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By: Shawn Ennis, MMATorch Senior Columnist
This is the second of a two-part series breaking down the UFC's featherweight division. For Part One, click here
We're going to start doing something a little different in the pool section here. Starting now with the lightweights, the first thing I'm going to do is briefly break down the stakes of each upcoming fight, and then we'll talk about possibilities for fighters who don't have anything on the horizon. Note: If I mentioned them in Part 1, I won't mention them again unless they're fighting someone in the pool. Here we go.
Fighting for Relevance
Reza Madadi (11-2) vs. Yoislandy Izquierdo (6-0) – UFC on Fuel 2 – April 14
One thing I can tell you for sure is that if Izquierdo starts to make a run, it's not going to be good for my typing speed. Between him and Khabib Nurmagomedov, that is a keyboarding nightmare. But from a fight perspective, you've got two guys making their UFC debuts. Madadi has certainly fought stiffer opposition, as his last three wins came over Rich Clementi, Carlo Prater and Junie Browning, but that doesn't always mean a whole lot in debut fights. A win here isn't going to set the world on fire unless it ends up on the highlight reel, and the loser will probably get another shot at Octagon glory, but it's the first step on the road to relevance.
Anthony Njokuani (14-6, 1 NC) vs. John Makdessi – UFC 145 – April 21
Njokuani got my attention back in 2009 with three straight impressive-looking TKO victories. As the story often goes, though, he's been up and down against tougher opponents. John Makdessi looks to avoid a similar fate in this fight. He looked spectacular in dismantling Pat Audinwood for three rounds in his UFC debut, then ended up on the good end of the highlight reel against Kyle Watson with a spinning back fist knockout in April of last year. But the Canadian could have been exposed as having a limited ground game when Dennis Hallman pretty easily choked him out at UFC 140. It was by far Makdessi's most experienced opponent, and perhaps a case of too much too soon, but if he wants to get another shot at proving his worth, a win over a fellow striker will be a good first step. For Njokuani, who's coming off of a questionable loss to Danny Castillo, this is the next step in his fight to find footing in the UFC lightweight division. If he can't make it work here with his reach against a much shorter opponent, he may find himself on the outs.
TJ Grant (17-5) vs. Carlo Prater (30-10-1) – UFC on Fuel 3 – May 15
After a 3-3 stint in the UFC welterweight division, TJ Grant looked very good in his third round submission win over Shane Roller on the UFC's final Versus card. Prater is another former welterweight, and though his foray into the lightweight division didn't have such a rosy beginning, he is currently riding a five-fight win streak courtesy of a questionable disqualification win over Erick Silva at UFC 142. That fight was contested at 170 pounds, and this will be Prater's debut as a UFC lightweight, though he's been fighting at 155 pounds since 2008. Prater has been around for a long time and would love to make a run in the toughest division in MMA. A win over Grant, who has looked very good at times, would be a step in that direction, but I don't see it happening here. Grant has something he hasn't shown us yet, and I think he'll put on a clinic against "Neo."
Kamal Shalorus (7-2-2) vs. Rafael dos Anjos (15-6) – UFC on Fuel 3 – May 15
This is one of those under-the-radar fights that could be fantastic. It shows what a shark tank the lightweight division is that these two are fighting in the relative obscurity of a Fuel undercard in order to move a little bit up the ladder. Dos Anjos has shown some great potential but has lost winnable fights, and Shalorus has been tough as nails in defeat, but he's still not been able to get over the hump in his relatively short Zuffa tenure. I'm thinking dos Anjos does enough here to get the nod, and it's possible that the loser leaves town after this fight, but don't be surprised if he sticks around for another go either. Such is the state of the middle-of-the-road UFC lightweights.
Danny Castillo (13-4) vs. John Cholish (8-1) – UFC on FOX 3 – May 5
I talked about Cholish in part one – he impressed me with his win over Mitch Clarke, and he's looked good in the other fights in which I've seen him. Castillo will be a great test in his second UFC fight, and while "Last Call" himself won't have a ton to gain from winning this fight, if he can take out an up and comer like Cholish it should erase the bad taste we got from his questionable decision win over Anthony Njojuani in his last fight. This is a tough one, but I think Cholish picks it up as of right now. That may change as it gets closer.
