It’s a well-established cultural trope that many of history’s most brilliant artists -- be they painters, sculptors, poets, musicians or of some other creative profile -- are tortured, some personally or psychologically, by their trade. They don’t produce the “right” product from which their contemporaries profit and their genius goes unseen or unremarked until, if they’re lucky, long after they’re dead and gone.
When it comes to the “mixed martial” kind of afflicted artist, this sport’s history has punished the livelihood and legacy of many fighters, but none seem to suffer as harshly as those who happen to weigh in between 145 and 155 pounds, grace pound notwithstanding. For more than a decade, the reflexive answer to “What is the best division in MMA?” is almost always met with something akin to “Lightweight, stupid!” Yet no division across the weight spectrum in MMA has been as subjugated, saddled and snakebitten as this one.
The Ultimate Fighting Championship last week, in the midst of ongoing 155-pound anarchy, announced a firm date of Oct. 6 for the sport’s biggest superstar, Conor McGregor, to face 26-0 Khabib Nurmagomedov at UFC 229. Simultaneously, the company revealed a no-brainer title eliminator between streaking Dustin Poirier and former McGregor conqueror and cult hero Nate Diaz for Nov. 11, just five weeks later. While there’s still plenty of time for things to go awry -- more on that in a minute -- it seems like the lightweight division finally might get its long overdue moment in the brightest of spotlights.
Ever since McGregor destroyed Eddie Alvarez to claim the 155-pound crown at UFC 205 some two years ago in Madison Square Garden, the lightweight division has been in a state of anarchy. “The Notorious” one balked at the UFC’s offers, boxed Floyd Mayweather disastrously (in a competitive sense, certainly not a financial one), partied all over the globe and did everything he could to assert and remind the UFC he was now bigger than the company itself. He was stripped of his title, while top contender Tony Ferguson won, got injured, won an interim title and got injured again. The other top challenger, Nurmagomedov, got injured, ate too much tiramisu, got injured again and then won McGregor’s vacated UFC strap by beating fringe contender-slash-realtor Al Iaquinta, who hadn’t fought in a year. We can quibble about whether or not you think the current featherweight or welterweight divisions are better than lightweight -- that’s a matter of personal opinion, of course -- but the way you feel about the contemporaneous 155-pound world is likely shaped by the otherworldly shenanigans that have encircled it lately. Unfortunately, this is nothing new in the history of the lightweight division. The 155-pound weight class has always been subject to the cruelest and most bizarre slings and arrows of MMA history.
In 2001, when the Unified Rules of Mixed Martial Arts were laid down in the state of New Jersey and adopted by other states, it called for the creation of new weight classes. At the time, the UFC was operating just three: heavyweight (200 pounds and over), middleweight (200 pounds and under) and lightweight (170 pounds and under). A neophyte and fledgling MMA fan at the time, I was dumbfounded when I cruised Usenet, forums and the like, only to find that diehard MMA fans -- excuse me, NHB fans -- were less than receptive to these changes.
“Why would I want to watch tiny guys I could beat up?” they asked, smoldering. “Who wants to watch midgets fight?”
To some small degree, this tack turned as the division gained its early legs. Jens Pulver became the first UFC lightweight champion and quickly became a sentimental fan favorite. Granted, not every Pulver fight ended in a southpaw hook knockout like his crumbling of John Lewis, but his heart-on-the-sleeve honesty won over hardcore fans. This was best exemplified by his post-UFC 35 interview with the late Ryan Bennett, which for this author’s mind, is the most gripping and emotional post-fight interview in UFC history.
“B.J.’s got a better takedown than I ever imagined. Um, he’s got a lot of heart … it’s because he’s got heart, a lot of heart. Um,” Pulver said while moaning and trying to reel in his tears. He was quickly overwhelmed by the moment. “He stayed in there because he’s got a lot of heart. He’s got a better takedown than I ever imagined … my punches weren’t backing him up. His feet were there. He was planted. He was shooting it in and really making it difficult for me. I was real nervous when he had me mounted, but I just held in there; but I did what I could. My corner was delivering the shots.”
Bennett, perhaps not recognizing the emotional charge of Pulver in that moment, asked the champion, “Jens, was part of your plan to try to wear him down?
“I’ve said it once before, you know, my father beat me all my life,” Pulver said. “This ain’t nothing.”
Pulver broke into explosive tears, as Bennett, knowing his role, broke off the microphone. There was no TMZ to shove a camera in his face, no media outlet to make clicks of his tragedy. As vain and ghoulish as the heart-wrenching moment may be, it was just cast into the wind. The UFC wouldn’t match even Pulver’s modest five-figure contract later that year. After all, who cares about a lightweight?
