The landscape of the UFC's lightweight division has gone through some major changes over the past year.
Its long-time champion, B.J. Penn, was upset twice by Frankie Edgar, while new contenders have arisen in Gray Maynard and George Sotiropoulos.
In an ever-changing sport gaining in popularity, the time is quickly approaching for fighters like Penn and Kenny Florian to pass the torch along to the next generation of elite lightweights. Several young lightweight fighters have made their case recently to be a part of the next elite group of contenders in the division.
Recently, three fighters under the age of 30 have stood out among the rest.
Dunham made a name for himself with his exciting, if not stomach-churning, arm-bar submission win against Efrain Escudero.
That victory earned Dunham a step up in competition against Tyson Griffin. After winning that fight by out-grappling one of the best wrestlers in the division, Dunham set himself up to be the return opponent for former UFC Champion Sean Sherk.
While Dunham lost to Sherk in a controversial decision, he gained the respect and admiration of anyone who watched that fight. Dunham took part in an all-out war, as blood dripped down his face from a massive gash above his eye.
After the fight, Dana White made no secret of the fact that he disagreed with the judges' decision. For that reason, you can be assured that Dunham, at age 28, has already become one of those next-generation contenders in the lightweight division.
The UFC has given Miller a much slower path to becoming a contender than it did with Dunham.
Miller has won seven of his eight fights with the UFC, but has yet to do battle with a opponent who was a contender at the time of their fight.
Miller's two professional losses have come against none other than current title holder Edgar and No. 1 contender Maynard. With five consecutive wins to his name, you can begin to expect that Miller will start getting fights against top-notch competition.
At just 27 years old, Miller will be a contender in the lightweight division for a long time to come if he continues to perform as he has in recent fights.
Oliveira is an undefeated Brazilian prospect that burst onto the UFC scene with a 41-second submission win against Darren Elkins.
Like Dunham, Oliveira then scored an exciting submission victory over Escudero to show that his debut performance was no fluke.
After defeating Escudero in a similar fashion to Dunham, Oliveira should now expect to see a lightweight gatekeeper in his next fight. At just 20 years old, a win in his next fight could make Oliveira the most exciting young UFC lightweight of them all.
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