Anthony Pettis' Next Fight: Who Should the New Champ Face Next?

Steven RondinaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 1, 2013

Aug 31, 2013; Milwaukee, WI, USA;  Anthony Pettis reacts after beating Benson Henderson (not pictured) to win the Lightweight Championship during the UFC-164 bout at BMO Harris Bradley Center.  Mandatory Credit: Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports
Benny Sieu-USA TODAY Sports

When it comes to newly belted lightweight champ Anthony Pettis, UFC matchmaker Joe Silva must be in ecstasy. Truly, it's hard to remember a time when there were so many options in choosing a top contender.

The addition of Strikeforce veterans, coupled with the rise of young, yet experienced fighters has runneth over the cup of 155 pounds. With that said, it isn't a lightweight that most fans are clamoring to see Pettis fight.

That would be long-time featherweight champion Jose Aldo.

That isn't especially surprising. Pettis and Aldo were slated to face off in a featherweight title fight at UFC 163, but a knee injury forced Pettis off the card. He was replaced by Chan Sung Jung, but Pettis was still quick to call him out after beating Henderson Saturday night.

To some degree, a fight between Aldo and Pettis makes sense.

Aldo desperately wants to move to lightweight. He makes it known at every possible opportunity. If he vacates the belt and finally takes the plunge, an immediate title shot would be warranted.

However, the UFC and Pettis' management team would most certainly prefer him to remain the only Brazilian champion in the UFC right now (not counting sort-of-champion Renan Barao), ensuring his drawing power in the huge South American market. This makes a run at 155 pounds unlikely for Aldo until his body simply cannot handle the notoriously difficult weight cut, which is unlikely to be the case for at least a few years.

So that shifts things back to the lightweight division, and once again, there are plenty of candidates.

Rankings-wise, the first person to talk about would be T.J. Grant.

The suddenly heavy-handed Canadian was originally supposed to be Ben Henderson's opponent at UFC 164 but suffered a concussion in training camp that opened the door to the Bendo-Pettis rematch (as well as a boatload of conspiracy theories). He owns wins over several solid lightweights in Matt Wiman and Evan Dunham, but he truly exploded onto the title picture when he cold-cocked long-time contender Gray Maynard.

Grant, though, still doesn't have a clear date for a return. While he would be the most clear-cut choice to face Pettis, it is contingent on his ever-so-gradual recovery. That, unfortunately, can keep him out of the picture for a while yet.

The next fighter worth bringing up would be former Strikeforce champion Josh Thomson.

Thomson entered the UFC on a 3-3 skid entering the UFC (two of those losses coming opposite Gilbert Melendez), but there was no question that he was a savvy, well-rounded veteran who deserved a chance in the Octagon. Any and all doubters looked the fool after his demolition of Nate Diaz.

The problem with a Thomson title shot is his lack of a winning streak. He alternated wins and losses over his last four, meaning he is currently only on a one-fight winning “streak.” While his fight before Diaz was a razor-thin decision loss against Melendez that many scored in favor of “The Punk,” it wasn't quite lopsided enough to make the UFC hesitate in making a Henderson-Melendez title unification bout.

At least for now, that keeps Thomson out of the running.

That brings us to Pat Healy. Healy is one of the most under-appreciated fighters in MMA history and owns under-the-radar stoppage victories over welterweights Paul Daley and Carlos Condit. Since dropping to lightweight, he has amassed an impressive 8-1 (1) record. He was slated for a title bout with Melendez on two occasions, though Melendez withdrew from both due to injuries.

The big hiccup for Healy is that he is currently slated to fight fast-rising Khabib Nurmagomedov. The young Russian has been absolutely fearsome thus far and should prove to be a major challenge for Healy. If he can pass that test, though, it would be hard to argue against giving him a title shot.

The final person to discuss is Rafael dos Anjos.

The five-year UFC vet has had some high highs in his career but seems to finally have all his skills polished to a championship shine now. He is riding a five-fight winning streak, most recently capped by a clean victory over Donald Cerrone.

In spite of the big win over “Cowboy,” he is still likely a win or two away from the required amount of mainstream attention that is typically needed for a UFC title shot. However, should Grant or Healy fight for the belt, a top contender fight with Thomson fits things together perfectly.

So the short version?

Pettis should fight Aldo if he moves up to lightweight.

If not; fight Grant if he is healthy.

If not; fight Healy if he beats Nurmagomedov.

After that? Have Thomson and dos Anjos fight for a chance at the belt.