All things are possible in the lightweight division. Can I get an amen?
When Benson Henderson took Frankie Edgar’s UFC lightweight title at UFC 144, it was routine, in a strange way. It was another great lightweight bout inside the hallowed halls of Japan’s Saitama Super Arena. It was another close and competitive UFC 155-pound title fight. It was another dramatic 25 minutes with Benson Henderson, a man whose frenetic, action-oriented offense has become one of MMA’s most entertaining assets.
Henderson’s title win was routine in another way, too: the enjoyable and contestable nature of the bout has set up a rematch last this year with Frankie Edgar, whose recent career has been defined by his multi-fight series with his closest rivals.
A Henderson-Edgar rematch is a tough break for all the surging lightweights, such as Nate Diaz, Jim Miller, Anthony Pettis and others. However, for MMA enthusiasts, it means that we get another potential 25 minutes between two elite lightweights of pound-for-pound quality. It’s outcomes like this that have made the lightweight division the toast of the town in MMA.
It’s not without good reason: the lightweight division is the only weight class to have three representatives in this iteration of the Sherdog.com pound-for-pound list. Like an NFL season where three teams from the same division make the playoffs, that’s when you know you’re dealing with quite an extraordinary class of competitors. Not bad for a group of guys that people used to think were too small to tangle in the Octagon.
1. Anderson Silva (31-4)
It seemed all but certain that the world’s top middleweight would have another go-round with his former challenger and perennial antagonist Chael Sonnen in early 2012, but another bout -- Silva’s struggle with a damaged rotator cuff -- took precedence. Now healed, “The Spider” will look to make Sonnen his 15th Octagon victim when the two meet again in June, this time in Silva’s birthplace of Sao Paulo. However, the real sorts of victims that most fans continue to call out for Silva to face are his pound-for-pound contemporaries: though a fight with GSP has taken a backseat recently, fan discussion around Silva battling 205-pound ruler Jon Jones is as popular as ever, especially with UFC President Dana White stating that Silva-Jones is a fight he’d love to see before the Brazilian great calls it a career.
2. Georges St. Pierre (22-2)
After a knee injury took St. Pierre out of UFC title defenses against Carlos Condit and Nick Diaz in the second half of 2011, the 30-year-old French Canadian was forced to undergo surgery to repair a torn ACL. But while King Georges sits mending on the sidelines, his subjects are planning a revolt. When GSP returns in late 2012, he’ll have an interim champ to deal with -- Condit, currently -- not to mention emerging contenders like Johny Hendricks and/or Jake Ellenberger. However, the circumstance of having to face a long line of well-accomplished, outstanding challengers is precisely what got Georges St. Pierre to this lofty perch in the first place.
3. Jon Jones (15-1)
Jon Jones’ 2011 campaign has already been anointed the best in MMA history. After his incredible championship year, Jones is poised for an enviable encore. With his April 21 date against former teammate-turned-rival Rashad Evans in Atlanta, Jones has the chance to wipe out yet another former UFC light heavyweight champion. If he aces Evans, then former two-division Pride champion Dan Henderson awaits. It seems unfathomable, but “Jonny Bones” might prove himself to be MMA’s greatest light heavyweight in history by the time we change calendars.
4. Jose Aldo (20-1)
Every great hero needs a foil, and that is where Jose Aldo currently stands. Aldo is without question the finest featherweight to ever grace MMA to date, but his streak of dominance has left the rest of the 145-pound division looking like chopped liver compared to the dynamic Brazilian. With his Feb. 26 triumph over Bart Palaszewski, slick Japanese grappler Hatsu Hioki will likely be the next man on deck to try to put a dent in Aldo. Beyond Hioki, however, the question is whether the division’s hot young prospects like Erik Koch, Dustin Poirier, Iuri Alcantara, Chan Sung Jung and others can develop fast enough to challenge “Scarface.”
