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The UFC's Lightweight Division Is Better Than It Has Ever Been

Patrick Wyman@@Patrick_WymanMMA Senior AnalystJuly 15, 2016

Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson at UFC Unstoppable in March.
Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson at UFC Unstoppable in March.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

On Wednesday in Sioux Falls, South Dakota, Tony Ferguson, one of the best lightweights on the planet, nearly fell to unknown debutant Lando Vannata.

Ferguson had won seven fights in a row against an increasingly difficult stretch of opposition, including Abel Trujillo, Gleison Tibau, Josh Thomson and Edson Barboza. Vannata made it eight, but not before Ferguson suffered a knockdown and barely survived to lock in a choke just before the midway point of the fight.

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In hindsight, we shouldn't have been surprised.

Ferguson's near-upset against Vannata was just one more day in the shark tank of the lightweight division, where there are no easy fights, even against talented prospects who are entering the UFC on just two weeks' notice.

Every fight against a 155-pound opponent is dangerous. Former Bellator champion Will Brooks, Bleacher Report's fifth-ranked lightweight, had a competitive UFC debut against Ross Pearson at The Ultimate Fighter 23 Finale, and Pearson doesn't even crack the UFC's Top 15.

There's no margin for error against fighters this talented and dangerous. Eddie Alvarez backed into a title shot on the basis of split-decision wins over Anthony Pettis and Gilbert Melendez, an injury to Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov's commitment to not fighting during Ramadan.

Alvarez then knocked out Rafael Dos Anjos, who had the makings of a dominant champion, in the first round.

Alvarez finished Dos Anjos with a flurry of punches.
Alvarez finished Dos Anjos with a flurry of punches.Ed Mulholland/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Just take a moment to contemplate this murderers' row of talent. Alvarez is now the top fighter in the division following his win over Dos Anjos, but Nurmagomedov, who is unbeaten and handily defeated the former champion in a three-round fight back in 2014, sits just behind him. Ferguson has now won a staggering eight fights in a row, and all of them have been entertaining.

Dos Anjos didn't become a journeyman because of a single knockout loss, and there isn't a fighter in the division he couldn't beat given the right circumstances. Nate Diaz just finished Conor McGregor in a barnburner, and after their rematch in August, he'll bring his substantial name value and charisma back to the lightweight division.

Melendez is unranked because of a failed drug test, but the former longtime Strikeforce champion went to a tight split decision with the current champion only a year ago. Until proved otherwise, he still belongs in the conversation at the top of the division.

Donald Cerrone is having fun as a welterweight action fighter, but he's still the fifth-ranked lightweight in the UFC and compiled an eight-fight winning streak of his own between 2013 and 2015. Behind him, Barboza just took a clear decision from Pettis, the former champion, in a performance that indicated the Brazilian has finally arrived as an elite fighter.

Pettis is on his way down to featherweight, but not long ago he looked like a long-term champion at 155 pounds. Now, three consecutive losses—to Dos Anjos, Alvarez and Barboza—have bounced him from the division.

Pettis came up short against Barboza.
Pettis came up short against Barboza.Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

Pettis fell from sure-thing future star to afterthought in just 13 months. There's no better indicator of the level of competition at 155 pounds than that.

That list of fighters represents the cream of the crop at lightweight, but several weight classes have a strong crop of elite athletes at the top. What sets this division apart from the others is the sheer depth of talent it has beyond the elite and how thin the line separating the very best from the rest is.

What separates Barboza and Cerrone from Dustin Poirier, Michael Chiesa and Michael Johnson, the next three fighters in the UFC's rankings? Johnson holds a win over Barboza, while Poirier and Chiesa lack only the opportunity to prove themselves against fighters ranked above them.

Moving down the line, Beneil Dariush holds a win, albeit a controversial one, over Johnson and is still making substantial improvements from fight to fight. Al Iaquinta is another fighter who could vault up the rankings given the right matchmaking, while the talented Russian Rashid Magomedov is on the rise as well.

Brooks had some trouble against Pearson but still walked away with the win.
Brooks had some trouble against Pearson but still walked away with the win.Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Getty Images

The dark horse in the division is Brooks, whom the UFC has ranked 12th but Bleacher Report has at fifth in the world. The former Bellator champion had to overcome some adversity against Pearson in his debut, but he can hang with anybody in the world.

Those are just the ranked fighters in the division. Outside the Top 15, Francisco Trinaldo has quietly won six in a row. Rustam Khabilov has headlined shows in the past. Pearson is a longtime action fighter, but he can still trouble elite fighters such as Brooks when he gets the opportunity. Paul Felder fits neatly into the Pearson model but might still slide into the conversation near the top of the division.

If all that weren't enough, there's a cornucopia of young talent to go along with these battle-tested fighters in their prime. Joe Duffy (28), who defeated McGregor back in 2010 and whose only UFC defeat came at the hands of Poirier, looms as a soon-to-be member of the Top 15. Kevin Lee (23) has serious potential, as do a bevy of other youthful future contenders.

That level of talent provides the ingredients for a slew of outstanding matchups. Take any two fighters in this conversation, and the result will be something entertaining.

There have been a few exceptions—Alvarez's performances against Pettis and Melendez come to mind—but wars such as Duffy's January matchup with Poirier and Barboza's two-round bloodbath against Ferguson last December are far more typical.

The only division that might, just might, have more talent is welterweight, and the entertainment value there is substantially less.

The lightweight division offers something special: large numbers of outstanding fighters in a nearly infinite series of combinations. For now and for years to come, the 155-pounders should occupy a marquee spot in the UFC.

        

Patrick Wyman is the Senior MMA Analyst for Bleacher Report and the co-host of the Heavy Hands Podcast, your source for the finer points of face-punching. He can be found on Twitter and Facebook.

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