The Big Picture: Then and Now, 10 Years of the Lightweight Division

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The state of the lightweight division would make a permanent pivot 10 years ago, from one snakebitten era to the next. Fittingly, it happened via robbery.

When Frankie Edgar defeated B.J. Penn the first time at UFC 112 in the United Arab Emirates, it wasn’t just a big-time upset, though it was also that by any measure. Edgar was a +725 underdog and Penn a -1100 favorite. Penn was a three-time defending champion who hadn’t lost at lightweight in eight years, while Edgar had never been in a title fight and wasn’t even the clear top contender. Coming into the fight, Edgar was 6-1 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship—a very good record in an elite division—but in that same timeframe Gray Maynard was 7-0-1, including a win over Edgar. After losing to Maynard, Edgar won three straight bouts over former title challenger Hermes Franca, former champion Sean Sherk and Matt Veach in his second UFC appearance. In the same timeframe, Maynard beat Rich Clementi, Jim Miller, Roger Huerta and Nate Diaz. Likely because of his two straight split decisions against Huerta and Diaz, Maynard was passed up for the title shot, a small snub that changed the course of the division.

You don’t have to check the stats to know Penn deserved the win, but it’s certainly quicker than watching the fight. Penn stood in the center of the cage while Edgar darted in and out with combinations that, more often than not, were countered with cleaner, harder shots from “The Prodigy.” After three rounds, Penn outlanded Edgar in each round independently for a total differential of 46-26. Even if Edgar won the fourth round—which is debatable, unlike the fifth round, which he clearly won—it’s hard to justify how he won any of the first three. Yet somehow, the judges awarded “The Answer” 12 of the available 15 rounds on their combined scorecards, including a clean sweep on one of them.

Though Edgar would more than prove his superiority over Penn in rematches at lightweight and featherweight, his first win was poetic injustice. Penn was also robbed of the lightweight title against Caol Uno at UFC 41 seven years prior, when a dominant and controlling performance was judged a draw. The UFC unceremoniously shuttered the division for good afterward and wouldn’t bring it back until UFC 58 in 2006.

After the Uno fight, Penn choked out Pride Fighting Championships titleholder Takanori Gomi and was the uncrowned lightweight king until he became the crowned lightweight king, cementing his status with his first title defense over Sean Sherk in 2008. From 2003-10, Penn ruled the division, at least whenever he was there and not gallivanting across heavier weight classes. With Edgar’s win came the end of an era. Penn fell off precipitously, losing fights in septuplets: by submission, by knockout and by some dude at the bar. As if the weight class itself congealed in the grooves “The Prodigy” impressed upon it, the post-Penn division has been just as mercurial as he was.

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Edgar’s reign clarified the difference between “title defense” and “title retention.” Benson Henderson became the undisputed king of split decisions. Anthony Pettis looked like the chosen one until Rafael dos Anjos chose otherwise. Eddie Alvarez lost the title so badly so quickly it’s easy to forget he ever won it. Conor McGregor got stupid rich making a fool of himself as a boxer and opted to live his best life instead of leave a legacy. Tony Ferguson became interim champ and then was stripped. Khabib Nurmagomedov has taken over, most recently with a win against interim champion Dustin Poirer—in Abu Dhabi, because of course.

Now, 10 years after Edgar switched the division’s tracks, the biggest and most important lightweight title fight ever has been booked and cancelled for a fifth time, this time under even more insane circumstances than the last. Shutting down UFC 249 was unquestionably the right thing to do, but it certainly doesn’t feel like a good thing. Who didn’t want to watch those fights? However, no cage fight, not even the best possible matchup in the best overall division, is worth the spread of infection and, possibly, death. This may seem alarmist; these are professional prizefighters, after all. Yet traveling around amid a pandemic is less analogous to a regular MMA fight and more like if fighters’ bodies were voodoo doll-connected with everyone with whom they ever come into close proximity, whether they know each other or not. If every strike, takedown and submission had the distinct possibility of invisibly landing with the same force on unwitting loved ones and random passersby, you might feel a little differently watching fights.

Still, it stings to have the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight canceled again. Their combined accomplishments—27-1 in the UFC, currently riding the two longest winning streaks in division history— are unprecedented in any weight class, let alone the most perennially stacked division in the sport. They have to fight, more than any two fighters ever have. Freak injuries and plain bad luck have interfered for years, and when the seas finally parted and cleared a path to the Violent Promised Land, pestilence descended upon the Earth. Time passes and little changes. A decade ago, the rightful lightweight champ was robbed, sending the once-greatest lightweight spiraling into oblivion while the division fumbled its search for the next-greatest. Now, the rightful lightweight champ—whether that’s Nurmagomedov or Ferguson—has been robbed again, this time of the opportunity to definitively assert his greatness. If only we could go back to the good ol’ days of three judges screwing up everything, instead of a global pandemic.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction, nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find his work at ericstinton.com.

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