that group only a few have a legitimate shot at dethroning the champion. The lightweights in the current top 10 are not created equal.

    Which lightweights have a decent shot at taking the gold? These are the contenders and pretenders of the UFC's ranked lightweights.

Pretender: Rafael dos Anjos

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    Rafael dos Anjos has won four straight in the lightweight division, but his most recent outing shows just why he is not ready for the elite of the division.

    Evan Dunham was his best win of the streak, but the decision he got in that bout was questionable at best.

    Dos Anjos is a quality fighter. He is well-rounded, but he is simply not an elite lightweight.

    The No. 10-ranked lightweight will struggle against the upper echelon of the division, but be a serviceable gatekeeper in the organization. It is not a role that fighters want, but one that each division needs. That will be his role for the foreseeable future.

Pretender: Pat Healy

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    Pat Healy achieved the biggest win of his career against Jim Miller, but this promptly tested positive for marijuana after the bout.

    The initial victory came by way of submission, and shocked most in the MMA community. Stopping Miller is a big feat. One that should catch the eye of most.

    Why is Healy a pretender? The matchup against Henderson.

    Healy should switch to being a contender if we get a new champion later this year, but he is just not a good matchup against the champion. Where he is good, the champion is better. Healy likes to make fights ugly and grind them out, but that will not work against Henderson.

Pretender: Jim Miller

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    Jim Miller's last bout did not go the way he planned, but after the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board ruled it a no contest because of Healy's positive test, it kept him from dropping further down the rankings.

    Miller has only won two of his last five fights. One of those losses came at the hands of UFC champion Benson Henderson. That is why he is on the pretenders' list.

    The talented lightweight can give Henderson an interesting fight, but not a particularly tough one. Styles make fights.

    Henderson took their bout with scores of 30-27, 29-28 and 30-26. In a five-round bout, Henderson would run away with it even more if not finish Miller. He simply does not match up well.

Pretender: Nate Diaz

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    Enter another lightweight who has lost to the hands of Benson Henderson.

    Nate Diaz is one of the biggest pretenders in the division.

    Diaz has excellent individual talents, but Henderson showed just how easy he could control Diaz in their bout on national network television. He was easily thwarted over the course of 25 minutes.

    The Stockton native then promptly lost his next bout. He was stopped by Josh Thomson in the second round. On paper, Diaz has the tools needed to beat Henderson. However, the actuality of his chances were shown when they met. It wasn't competitive, and it wouldn't be in a rematch.

Contender: Donald Cerrone

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    It may sound weird listing Donald Cerrone as a contender following disappointing performances against Anthony Pettis and Nate Diaz, but the lightweight matches up well against the champion.

    They have fought twice before, with Henderson winning both, but the first meeting showed how fun this fight can be.

    In the second bout, Cerrone was simply caught in a submission very quickly. It was disappointing after their first fight became one of the WEC's best ever. They have the ability to replicate that inside the Octagon should Cerrone work his way back up.

    I would not predict Cerrone to defeat the champion, but he should be recognized as a contender in the division.

Contender: Gray Maynard

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    Gray Maynard is 1-2-1 in his last four fights, but I still believe he is a contender in the division.

    He was brutalized by top contender TJ Grant in his last outing, but Maynard has the tools to remain one of the best in the division. He has big power in his hands, solid technical boxing and excellent wrestling.

    Maynard has the ability to repeatedly take down anyone in the division.

    "The Bully" will need to win a couple fights before rejoining the title picture, but if he is able to make it back up the ladder he poses some interesting problems for the champion. Speed would be his biggest disadvantage.

    Maynard remains a contender, but only by a hair.

Contender: Josh Thomson

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    Prior to returning to the UFC, Josh Thomson did not get the love he deserved as an elite lightweight.

    Thomson had a trilogy of close, entertaining bouts against Gilbert Melendez. He won the first meeting, but lost the last two. All three went to the judges' scorecards. The final fight ended in a split decision.

    That alone should give you an idea of how good Thomson can be. And if it didn't, his return to the Octagon surely did.

    Thomson destroyed Nate Diaz. He became an instant threat and contender in the division. Newer fans now know his name and what he is capable of doing. He matches up well with the champion, and that could be one hell of a fight.

    Thomson is one of the most intriguing contenders in the division.

Contender: TJ Grant

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    Prior to UFC 160 I would have listed TJ Grant as a pretender. I was not a believer.

    What he did to Gray Maynard swiftly changed my opinion.

    Everyone knows about his ground game, but since dropping to lightweight he has gotten to show off his improved striking. It looked fantastic against Matt Wiman, but brutalizing Maynard was the real highlight. It showed how scary Grant is.

    The unassuming lightweight contender has went 5-0 as a lightweight.

    He is up next for Henderson, and I won't make the same mistake again. Grant is a contender at 155 pounds. Do not count him out.

Contender: Anthony Pettis

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    Anthony Pettis is currently ranked No. 2 in the UFC Lightweight Rankings, but a recent injury stopped him from challenging for the featherweight title.

    At lightweight, Pettis is a for-sure contender. He is, after all, the last man to defeat Henderson.

    Henderson and Pettis put on a classic fight in the WEC's swan song. It was highlighted by Pettis' "Showtime Kick" off the cage. The kick is so famous that EA is now using it in their clips for the upcoming UFC video game.

    Pettis and Henderson have both improved since then, and Pettis is a winner of three straight.

    If he can get healthy he could be the next title challenger at lightweight or featherweight. If he chooses lightweight, we may get to see a rematch of one of the best fights in recent years.

Contender: Gilbert Melendez

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    This was a no-brainer. Of course Gilbert Melendez is a contender.

    Not only is he the No. 1 ranked lightweight, but he very nearly toppled the champion in their most recent battle. Melendez lost via split decision, but it was yet another contentious decision for the UFC's lightweight strap.

    Melendez is well-rounded, but more importantly he is a smart fighter. Just like Henderson, he is able to craft a gameplan and adapt to it mid-fight for the best possible outcome. He is an elite lightweight that could wear gold sometime in the near future.

    Melendez will have to win at least one more fight before challenging for the strap, and he will battle with Diego Sanchez later this year. Melendez is a contender, and there is no debating it.

    He is one of the best 155-pounders in the world today.