1. Benson Henderson (18-2)
If the close, competitive nature of his bouts with Frankie Edgar had folks questioning Henderson’s lightweight stature, “Smooth” straightened things out in Seattle. In the biggest fight of his career on primetime network television, Henderson dominated challenger Nate Diaz for 25 minutes, in entertaining fashion no less, to affirm his 155-pound dominance. Next up will be a long sought-after UFC-versus-Strikeforce matchup, as Henderson will welcome incoming champ Gilbert Melendez in April.
2. Frankie Edgar (14-3-1)
Edgar’s 145-pound debut was delayed when injuries from a motorcycle accident forced reigning featherweight champion Jose Aldo out of their UFC 153 scrap. Assuming both parties stay healthy, the highly anticipated confrontation will now take place on Super Bowl weekend in the UFC 156 headliner.
3. Gilbert Melendez (21-2)
The knee injury which led to Melendez twice postponing and eventually canceling his final Strikeforce title defense now looks like a blessing in disguise. Instead of facing Pat Healy, Melendez will slide right into a UFC title shot and a chance to become the No. 1 lightweight in the world when he meets Benson Henderson in San Jose, Calif., on April 20.
4. Gray Maynard (11-1-1, 1 NC)
Maynard re-established himself as a 155-pound contender with a somewhat frustrating victory over Clay Guida in June. His road to a third UFC lightweight title shot hit an unexpected bump, however, when a knee injury forced the American Kickboxing Academy representative to withdraw from a UFC 155 clash against Joe Lauzon.
5. Nate Diaz (16-8)
Diaz never stopped trying and never stopped fighting against Benson Henderson on Dec. 8; however, the Stockton, Calif., native just could not make offense happen. Diaz was thwarted by the champion’s improved boxing, leg kicks and potent top game and was effectively shut out on the scorecards in an entertaining five-round bout.
6. Anthony Pettis (16-2)
Since losing out on a “guaranteed” title shot and dropping his UFC debut to Clay Guida, Pettis has gone on a tear. In the last 12 months, the 26-year-old Duke Roufus protégé has notched two vicious knockouts in less than four minutes combined. Pettis’ latest victim was Donald Cerrone, who went down by way of a nasty liver kick on Jan. 26 in Chicago.
7. Jim Miller (22-4)
After a submission loss to Nate Diaz cost him a shot at the UFC lightweight title, Miller righted the ship in emphatic fashion at UFC 155. Usually known for his tenacious grappling, the New Jersey native chose to stand with Joe Lauzon and made a bloody mess of the submission ace in a three-round pounding.
8. Michael Chandler (11-0)
Chandler continues to justify every bit of the significant hype behind him. While the Bellator title around his waist means significantly more time between bouts than when he first entered the promotion in 2010, the former University of Missouri Tiger is making each fight count. On Jan. 17, Chandler handed judo Olympian Rick Hawn the second defeat of his career via second-round rear-naked choke. Next up, he will face the winner of the delayed Marcin Held-Dave Jansen tourney final.
9. Donald Cerrone (19-5, 1 NC)
A one-sided loss to Nate Diaz seemed to be in Cerrone’s rearview mirror, as the “Cowboy” climbed right back up the lightweight ladder in 2012 with back-to-back wins over Melvin Guillard and Jeremy Stephens. However, on Jan. 26, Cerrone was dealt another setback, as Anthony Pettis became the first man to stop the muay Thai stylist on strikes in Cerrone’s 20-plus fight career.
10. Eddie Alvarez (24-3)
After fulfilling the final fight on his Bellator contract with a first-round October knockout of Patricky Freire, Alvarez seemed Octagon-bound -- until the lawyers got involved. Now, Alvarez waits in limbo while Bellator and the UFC vie for his services and try to figure out exactly what constitutes a “matching offer.”
Other contenders:Shinya Aoki, T.J. Grant, Rick Hawn, Pat Healy, Joe Lauzon.
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