File Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
This is an unexpected update, to say the least.
After all, UFC 112 was supposed to be fairly status quo, marked by two straightforward and easy title defenses for pound-for-pound stars Anderson Silva and B.J. Penn. In actuality, “The Spider” turned in a positively surreal performance, which sparked enormous debate over his psyche, desire to compete and status as the sport’s top fighter. As for Penn, a more-competitive-than-expected bout with Frankie Edgar went from pleasantly surprising to all-out shocking when “The Prodigy” lost a unanimous decision on the scorecards.
Penn’s fall makes the lightweight division vastly more intriguing in the immediate future. For the first time in quite a while, there arises a legitimate debate as to who can call himself the true king of a particular weight class. Better still, three of these pound-for-pound entrants are in action in the next two weeks, including Dream lightweight champion Shinya Aoki, who meets Gilbert Melendez for the Strikeforce crown on April 17. Will we get lightweight clarity in Nashville, Tenn.?
1. Anderson Silva (26-4)
Silva’s victory over Demian Maia at UFC 112 made some laugh. It made others foam at the mouth. It was yet another uninspiring performance from “The Spider,” though admittedly more bizarre than his five-round affair with Thales Leites in April 2009. However, it was nonetheless a lopsided victory over another standout middleweight that reinforced the gulf between Silva and his foes at 185 pounds. The next move for Silva remains uncertain. Options range from intended UFC 112 challenger Vitor Belfort and the suddenly compelling Chael Sonnen to 170-pound king Georges St. Pierre and another 205-pound super fight. Fans can rest easy knowing the next step for the pound-for-pound king will include an elite opponent.
2. Georges St. Pierre (20-2)
It is the kind of nitpicking that can only result when a fighter is as dominant as St. Pierre. After another complete performance at UFC 111, with his UFC welterweight title up for grabs, one would anticipate that GSP’s crushing of Dan Hardy would have impressed onlookers. Instead, in spite of particularly vicious armbar and kimura attempts that contorted the arm of “The Outlaw,” the MMA’s welterweight king has been disparaged as a safety-first top position wrestler, content to do just enough to win fights. Critiques aside, the constant stream of elite challengers will not stop for St. Pierre, whether they come from the ever-deep 170-pound division or courtesy of a move to 185 pounds.
3. Fedor Emelianenko (31-1, 1 NC)
Emelianenko was supposed to embark on his next conquest for Strikeforce in April, this after he wiped out Brett Rogers in thrilling fashion in the promotion’s November CBS debut. However, a contract impasse between Strikeforce and M-1, Emelianenko’s representation, put the breaks on his appearance, which now looks more likely for June or July. In some ways, the delay may be a blessing in disguise. It will not buy Strikeforce a world of time, but if Emelianenko had fought and knocked off Fabricio Werdum, as anticipated, it would have left the Russian with one last obvious foil -- Alistair Overeem -- as we entered the summer. Now, the obvious end of Strikeforce’s short heavyweight gallery is further off.
4. Lyoto Machida (16-0)
After ripping through Thiago Silva and Rashad Evans in consecutive bouts in 2009, Machida had already ignited complaints about the inability of other light heavyweights to challenge him before he had even defended the UFC title. His October bout with Mauricio “Shogun” Rua vividly showed once again the folly of proclaiming any MMA fighter unbeatable, as Machida’s unanimous decision victory became the most debated and unpopular decision of the year. With the Rua rematch slated for May 8 at UFC 113 and a growing number of highly gifted 205-pound prospects in MMA, Machida’s road to dominating the light heavyweight division has quickly become a much taller task than previously anticipated.
5. Jose Aldo (16-1)
Since his World Extreme Cagefighting debut in June 2008, Aldo is 6-0 with six stoppages, including four in 2009 alone. It is little wonder that the hottest thing out of the Amazon jungle was Sherdog.com’s “Fighter of the Year” for ’09. However, Aldo’s brilliant campaign last year leads to a harder road from here on out. Aldo will now be tasked with defending his title against the top featherweight challengers the WEC has to offer, fight in and fight out. It starts with former champion Urijah Faber at WEC 48 on April 24 in front of a highly partisan Sacramento, Calif., crowd that will want him to lose and lose badly. If Aldo is truly set to become MMA’s first featherweight superstar, we will find out shortly.
6. Jon Fitch (22-3, 1 NC)
With a straightforward and prosaic fighting style, Fitch is not as close to another crack at the UFC welterweight title as he would like to be. However, the former Purdue University wrestling captain still sports a staggering 12-1 record in the UFC, and in one of MMA’s greatest divisions. Even if his dream fight is a rematch with Georges St. Pierre, the high stakes bout for Fitch in the interim will be his rematch with Thiago Alves. After two previous delays, a fight between the former title challengers is now slated for UFC 115 in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada, on June 12, with the winner locking up second fiddle status in the ever-deep welterweight division.
7. Shinya Aoki (23-4, 1 NC)
Aoki’s April 17 date with Gilbert Melendez just took on a vastly more interesting dimension. The fight was already good enough to attract interest based on an international clash of two standout lightweight fighters, pitting the Dream champion against the Strikeforce titleholder. However, with B.J. Penn’s unexpected April 12 upset loss to Frankie Edgar, there now exists a legitimate dispute over alpha dog status in the lightweight division. Though he remains one of MMA’s most polarizing figures because of his petulant persona, Aoki may have the most legitimate claim to the 155-pound mantle -- if he can take victory from Melendez in Nashville, Tenn.
8. Mike Thomas Brown (22-5)
The world has fallen so deeply in love with Jose Aldo that Brown’s featherweight reign seems like five years ago, not five months ago. While it will be the man Brown conquered twice in his biggest wins, Urijah Faber, who next challenges Aldo for the 145-pound throne, Brown will find a home on the same WEC 48 card -- the promotion’s first on pay-per-view. In order to rise back up the ladder for a chance to regain the WEC crown, Brown will have to deal with fellow UFC veteran Manny Gamburyan, who owns a 2-0 mark since dropping to the more physically appropriate 145-pound division.
9. Frankie Edgar (12-1)
At UFC 112 in Abu Dhabi, United Arab Emirates, Edgar scored the most significant win of 2010 so far by dethroning lightweight kingpin B.J. Penn and taking the UFC 155-pound title from him. Though it was not exactly a popular decision, Edgar took all three judges scorecards on the back of his aggressive combination punching and stellar movement. The new surprise champion will now have to stave off challenges from the likes of Kenny Florian, former opponent Gray Maynard and perhaps even a rematch with Penn.
10. B.J. Penn (15-6-1)
The world seemed certain that Penn would head for 170 pounds after turning in another dominant performance against Frankie Edgar at UFC 112. Instead, Penn walked away beltless and dethroned as MMA’s top lightweight. Though many feel he should have retained his title and the scores turned in by the judges were inconsistent with the reality of the fight, UFC boss Dana White has thus far refuted talk of an instant rematch. The only silver lining there is that even if Penn simply returns to the 155-pound population, he will still be fighting elite lightweights each time he competes. That is all most people ever wanted for the talented but often mercurial Hilo, Hawaii, native.
* With the entry of ninth-ranked Frankie Edgar, previously ninth-ranked Thiago Alves is edged outside the top 10.