Things never got easier for the lightweight division. The UFC held a four-man tournament to crown a new champion from late 2002 to early 2003, with Penn, Caol Uno, Din Thomas and Matt Serra. The result? A preposterous split draw in the Penn-Uno rematch at UFC 41, easily one of the most “What the hell?” results in the history of the promotion, as Penn dominated the majority of the bout and spent seemingly half of it in back control. Penn went on to 170 pounds and pulled off one of the most stunning upsets in the history of the sport, choking out Matt Hughes at UFC 46 to claim the welterweight championship. He then ran away to K-1 and dared the UFC to fight him in court.
Well, on that same UFC 46 bill, the company had a “Fight of the Year” contender between Josh Thomson and Hermes Franca in a prelim bout, back in the good ol’ days when cards were only comprised of eight bouts or so. Thomson’s win earned him the slightest of countenances; he would meet the red-hot Yves Edwards at UFC 49 -- one of the best, top-to-bottom UFC cards in history -- in the opening fight of the night, in front of literally dozens of bleary-eyed Las Vegas gamblers in the middle of the afternoon in the Pacific Time Zone. Edwards spun out of the clinch, delivered a flying, Street Fighter-inspired head kick and punched “The Punk” into the ground. To this day, it remains one of the most spectacular knockouts in MMA history, and what does Edwards have to show for it? Well, he can say he was the “uncrowned UFC lightweight champion.” Great.
Not long after Edwards’ triumph, the UFC, too sheepish to actually make a real press release to this effect, leaked that it was shuttering its lightweight division. The promotion had too many contracts and too few events -- imagine that today -- to operate five full divisions, and 155 pounds got the short end of the straw. That was August 2004. The lightweight division wouldn’t return to the Octagon until UFC 58 in March 2006, when Sam Stout won a split decision over Spencer Fisher in a thriller, perhaps giving some indication that the promotion had been goofing up over the last year and change.
Of course, not long after this, Pride Fighting Championships changed its Bushido series to focus on its 161-pound (lightweight) and 183-pound (welterweight) divisions. The company snapped up all the best talent the 155-pound, excuse me, 161-pound division had to offer, including Edwards and Thomson. However, the central focus was on former Shooto world champion Takanori Gomi, who became a star with the network television spotlight, knocking out fools and surfing the turnbuckles. Alas, “The Ultimate Fighter” was in full swing by this point, and while an event like Pride’s Bushido 9 may not be one of the grandest on record, it remains a hardcore fight fan’s delicacy.
In 2008, Penn, at his promoter’s behest, returned to the 155-pound division. He dominated the likes of Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Diego Sanchez and Kenny Florian. However, he was a big game hunter. His eye wandered and dreamt of greater prizes; he challenged Georges St. Pierre for a second time and was dominated and thoroughly thwarted. Penn showed no interest in being the greatest 155-pounder of all-time; so jinxed is this division that that even the most talented lightweight we’ve ever witnessed didn’t actually want to grab its mantle.
Frankie Edgar knocked him off the throne. Benson Henderson and his toothpick took Edgar’s place. Anthony Pettis leaped off the cage and kicked that toothpick out of Henderson’s mouth with the “Showtime Kick.” Rafael dos Anjos muscled Pettis into the dirt. Alvarez knocked dos Anjos silly. McGregor ripped Alvarez apart, then got too big for his britches and had his title stripped. None of it has mattered.
This is not a story of “The Little Engine That Could,” as the lightweight division has spent well over decade proving itself to be the deepest and most talented weight class in the sport. MMA fans have, if slowly, come to that realization. This is the story of a division that consistently been mired in dumb luck and bad luck, constantly capsized by professional and promotional shortcomings. The last two years or so have been as brutal as anything the 155-pound class has endured. Now, it seems like there is a light at the end of a seemingly unending tunnel.
This is why it’s the harder to answer the “Who is the greatest ever?” question about lightweights than it is any other division. Do you prefer Penn for the otherworldly skill that he displayed when he was on top, however fleeting that moment was? Do you prefer Gomi, even as he does his near-two-decade legacy a disservice by fighting long beyond his expiration date? Maybe you think it’s Alvarez, having knocked off nearly a complete laundry list of the 155-pound elite over 15 years in the game. There’s no easy answer, and it’s largely due to the embattled circumstances the division has faced.
Between now and autumn, there’s plenty of time for McGregor to pull a superstar fast one on the UFC and plenty of time to Nurmagomedov to overindulge in desserts or flat out just get injured; and when it comes to Diaz, who knows? However, if the MMA gods are just and gentle with us, come eight months or so from now, we might get the answers we seek. We might just have an easier debate, some sort of resolution. We might be able to make sense of the chaos. There might be a lightweight at the end of the tunnel.