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When it became clear Khabib Nurmagomedov was not going to be able to get out of Russia for UFC 249, the Ultimate Fighting Championship was forced to scramble to find a new opponent for Tony Ferguson. In a lot of divisions, this would be a significant problem. There are only so many fighters who can compete at the top level in their weight class and fewer still with the star power to headline major pay-per-views. This is not a problem in the lightweight division, which is deep with formidable talent. The proposed Ferguson-Justin Gaethje fight, which also fell through, was a phenomenal fight in its own right and pretty much certain to be thrilling for as long as it lasted.
This embarrassment of riches has existed in the lightweight division for quite some time. It has featured some of the best fighters in the sport ever since it emerged and is one of the few divisions in the sport where there are almost always multiple promotions with depth and star power. As such, there are plenty of contenders for the mantle of best lightweight of all-time. For years, B.J. Penn was the quick answer for most fans to that question, and recently, Nurmagomedov has earned his supporters. So who belongs at the top of the list?
My criteria for this list are overall record, win quality and division dominance. Record focuses on the fighters’ peaks. They don’t lose much credit for losses that come after their primes, but the length of that prime is an important consideration. When it comes to win quality, it obviously depends on who they beat. It also matters when that win happened. Jens Pulver’s win over Penn in 2002 means much, much more than Clay Guida’s win over Penn in 2019. Even that feels like an understatement. Win quality also takes into account the nature of the victory. A lackluster split decision should not be weighed the same as a dominant knockout or submission.
When it comes to division dominance, championships matter, both in terms of title length and defenses. The strength of the division matters, as well. Finally, it is worth noting that sometimes fighters were dominant without holding a title. Takanori Gomi was the de facto Pride Fighting Championships lightweight titleholder for quite some time before the title was created. Yves Edwards-Josh Thomson was effectively a UFC lightweight title fight, even if the organization had abandoned the championship at the time. Finally, I tried hard not to make the list about some amorphous sense of who would win a hypothetical tournament that took place when all the fighters were at their best. That’s such a subjective exercise, and my focus as much as possible was on accomplishments.
Fights count if they were contested at a weight between 154 and 161 pounds. While, 155 has been the standard weight, Japan has held plenty of important fights at 70 kilograms/154.3 pounds (Shooto, Dream) and 73 kilograms/160.9 pounds (Pride). Wins at featherweight or welterweight do not count towards lightweight accomplishments for the purposes of this list. Penn’s submission of Matt Hughes and Conor McGregor’s knockout of Jose Aldo were arguably the highlights of their careers, but those were not lightweight fights.
The problem with merging accomplishments from multiple weight classes is that it becomes difficult to know how to classify certain fighters. For example, should Frankie Edgar be considered a lightweight or a featherweight? It becomes a tricky categorization game. If you put fighters in multiple lists while including their accomplishments in the other weight class, it starts to become more about personal feel for how good they were than concrete accomplishments. Thus, lightweight fights are what count here.
What’s most striking to me having put together this list is how much parity there is when it comes to the top lightweights. Deciding who should be in the Top 10 was not that difficult, but picking the order was a real challenge. It’s easy to make the case for shuffling up the top names in different directions, as they all have pros and cons. That speaks to how difficult it is to maintain dominance in such a competitive division.
Fighters who just missed the cut: Jens Pulver, Donald Cerrone, Michael Chandler, Sean Sherk, Shinya Aoki.
10. Rafael dos AnjosStatus: Former UFC lightweight champion
Key Wins: Anthony Pettis, Donald Cerrone, Benson Henderson, Nate Diaz, Evan Dunham
Dos Anjos’ career has been an interesting one. He was thought to be a good-but-not-upper-echelon lightweight for a large portion of his career, winning only four of his first eight UFC fights. He then went on a spectacular run, beating many top contenders before steamrolling Pettis to win the UFC lightweight title. That two-year tear gets him onto the list.
Key Wins: Rafael dos Anjos, Edson Barboza, Kevin Lee, Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis, Josh Thomson, Yves Edwards
More than any other fighter on this list, Ferguson’s story is still being written. If he beats Nurmagomedov to become UFC lightweight champion, it will be a crowning achievement that solidifies his status as one of the best lightweights ever. If he falls short, it will color the perception of how good he was at his best. Either way, he already possesses the most consecutive wins in UFC lightweight history and has violently dispatched some dangerous foes in the process.
