The Lightweight Division Heating Up in the Aftermath of UFC 164

Duane Finley@duanefinleymmaContributor ISeptember 8, 2013

Anytime a new champion is crowned, it is going to shake things up, and that's exactly what has happened in the aftermath of UFC 164.

Anthony Pettis became the new holder of the lightweight strap when he pulled off an impressive first-round submission over Benson Henderson in their main event tilt last weekend in Milwaukee. "Showtime" became the first man to defeat Henderson under the UFC banner and made it a perfect 2-0 in his meetings with the "Smooth" one.

Following his victory at UFC 164, the newly minted champion made a play to line up a bout with featherweight king Jose Aldo, but when UFC president Dana White announced T.J. Grant would be getting the next shot at the 155-pound title, the proposed superfight talk was cooled for the time being. And fittingly so.

Prior to the Duke Roufus-trained fighter getting the nod, Grant earned the opportunity after he defeated Gray Maynard at UFC 160. Unfortunately for the Nova Scotian, a head injury suffered during training put him on the sidelines and opened the door for Pettis to get his long-awaited title shot.

With Pettis vs. Grant in the works for early next year, the rest of the divisional upper tier has an open lane to move up. A pair of established contenders is set to hash it out, while a handful of fighters who have ran under the radar thus far will have major opportunities to solidify themselves in the lightweight hierarchy.

The road ahead will hold major implications on how the division shapes up, so let's take a look at the factors that will determine the lightweight title race.

Melendez vs. Sanchez Set for a Crucial Clash in Houston

Gilbert Melendez nearly had his hands on UFC gold at UFC on Fox 7 back in April, and he's more determined than ever to get another shot at the lightweight strap.

The last man to hold the Strikeforce lightweight title was barely edged out by Henderson when the champions clashed in San Jose, but a razor-thin split decision snapped "El Nino's" seven-fight winning streak. The Cesar Gracie fighter suffered his first loss in nearly five years.

Following the loss to Henderson, the 31-year-old was eager to get back on track to title contention. He will have the opportunity to do so when he squares off with former title challenger Diego Sanchez at UFC 166 on Oct. 19 in Houston.

With the depth of the weight class, Melendez needed to face a high-profile opponent to stay in the mix, and the resurgent veteran creates the perfect scenario.

"The Dream" may only have one victory since returning to lightweight, but his track record as a former No. 1 contender and the current state of the division set up the matchup to propel the winner into title contention. Should Melendez defeat Sanchez during their tilt at UFC 166, he'll move into striking distance of another title shot.

While his opponent has racked up an impressive record in the lightweight fold, Sanchez is just one step into his second run in the division. After a lopsided loss to former 155-pound king BJ Penn at UFC 107 in 2009, the Albuquerque native returned to the welterweight division. Unfortunately for him, the 170-pound class wasn't kind to the Season 1 winner of The Ultimate Fighter, as he experienced mixed results over a four-fight run.

Chaos in his personal life and jumping around to multiple training camps also played a role in his backslide, but with the scrappy New Mexico-based fighter finding stability outside the cage and returning to his original home at Jackson's MMA, the 31-year-old is poised to make a run at championship gold.

With a hard-fought victory over Takanori Gomi at UFC on Fuel TV 8 in March, Sanchez put himself in position to face one of the division's best. For his effort, the UFC rewarded him with a bout against the recent title challenger in Melendez and a chance to inch closer to a title opportunity.

If Sanchez can outscrap Melendez in Houston, he will make a strong case for title contention. That being said, should he come out on the losing end of their collision at UFC 166, his title hopes at 155 pounds will vanish.

The Next Wave of Contenders Starting to Break Through

For the past four years, the lightweight division has been one of the deepest and exciting collections under the UFC banner. With a handful of established contenders competing for title opportunities and a batch of hungry fighters coming over from the WEC merger, the battle to remain in the upper tier of the 155-pound fold has been action packed.

Over this stretch, the fighters who have been competing at the highest level of the division have managed to keep the next wave of challengers from breaking through. Yet, while their efforts have been solid thus far, several new names are edging closer to establishing themselves as legitimate title challengers.