5. Dan Henderson (29-8)
Dan Henderson has been stacking plaques for most of his 15-year MMA career. One-night vale tudo tournaments, a one-night UFC tournament win, the Rings King of Kings tournament title, and two Pride championships are all in tow for “Hendo,” in a career that boasts major wins from middleweight to heavyweight. However, the one major credential that has escaped the all-time great is a UFC title. In an attempt to get that elusive Octagon crown, Henderson has opted to try his luck and wait for the winner of April 21’s Jon Jones-Rashad Evans bout. The best-case scenario for the Olympian would be another UFC light heavyweight title shot come the late summer or early autumn.
6. Dominick Cruz (19-1)
Dominick Cruz’s participation in “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 15 isn’t just to set up his rubber match with rival Urijah Faber this July. This cycle of TUF, complete with live fights and coaches training in-season for their climactic bout, is setting up the most important and high-profile bantamweight bout in MMA history. Up until now, “The Dominator” has put together the best 135-pound ledger to date. However, Cruz’s rivalry with Faber has thus far been the defining characteristic of his career. Though he has already put other elite fighters on his docket -- Joseph Benavidez, Demetrious Johnson, Brian Bowles and so on -- Cruz’s third go-around with Faber is the fight that could deeply entrench him even further as a pound-for-pound stalwart and the man that’s here to stay at 135.
7. Benson Henderson (16-2)
Benson Henderson entered Saitama Super Arena as challenger, but walked out champion at UFC 144. However, though the judges all awarded “Smooth” the win over Frankie Edgar, the competitive and exciting nature of the bout has led UFC boss Dana White to announce a rematch for later this year. Henderson’s Zuffa run over the last three years has been one filled with both high-quality opponents and high-quality action bouts. If he is able to defeat Edgar again, Henderson will have perhaps the deepest talent pool in MMA in front of him to build his legacy against. Considering Henderson is now the top fighter in arguably MMA’s top weight class, there may not be a more enjoyable fighter to watch in MMA.
8. Frankie Edgar (14-2-1)
Frankie Edgar’s career thus far has been defined as much by his otherworldly toughness as it has by his propensity for rematches. So, after back-to-backs against B.J. Penn and Gray Maynard, it only makes sense that Edgar’s close and competitive Feb. 26 decision loss to Benson Henderson would be met with a rematch. Although it seems cruel to have so many championship rematches in the UFC’s ultra-deep lightweight division, it reflects the ultra-talented and ultra-competitive nature of the 155-pound class, which is exactly why three lightweights appear on this list.
9. Gilbert Melendez (20-2)
Josh Thomson’s March 3 win over K.J. Noons seems to have punched his ticket to another Strikeforce lightweight title fight against Gilbert Melendez. Though they split their first two bouts, opening up a very natural rubber match scenario between the two, MMA observers are calling out for Melendez to face the UFC’s lightweight elite. Though Melendez has been fortunate to put major lightweight wins on his docket in the recent past, it seems that with the UFC and Bellator competing so hard for 155-pound talent, there are few remaining fighters for Melendez to fight inside Strikeforce. The future pound-for-pound status of “El Nino” seems to rest on whether or not Zuffa throws him a bone, either with a UFC lightweight in Strikeforce, or by bringing yet another Cesar Gracie standout to the Octagon.
10. Carlos Condit (28-5)
To fight or not to fight? Following his controversial Feb. 4 interim title win against Nick Diaz, Carlos Condit’s UFC future was in a constant state of flux. First, we anticipated a summer rematch with Diaz, before Diaz’s elevated level of marijuana metabolites nixed that. Then, we wondered if he might defend the interim strap in the summer against a contender such as Jake Ellenberger. Now, it appears that barring some unforeseen change in the UFC’s plans, Condit will wait for Georges St. Pierre to come off of the mend to unify the 170-pound titles. If nothing else, by choosing to wait, Condit is giving himself the chance to rocket up this pound-for-pound list if he can knock off the French-Canadian.
With the entry of Benson Henderson, previously 10th-ranked Rashad Evans falls outside the pound-for-pound top 10.