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By: Shawn Ennis, MMATorch Senior Columnist
This will be the first of two parts breaking down the UFC's lightweight division.
First off, let's talk about the guy who just lost the Lightweight Championship. There have been some positive words said about Frankie Edgar since Saturday night, but not enough to balance out the insanity between idiots that suddenly think he was never any good, and the misguided souls (including Dana White, of all people) who continually call for his drop to 145 pounds. So here's what Frankie Edgar has accomplished as a lightweight: He became the first lightweight to beat B.J. Penn since 2002, and he's the only lightweight that Penn has ever fought and not beaten. He's the only fighter to have beaten Gray Maynard. He also defended the title three times, which ties the record for most defenses in the division. Lightweight is a shark tank - holding on to the belt for one defense is an accomplishment. You may point out that he rematched two men during his reign, but I fail to see how this was an advantage, especially given the fact that he was an underdog in both rematches. To me, it makes the defenses more impressive, not less. And he should have to drop a weight class in order to get a title shot? He should have to cut weight that he doesn't want to cut when he just lost one fight that several people had him winning? Come on, son. Now, we'll talk more about Edgar in a bit, but for the moment let's move on to the new King of the Lightweights, Ben Henderson, and who sits ready to challenge him for his newly acquired prize.
Ben Henderson (16-2):
It was never in doubt that Henderson was a hot prospect, even in December of 2010, when he had just dropped a unanimous decision and his WEC Lightweight Title to Anthony Pettis, he of the "Showtime Kick." But you'd be hard-pressed to find someone who would predict that a scant one year and change later, Henderson would hold the title over the deepest division in MMA. And yet here we are. Henderson used his truly bottomless gas tank, effective striking and movement, and excellent grappling to capture the title from former champ Frankie Edgar, though the decision was anything but an easy one to make, both for judges and those watching live and at home. What can't be denied is that we were given yet another great fight to decide the UFC Lightweight Championship, and that this belt will be very tough to retain for the "Smooth" one. He's got a pack of wild animals nipping at his heels, and the guy from whom he just took the title isn't going anywhere anytime soon (or at least he shouldn't have to).
Anthony Pettis (15-2):
Remember when Pettis beat Ben Henderson to close down the WEC and came to the UFC with a guaranteed title shot? That seems like forever ago, doesn't it? The fact is that Pettis only has two wins in the UFC, and really only his devastating knockout of Joe Lauzon was definitive. That having been said, the timing is right for Pettis to get his shot at the gold. With Lauzon coming off of a win over Melvin Guillard, who would have been next in line for a shot instead of Henderson had he been able to win that fight, Pettis's head kick was on the right card against the right opponent for him to take the title shot that should probably rightfully go to the just-vanquished Edgar. But as Gus Johnson would say, these things happen in MMA, and one could hardly call him the least deserving title contender we've ever seen.
Frankie Edgar (14-2-1):
You'd better believe he's in this category. Sure, in reality may have to fight again before getting his deserved rematch against Henderson (or a shot at Pettis should he be able to take out Henderson again). But considering the closeness of the decision (even though I had the fight scored four rounds to one in favor of Henderson, it wasn't exactly a clear-cut thing), along with the fact that Edgar was the best Lightweight Champion the UFC has seen if you ask me, I can't see putting him in another category.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
Jim Miller (21-3):
It's not every day that a guy is a step or two away from a title shot when he just got blown out of the water by the champion less than a year ago, but not everyone is Jim Miller. Miller's only career losses have been to former champion Frankie Edgar, current champ Ben Henderson, and two-time title challenger Gray Maynard. In fact, before his loss to Henderson, Miller had won seven straight and seemed destined for a title shot at that point had he been able to put away the future champion. That proved to be a tall order, especially given the rumors after the fight that Miller had battled illness going into the bout. Should Miller be able to top Nate Diaz on the next FOX show, he'll likely be at most one fight away from a title shot. Whom he actually fights to earn the shot will depend on how the title contender situation shakes out.
Nate Diaz (15-7):
We talk a lot about how fortunes can change very quickly in MMA, and especially in a deep UFC division, and the case is no different with the younger Diaz brother. Diaz started his UFC career by winning his season of The Ultimate Fighter and going 4-0 afterwards. But a step up in competition against stout wrestlers brought a different fortune as Diaz went 1-3 in his next four. He decided that a move to welterweight was in order, but achieved mixed results, going 2-2 and realizing that he was outsized at 170 pounds. Since his return to the lightweight division, the improvement has been dramatic and immediate. Diaz obliterated Takanori Gomi (which, granted, is not the accomplishment it once was), and most recently absolutely dismantled the surging Donald Cerrone, who had won six straight going into their fight. Diaz will once again be tested against a strong wrestler in Miller. If he can overcome the hurdle that has plagued him thus far, he will be a real test for anyone at the top of the division, and he'll be close to a title fight.
UP AND COMERS
John Cholish (8-1):
In Cholish's UFC debut against Mitch Clarke, he came out in the first round and looked to be tentative. Perhaps it was the famed "Octagon jitters," or maybe he was just getting a feel for his opponent, but the 9-0 Clarke looked very good in picking Cholish apart for the first few minutes. That all changed in the second round. While Clarke - perhaps dealing with the adrenaline dump of his own Octagon debut - slowed and gassed, Cholish kept his composure and thrived. He punished Clarke on the feet and eventually got the fight to the ground, where he flattened Clarke out after a fantastic scramble and caused a stoppage due to strikes with fewer than 30 seconds left in the round. If Cholish fights more like he did in the second round, he could be one to watch.
Paul Sass (12-0):
Sometimes a fighter debuts in the UFC with a gaudy record that shows him winning by the same method each time. Thus was the case with Paul Sass when he debuted in the UFC in October of 2010 against Mark Holst. Sass had won nine of his fights by submission, with seven of them coming via triangle choke. Well, the book was out on that, right? Surely he wouldn't use a triangle to win the fight. Right? Wrong. Sass won by triangle in the first round. The other two submission wins for Sass prior to his UFC career came via heel hook. When Sass faced Michael Johnson in October of last year, he won via what looked like an incredibly damaging heel hook in the first round. Now that is impressive. Sass has a very interesting fight against Jacob Volkmann coming up in May at UFC 146, and Volkmann should give us an idea of whether Sass can hang with a wrestler who excels at grinding people down. Since dropping to lightweight in 2010, Volkmann has rattled off five straight victories by using his grinding style. How Sass fares against that will be telling of where he is now and what he is capable of later. If he's blown out of the water, it's not a great thing. But even if he hangs in there and loses a spirited contest, that's not the end of the world. This guy is one to watch for sure.
Khabib Nurmagomedov (17-0):
If I learned how to spell Palaszewski without looking, hopefully I'll be able to get this one right eventually, because I don't think he's going anywhere anytime soon. Nurmagomedov made his UFC debut against the very durable Kamal Shalorus and absolutely dominated him from the opening round. In that round, he floored Shalorus early, and his opponent was never the same after that - even though the fight went into the third round before Nurmagomedov finished with a rear naked choke (the first time Shalorus had been submitted). Nurmagomedov seems to be extremely dangerous, and of course he's a world Sambo champion, which is a sport that, at times, tends to translate nicely into MMA success. Next time you see a Russian guy with the name "Khabib" and a long last name, just remember you want to watch that fight. This guy will be bringing some quality violence for a long time.
Follow me on Twitter - @shawnennis - or email me: ennistorch(at)gmail.com
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