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 champion Gilbert Melendez in April.
2. 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.
3. Gray Maynard (11-1-1, 1 NC)
It was a quiet second half of 2012 for Maynard, as a knee injury forced “The Bully” out of a proposed bout with Joe Lauzon at UFC 155. Maynard can regain some momentum as one of the division’s top contenders when he takes on the red-hot T.J. Grant at UFC 160 on May 26.
4. Nate Diaz (16-8)
After coming up short against Benson Henderson in his bid to capture the 155-pound belt, Diaz joins the UFC-versus-Strikeforce fray on April 20, when the Cesar Gracie pupil battles ex-Strikeforce titlist Josh Thomson at UFC on Fox 7 at the HP Pavilion in San Jose, Calif.
5. Anthony Pettis (16-2)
Following a vicious liver-kick knockout of Donald Cerrone on Jan. 26, Pettis decided to take matters into his own hands. Rather than wait for the victor of the April 20 bout between Benson Henderson and Gilbert Melendez, “Showtime” has elected to try his hand at 145 pounds. He will get a title shot against Jose Aldo in his first featherweight appearance on Aug. 3.
6. Jim Miller (22-4)
Some matches just seem destined to happen, and Miller’s pairing with Pat Healy fits that bill perfectly. The scrappy AMA Fight Club representative gets the chance to knock off the equally tenacious Healy in his backyard when he faces the ex-Strikeforce talent in New Jersey on April 27.
7. Michael Chandler (11-0)
Chandler continues to justify every bit of the significant hype surrounding 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 tournament final.
8. Donald Cerrone (19-5, 1 NC)
Cerrone was stopped by strikes for the first time in his MMA career by Anthony Pettis at UFC on Fox 6. The WEC veteran will attempt to rebound from that devastating defeat when he squares off with skilled boxer and former EliteXC champion K.J. Noons at UFC 160.
9. 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.”
10. T.J. Grant (20-5)
Former welterweight prospect Grant has been on a roll since his drop to 155 pounds, besting Evan Dunham, Shane Roller, Carlo Prater and Matt Wiman in his first four outings as a lightweight. The Canadian faces a true measuring stick when he locks horns with former No. 1 contender Gray Maynard on May 26.
Other contenders:Shinya Aoki, Rick Hawn, Pat Healy, Joe Lauzon, Khabib Nurmagomedov.
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