If Anthony Pettis was going to take the UFC lightweight title and claim pound-for-pound candidacy, there could be no better site than his home city of Milwaukee.
When “Showtime” cranked Benson Henderson's arm to take 155-pound supremacy at UFC 164, the 26-year-old was not just establishing himself as the division's finest or taking a trinket; he was collecting the single most meritorious, outstanding win of his just-blossoming fight career.
His dethroned victim remains a no-brainer pound-for-pound candidate for the exact same reason that Pettis' win was so dramatic and valuable: in the last six years, 16 different men have tried to thwart the “Smooth” one. Among those 16 are the likes of P4P-quality fighters like Frankie Edgar and Gilbert Melendez, along with perennially strong contenders such as Nate Diaz, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller. Every man failed -- or at least every man not named Anthony Pettis. And he did it twice.
It lacked the jaw-dropping theatrics of their December 2010 classic, but Pettis' first-round submission of a fighter who has already established himself as a historically outstanding lightweight is exactly the sort of victory that puts an athlete on this list.
Better still for Pettis and his proponents, the Duke Roufus pupil is now the lord of MMA's finest division and should have no trouble finding entertaining and relevant foils. First up will be all-business Canadian T.J. Grant. If Pettis aces that test, he should find no shortage of hot, emergent lightweights vying for his throne, in addition to a potential pound-for-pound blockbuster with featherweight king Jose Aldo.
The UFC's tendency to load up cards in the latter stages of the year also bodes well for pound-for-pound action. Though Pettis and Henderson just fought each other, seven of the remaining fighters in this list are slated for action before the year's up. Two of them, UFC middleweight kingpin Chris Weidman and legend Anderson Silva, will be squaring off with one another for a second time with a chance for either man to add a massive win to his ledger.
1. Jon Jones (18-1)
Facing an undersized opponent he was expected to handle with ease, Jones still impressed in his April 27 demolition of Chael Sonnen. The first-round TKO tied “Bones” with Tito Ortiz for a record fifth defense of the UFC light heavyweight title and, more importantly, paved the way for even bigger and more competitive bouts. The 26-year-old will face Swedish “Mauler” Alexander Gustafsson in the main event of UFC 165 on Sept. 21.
2. Georges St. Pierre (24-2)
St. Pierre kept his chokehold on the 170-pound class by dominating Nick Diaz in a five-round rout at UFC 158, adding the brash Californian to a list of victims which includes Carlos Condit, Jake Shields, Jon Fitch, B.J. Penn and Matt Hughes. When he returns at November’s UFC 167, St. Pierre will have to deal with another tough challenger in Johny Hendricks.
3. Jose Aldo (23-1)
The featherweight division’s Brazilian ace was not at his leg-kicking best at UFC 163, thanks to a foot injury sustained early in the bout; but, as champions do, Aldo found a way to win. When challenger Chan Sung Jung separated his shoulder in the fourth round, Aldo pounced on his wounded foe and pounded out his fifth consecutive title defense. While the Nova Uniao fighter continues to discuss a potential move up to lightweight, there are plenty of 145-pound challengers hungry for a shot, including Ricardo Lamas and Chad Mendes.
4. Anderson Silva (33-5)
For the first time in 17 UFC appearances, Silva’s night ended without his hand being raised at UFC 162. After taunting, baiting and clowning Chris Weidman for little more than a round, the Brazilian met his demise when the challenger connected with a left hook and follow-up punches to put a shocking and abrupt end to Silva’s championship reign 1:18 into round two. Until he steps into the Octagon again, the debate will rage on as to why “The Spider” suffered the first loss of his UFC career. Was it his apparent disregard for Weidman’s skills or was it something deeper, such as a waning motivation to compete? Silva took up UFC President Dana White on his offer of an immediate rematch and will try to take back his belt at UFC 168 in December.
5. Cain Velasquez (12-1)
Velasquez celebrated Memorial Day in Las Vegas with his first successful defense of the UFC heavyweight strap. The sport’s top big man steamrolled Antonio “Bigfoot” Silva at UFC 160, setting up an October rubber match with Junior dos Santos, whom Velasquez dominated across five rounds in December to take back the belt. Dos Santos remains the only blemish on Velasquez’s record, which includes first-round finishes of Silva (twice), Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and Brock Lesnar.
6. Chris Weidman (10-0)
For months, Weidman claimed he was the man to dethrone reigning middleweight champion and pound-for-pound king Anderson Silva. In the UFC 162 main event, he backed up his talk, knocking out the Brazilian a little more than a minute into the second frame. The Serra-Longo Fight Team member has demonstrated rapid progression in each fight, and his blend of wrestling, jiu-jitsu and constantly improving standup makes him a formidable obstacle for any potential challenger. Weidman will attempt to repeat his feat and prove that his win over Silva was no fluke when they rematch on Dec. 28.
7. Demetrious Johnson (17-2-1)
There is “Mighty Mouse,” and then there is the rest of the flyweight division. The UFC’s littlest champ used his unparalleled speed and potent ground game to place challenger John Moraga firmly in the latter camp on July 27, when Johnson scored his long-desired first finish in the Octagon via fifth-round armbar. With wins over Joseph Benavidez, Ian McCall and John Dodson, Johnson’s only problem now is finding a suitable challenger. One may have emerged on Sept. 4, as Benavidez blitzed Jussier da Silva at UFC Fight Night 28, but in the meantime, Johnson has been discussing the possibility of moving up the scale for a super fight.
8. Anthony Pettis (17-2)
Pettis needed five rounds and the remarkable “Showtime” kick to wrest the WEC belt from Benson Henderson in 2010, but he required far less time to earn his second victory over “Smooth” and become the new UFC lightweight king. In the UFC 164 headliner, Pettis softened his opponent with a series of brutal body kicks, then locked in a fight-ending armbar with 29 seconds left in round one. About the only thing that went wrong for Pettis was a knee injury he suffered while checking a kick. Fortunately, the ailment was diagnosed as a sprain, which should keep the Roufusport standout out for approximately two months. When he returns, a date with T.J. Grant awaits.
9. Benson Henderson (19-3)
After seven consecutive triumphs to begin his UFC career, “Smooth” relinquished his lightweight crown to the same man who snatched WEC gold from his clutches in December 2010: Anthony Pettis. The MMA Lab product had no answer for Pettis’ dynamic attack at UFC 164, as “Showtime” had Henderson reeling with a series of hard body kicks before finishing the fight with an armbar from guard in the opening frame. The emphatic nature of the loss means there will be no immediate rematch for Henderson, but his impressive track record figures to keep him booked in significant fights for the foreseeable future.
10. Renan Barao (30-1)
Barao successfully defended the UFC interim bantamweight strap against 22-year-old prospect Michael McDonald at UFC on Fuel TV 7 in February. With a resume that includes triumphs over Brad Pickett, Scott Jorgensen, Urijah Faber and the aforementioned “Mayday,” Barao has earned his place atop the division, even if his title comes with a “temporary” label. A second title defense against Eddie Wineland at UFC 161 fell through when the Brazilian suffered a foot injury; the bout has been rebooked for UFC 165 on Sept. 21.