Frankie Edgar (top) and Gray Maynard (not pictured) will do it again at UFC 130. | Sherdog.com
1. Frankie Edgar (13-1-1)
In round one of his lightweight title defense against Gray Maynard at UFC 125, Edgar looked dead to rights after taking an epic pummeling from “The Bully.” Somehow, Edgar fought back valiantly over the last 20 minutes, shutting down Maynard’s wrestling and becoming the more effective boxer. After five rounds, Edgar had forced a split draw in a sensational fight, as well as a third fight with Maynard at UFC 130 on May 28.
2. Gilbert Melendez (18-2)
Strikeforce’s lightweight titleholder has been inactive since his five-round thumping of Dream ace Shinya Aoki in April 2010, but it appears “El Nino” may finally have a return date. It is rumored that the Skrap Pack leader will put his belt on the line against another Japanese import, Tatsuya Kawajiri, at Strikeforce’s as-yet-unannounced April 9 event. The 155 pounders are well-acquainted, with Melendez having earned a close unanimous decision over the “Crusher” in their 2006 Pride bout.
3. Gray Maynard (10-0-1, 1 NC)
Through five minutes at UFC 125, it seemed a lock that Maynard would leave Las Vegas with the UFC lightweight crown. But while “The Bully” crushed Frankie Edgar in the first round, the champion battled back over the next four to force a draw and retain his title in an early “Fight of the Year” contender. The pair will square off for the third time on May 28 at UFC 130 in Las Vegas.
4. Shinya Aoki (26-5, 1 NC)
After being knocked out in embarrassing fashion by kickboxer Yuichiro Nagashima in a “mixed rules” bout on New Year’s Eve, Aoki will look to start 2011 on the right foot stateside. The Dream lightweight champion is set to make his second Strikeforce appearance on April 9, when he meets once-beaten prospect Lyle Beerbohm at Strikeforce “Diaz vs. Daley.”
5. Eddie Alvarez (21-2)
Alvarez has looked simply phenomenal in the past 24 months, claiming Bellator gold and traveling to Japan to dispatch of Katsunori Kikuno in 2009, then knocking off ex-UFC’ers Roger Huerta and Josh Neer in non-title bouts last year. While his desired fight with Strikeforce champ Melendez did not materialize, the Philadelphia native will finally defend his Bellator belt for the first time against second-season tournament winner Pat Curran on April 2.
6. Kenny Florian (13-5)
The knee injury which forced “KenFlo” from his January tilt with Evan Dunham may have been a game-changer: in early February, Florian -- who began his UFC career at middleweight -- announced his intention to move down to 145 pounds. The 34-year-old submission specialist is expected to debut at featherweight against Nova Uniao product Diego Nunes at UFC 131 in June.
7. Tatsuya Kawajiri (27-6-2)
On New Year’s Eve, Kawajiri dulled the bitter sting of his July submission loss to Shinya Aoki by soundly handling former Strikeforce lightweight champion Josh Thomson. Kawajiri used top position to dominate the American en route to a unanimous decision, paving the way for the “Crusher” to challenge for Gilbert Melendez’s Strikeforce title on April 9.
8. Jim Miller (20-2)
Before a hometown crowd in Newark, N.J., Miller took another step toward a lightweight title shot by handing Kamal Shalorus his first defeat at UFC 128. With seven consecutive wins in the Octagon, Miller is clearly ready for title contention, but he will have to wait for the resolution of the Frankie Edgar-Gray Maynard-Anthony Pettis situation.
9. Sean Sherk (36-4-1)
With 40-plus fights and over a decade in the sport, injuries have piled up for Sherk. As a result, the 37-year-old “Muscle Shark” has taken time off to heal and rehab, and is now targeting a potential summer return to the Octagon.
10. Anthony Pettis (13-1)
As former champion B.J. Penn exits the rankings due to his welterweight shift, another prodigy takes his place. The 24-year-old Pettis had a star-making year in 2010, being featured on the MTV documentary program “World of Jenks” and notching a trio of impressive finishes inside World Extreme Cagefighting. “Showtime” saved the best for last, though, launching his now-famous off-the-wall kick and earning a unanimous decision over Benson Henderson to become the final WEC lightweight champion. While his guaranteed UFC title shot hit a roadblock in the form of Edgar and Maynard’s Jan. 1 draw, Pettis will stay active: he’s set to make his Octagon debut against tough veteran Clay Guida at June’s “Ultimate Fighter” Season 13 finale.
Other contenders: Clay Guida, Melvin Guillard, Benson Henderson, Dennis Siver, George Sotiropoulos.
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