Key Wins: B.J. Penn, Gray Maynard, Sean Sherk, Tyson Griffin, Hermes Franca
Intuitively, it feels like Edgar should be higher. He is one of the first fighters to come to mind when thinking of elite lightweights. The crazy thing is that Edgar has not fought at lightweight since 2012, when Mitt Romney was running for president and Zion Williamson had just graduated elementary school. He had an impressive run at lightweight, as he shockingly took away Penn’s title and had a pair of classic bouts with Maynard. He then elected to compete elsewhere, and that affects his placement.
Key Wins: Frankie Edgar, Nate Diaz, Donald Cerrone, Gilbert Melendez, Jim Miller, Clay Guida, Josh Thomson
Henderson is a tricky fighter to evaluate. He has won plenty of big title fights against impressive opposition. However, so many of those fights went to competitive decisions. Henderson had some luck in getting most of those to go his way. Thus, his record on paper probably reads a little more impressive than when you watch the fights. Either way, he accomplished plenty in the sport and is clearly one of the best.
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Benson Henderson, Donald Cerrone, Gilbert Melendez, Joe Lauzon, Jeremy Stephens, Michael Chiesa, Jim Miller
Pettis is kind of the reverse of Henderson. When he was at his peak, he left no doubt in his wins. He was the only fighter to ever finish Melendez and the only one to submit Henderson after the MMA Lab export put his skills together. The Showtime Kick remains one of the sport’s all-time highlights, and at his best, Pettis was a sight to behold.
Tatsuya Kawajiri, Jens Pulver, Hayato Sakurai, Marcus Aurelio, Duane Ludwig
Before the UFC focused on lightweights, the best fighters of that size were largely fighting in Japan. Gomi stepped into that space, and he dominated it. He thrived in Shooto and then was even more overwhelming in Pride. He won the promotion’s lightweight title and its lightweight grand prix, becoming a star in the process. His loss to Penn at Rumble on the Rock colored people’s perceptions of him at the time, as it seemed to settle who was better when both were dominating for different organizations. Still, being second to Penn is nothing to be ashamed of.
Josh Thomson, Shinya Aoki, Clay Guida, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Jorge Masvidal, Diego Sanchez
Long underappreciated because he ruled over Strikeforce rather than the UFC, Melendez was a menace at his best. “El Nino” is one of the most appropriate fighter nicknames because Melendez’s pressure was like a storm. He won Strikeforce title fights nine times—more such wins than any other lightweight in a major organization. He had no unavenged losses by the time he reached the UFC, but his cardio-oriented style wasn’t as well-suited for an older fighter.
Rafael dos Anjos, Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier, Edson Barboza, Al Iaquinta
It feels like Nurmagomedov is already getting close to greatest of all-time status. His undefeated record is an extreme rarity these days in MMA, and he has been so dominant. However, when comparing his resume to other top lightweights, his opposition is what holds him back. He has continued to dominate as he has moved up in class, so there is good reason to expect him to cement his status as the best, but he still has work to do.
Michael Chandler, Shinya Aoki, Justin Gaethje, Rafael dos Anjos, Anthony Pettis, Gilbert Melendez, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Joachim Hansen
When I started to think through this list, I wasn’t sure who would end up at the top. However, names like B.J. Penn, Khabib Nurmagomedov and Frankie Edgar were the ones that immediately came to mind. It was not until I started comparing resumes that Alvarez started to emerge as a contender for the top slot. What is most impressive about Alvarez is his longevity. He has been beating quality opponents for over a decade while so many others have had their peak and then fallen off. He has thrived in organizations across the world, and his legacy becomes more impressive the more you consider it.
1. B.J. PennStatus: Former UFC lightweight champion Key Wins: Sean Sherk, Takanori Gomi, Diego Sanchez, Jens Pulver, Caol Uno, Kenny Florian, Joe Stevenson, Matt Serra
Penn does not hold quite the mythical status he once did. That is not just because of the sad path his career and life has taken. A big part of why the Hawaiian was always viewed as the top all-time lightweight was because people imagined that when Penn was at his best, he could not be defeated. That is not so much the case anymore. It is not that hard to imagine apex, fully motivated Penn getting mauled by Khabib Nurmagomedov. Still, the resume stands up. From the time he burst onto the scene in 2001 until 2009, only one fighter gave him much of a challenge at lightweight, and he beat the best challengers to emerge. He does not tower over the scene anymore, but he is still hanging onto the top spot precariously.
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