Despite being a former Strikeforce champion and defeating Nate Diaz in his long-awaited return to the Octagon, Josh Thomson has yet to determine his place in the lightweight ranks. The AKA staple looked impressive in his knockout win over the younger Diaz and was rumored to be facing Pettis before "Showtime" locked down the title tilt against Henderson at UFC 164.

While "The Punk" doesn't have a bout lined up currently, he's in the title mix. The 34-year-old has won two of his last three outings, with his only defeat coming in a razor-thin split-decision loss to Gilbert Melendez in the final bout of their trilogy under the Strikeforce banner.

While Rafael dos Anjos is far from being a new name on the lightweight scene, the scrappy Brazilian has been making a serious impact on the weight class. In the past 15 months, "RDA" has picked up five consecutive victories over established veterans. His most recent and perhaps most impressive outing resulted in a unanimous decision over former contender Donald Cerrone at Fight Night 27 in Indianapolis.

The 28-year-old Brazilian proved to be too much to handle for "Cowboy" and put his well-rounded skill set on display as he picked up the biggest victory of his career. Yet, while Dos Anjos has been successful as of late, his lack of name recognition with the UFC fanbase will hinder him in the grand scheme of things.

Five straight wins are impressive, but it looks like he will still need another win or two to make a strong case for title contention.

Another fighter on the cusp of breaking through is Khabib Nurmagomedov. "The Eagle" has been ultra-impressive since joining the UFC fold in January 2012. The 24-year-old has picked up victories in all four of his showings inside the Octagon. 

In his most recent win over Abel Trujillo at UFC 160 in May, Nurmagomedov racked up a UFC record 21 takedowns as he dismantled the Team Blackzilians fighter and kept his undefeated record intact. Following his victory over Trujillo, the talented young Russian called out former two-divisional champion BJ Penn and former title challenger Nate Diaz, but neither of those bouts came to fruition.

Instead, the UFC lined him up with scrappy veteran Pat Healy, and the two lightweights will mix it up on Sept. 21 at UFC 165. While Nurmagomedov is still somewhat of an unknown commodity, a victory over an established veteran likes Healy would make his position as one of the top lightweights undeniable.

Elite Lightweights Have Fallen but Are Far From Out

In any divisional race, fighters are going to rise and fall, and several of the UFC's best lightweights are suddenly looking to fight their way back to the top.

Recently dethroned champion Benson Henderson will need time to recover from the elbow injury he suffered against Anthony Pettis at UFC 164. But make no mistake about it: Once the MMA Lab product is given medical clearance, he'll double his efforts to get back to the top of the mountain. While no opponent is named at this time, his track record inside the Octagon guarantees his next challenge will be against elite competition.

Staying on the topic of challenging for a title, former No. 1 contender Gray Maynard is also looking to scrap his way back to title contention.

After logging an epic pair of title fights with Frankie Edgar, "The Bully" has been somewhat lost in limbo. The former Michigan State University wrestling standout rebounded from his loss to "The Answer" at UFC 136 in 2011 by defeating Clay Guida at UFC on FX 4 in June 2012, but a loss to contender T.J. Grant at UFC 160 put his title hopes on ice for the time being.

That being said, with Maynard's status as one of the best 155-pound fighters on the planet irrefutable, the TUF alumnus will only need two solid wins to get back in the hunt. 

Much like the two previously mentioned lightweights, Donald Cerrone is also eager to regain his footing in the divisional hierarchy. On two occasions, the scrappy striker has been close to earning a shot at UFC gold but was abruptly turned back. Nevertheless, "Cowboy" rebounded to re-ignite his climb toward the top, but Rafael dos Anjos recently halted that momentum in Indianapolis.

The 30-year-old Colorado native has never hesitated to jump back into the fire in quick fashion, and he already has his next bout set in stone. He will face Evan Dunham at UFC 167 in November, and a victory over the Xtreme Couture fighter would put him back on track. On the other hand, should he come out on the business end against Dunham, his status as an elite-level lightweight would be put into question.

Duane Finley is a featured columnist for Bleacher Report.


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