If two close wins over Frankie Edgar had people thinking Benson Henderson was a placeholder champion, the UFC lightweight kingpin’s emphatic domination of Nate Diaz on a major stage may have served up a realization: this guy might be sticking around for a while.
With two title defenses in the books, Henderson is still looking at some serious opposition in 2013. A rematch with Anthony Pettis could be on deck, as well as a much-sought-after confrontation with Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez. However, getting his hand raised against this caliber of opposition is simply what Henderson has done since the moment he entered the UFC.
Mark Bocek, Jim Miller, Clay Guida, Frankie Edgar twice and Nate Diaz? The “Smooth” one has put together one of MMA’s most enviable hit lists in just two years. Better still, in an MMA moment where fans and media are calling for what may be pipe dream super fights, Henderson has a rich lineup of legitimate lightweights with which to tangle in the near future.
Perhaps Henderson deserves some additional credit, as well: it was the UFC lightweight champ’s two contentious wins over Edgar that sent the New Jersey native to 145 pounds after years of discussion. The ultimate result? A pound-for-pound showdown between Edgar and fellow Top 10 entrant Jose Aldo on Super Bowl weekend. Thanks, champ.
1. Anderson Silva (33-4)
Just when it looked like we might not see “The Spider” for a while, Silva made a surprise appearance at October’s UFC 153. The UFC’s middleweight ace once again moved up to 205 pounds, this time to salvage the injury-ravaged Rio de Janeiro card with a makeshift main event against Stephan Bonnar. To the surprise of no one, Silva made quick work of the normally durable veteran and quickly returned to the sideline, where he figures to stay until mid-2013. While it’s long been figured that Silva is approaching the end of his career, UFC President Dana White stated in December that he recently turned down an eight-fight contract with the company -- and instead asked for a 10-fight deal.
2. Georges St. Pierre (23-2)
The welterweight division’s French Canadian king finally came off the shelf in November after a frustrating 18-month layoff. Showing no signs of the knee injury which had kept him from the cage, GSP got right back to his old ways, sweeping interim champ Carlos Condit in a five-round affair to unify the UFC’s 170-pound belts. For a moment, Zuffa seemed dead-set on getting St. Pierre and fellow pound-for-pounder Anderson Silva together for a mega-fight; now, it seems GSP’s next bout could be a long-anticipated fight against former Strikeforce titlist Nick Diaz.
3. Jon Jones (17-1)
It was a turbulent year for Jones, who weathered opponent changes, angry bosses and a drunk driving arrest, but came out the other side with his UFC light heavyweight title intact. The latest test for “Jonny Bones” was a September encounter with Vitor Belfort, who nearly pulled off a miracle armbar early at UFC 152 but eventually succumbed to a Jones keylock in round four. Jones will have a little time off before his next defense, but it won’t be all rest: the 25-year-old is set to coach opposite Chael Sonnen on the next season of “The Ultimate Fighter” before the two meet at UFC 158 in April.
4. Jose Aldo (21-1)
Aldo managed only one fight in 2012, as injuries twice nixed bouts with Roufusport prospect Erik Koch. The Brazilian was also forced to withdraw from a UFC featherweight title defense against Frankie Edgar in September. In what will be his highest-profile bout to date, Aldo will now take on former lightweight top dog Edgar on Feb. 2 in the main event of UFC 156 -- the company’s annual Super Bowl weekend card in Las Vegas. It is the kind of victory that could go a long way to making people forget about his recent inactivity and injury issues.
5. Benson Henderson (18-2)
After claiming and defending the UFC lightweight title in a pair of hotly contested wins over Frankie Edgar, Henderson left little doubt in his latest defense. Before an audience of millions on network TV, Henderson grounded, pounded and ultimately took a unanimous decision over top contender Nate Diaz. Henderson’s recent run at 155 pounds has given him one of the strongest records in all of MMA. Things won’t get any easier in 2013 for the man who presides over arguably the most talent-rich division in the UFC, with contenders like Anthony Pettis and Gray Maynard, not to mention incoming Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez, lining up for a shot at the belt.
6. Dan Henderson (29-8)
Henderson’s unceremonious knee injury at least temporarily put the brakes on his improbable three-division run past the age of 40. Despite UFC President Dana White’s recent statements of a slow recovery, the former Pride Fighting Championships and Strikeforce titleholder insists he’s healthy and on schedule for a February return. Henderson may have lost his crack at Jon Jones to occasional training partner Chael Sonnen, but the Olympian still believes he’s on target for a high-stakes Feb. 23 date against former UFC light heavyweight champion Lyoto Machida.
7. Frankie Edgar (14-3-1)
Two close losses to fellow pound-for-pound entrant Benson Henderson are nothing to hang your head about. Edgar still boasts a strong recent resume against the lightweight division’s aces and is now bound for 145 pounds. “The Answer” will have a chance to put another Zuffa title on his mantle in February, along with arguably the biggest win of his career, as he takes on featherweight ruler Jose Aldo in a pound-for-pound clash that onlookers have been calling for consistently over the last two years.
8. Gilbert Melendez (21-2)
Melendez’s on-again, off-again Strikeforce lightweight title defense against Pat Healy was rescheduled for the company’s final show on Jan. 12. One problem: Melendez’s knee injury still wasn’t healed, forcing him off the show. However, we now get what the world really craves: Melendez against Top 10, elite lightweights on a fight-in, fight-out basis. The Cesar Gracie product figures to make his Octagon debut in early 2013 and should factor in against the major players at 155 pounds almost immediately. It’s been a long time coming.
9. Junior dos Santos (15-1)
In the wake of Fedor Emelianenko, everyone is looking for a dominant heavyweight champion and Brazilian big gun dos Santos could be that fighter. If he is able to get past the man he defeated for the title a year ago, Cain Velasquez, at UFC 155 on Dec. 29, “Cigano” will be well on his way to cleaning out of the division. From there, a big-money date with Alistair Overeem and maybe even a rematch with former victim Fabricio Werdum in Brazil could mark a lucrative 2013 for the Brazilian. If he wins his next two or three bouts, we are already talking about an all-time great in the heavyweight division.
10. Demetrious Johnson (16-2-1)
As we begin to wonder what various pound-for-pound greats might look like fighting a weight class above the one they dominate, Johnson is becoming one of the few truly successful fighters to actually fulfill the “drop a weight class and dominate” expectation. The first UFC 125-pound champ has picked up major wins over Ian McCall and Joseph Benavidez in 2012 and has the chance to up his unbeaten mark as a flyweight on network television in the New Year. “Mighty Mouse” makes the first defense of his flyweight title at the UFC on Fox 6 in Chicago against “Ultimate Fighter” winner John Dodson.
Due to inactivity, previously sixth-ranked Dominick Cruz exits the pound-for-pound rankings.