Fighting for a Job
Mac Danzig (20-9-1) vs. Efrain Escudero (18-4) – UFC 145 – April 21
This is the tale of two Ultimate Fighter winners who won their first two fights including the Finale, then failed to impress. This is Escudero's second UFC stint already after going 3-2 in his first run, but being embarrassed in both losses. He's already lost his first fight back to Jacob Volkmann. Danzig is coming off a decision loss to Matt Wiman, which was the rematch of a fight he shouldn't have lost on a technical submission back in June of 2010. But the fact remains that Danzig's last win over a guy who's still in the UFC was over Mark Bocek in April of 2008, and I'd probably pick Bocek to take that fight today. Even if the loser isn't cut immediately, he's probably the sacrificial lamb for an up and comer in his next (and ostensibly last) Octagon outing.
Aaron Riley (30-13-1) vs. Cody McKenzie (12-2) – UFC on Fuel 3 – May 15
Aaron Riley just won't go away. The guy turned pro in 1997, and he's only 31. He fought at welterweight for a while, and even had a fight in 2006 against Spencer Fisher in the UFC that turned out to be a one-off deal. Every time I see his name on a card I say, "Oh, yeah! Aaron Riley. Forgot about him." Riley has gone 3-3 in his time as a lightweight in the UFC, and he has no wins over anyone still with the promotion. That said, even if he lost this fight it would be his first time losing two straight with the UFC, and he's tough enough that he'll probably be brought back anyway. Wait, who's he fighting? McKenzie? Oh. Well, let's talk about him. It's impressive for anyone to rack up ten straight wins using the same submission hold. It's almost like his finishing move. But perhaps more telling is that McKenzie has not won any fights since his second pro fight by any other method, and he's lost two straight by pretty emphatic submission. Riley has only been tapped twice, and he's never been choked. I don't see it happening here either. Look for Riley to continue his win-loss-win-loss pattern while McKenzie loses his third straight, along with his position in the UFC for now.
Fighting for Redemption
Donald Cerrone (17-4) vs. Jeremy Stephens (20-7) – UFC on Fuel 3 – May 15
This one is pretty self-explanatory. Donald Cerrone came to the UFC from WEC and went on an immediate tear, winning four straight and sending two straight surging lightweights down to 145 pounds in Charles Oliveira and Dennis Siver. Then came Nate Diaz. Cerrone fought Diaz's fight, going toe-to-toe with the younger Pride of Stockton, and he paid the price. Diaz absolutely dominated Cerrone for three rounds en route to a humbling unanimous decision loss for "Cowboy." While he was originally slated to face Yves Edwards at this event, Stephens makes perhaps more sense as an opponent. "Lil Heathen" is coming off of a decision loss of his own, having dropped an extremely close split decision to the suddenly incendiary Anthony Pettis back in October. Several people thought Stephens won the fight, and this is his chance – after losses to Pettis, Melvin Guillard and Joe Lauzon in the past – to show that he can hang with and blend into the upper echelon of lightweights.
Fighting to Get In the Mix
(Note: This is not the same thing as "A Step or Two Away" in part one. This is just…you know…in the mix. In the lightweight discussion, if you will.)
Mark Bocek (10-4) vs. Matt Wiman (14-6) – UFC 145 – April 21
I know, right? It's kind of weird, but this is where Wiman and Bocek find themselves. Wiman has won four of five, and Bocek has won five of seven, dropping decision losses to Ben Henderson and Jim Miller in that timeframe. Not bad. This is actually kind of a tough one to call for me. Wiman has never been tapped, but he's also never fought anyone (I don't think) with the savvy of a Bocek on the floor. Both men have been tooling around in the middle of the division since about 2007, and a win here would be a big step for either one of them to get another crack at a top 10 or 15 opponent.
Dennis Hallman (51-14-2) vs. Tony Ferguson (13-3) – UFC on FOX 3 – May 5
After a long and storied career that includes submitting Matt Hughes in under a minute two times, Dennis Hallman is trying his hand at lightweight in the UFC. He's done it before, but it's been a while. Hallman looked great against John Makdessi, giving him the Matt Hughes treatment with a rear naked choke victory in round one. Ultimate Fighter winner Tony Ferguson has looked very good in his first three UFC fights. Ferguson brings a feeling of inevitable violence to his fights before they even start, which may sound obvious as we're talking about fights, but the way he does it is unique in that you almost feel like there's an unchecked rage happening beneath the surface. It will be very interesting to see what he can do against a guy with the experience of Hallman. It's not out of the question that Ferguson could be out of his depth here, but if he can get a win, it would be a statement as to where he is such a short time into his UFC career.
Edson Barboza (10-0) vs. Evan Dunham (13-2) – UFC 146 – May 26
My friends, this is Joe Silva at his finest. Edson Barboza is exactly where Evan Dunham was a couple of years ago. Dunham was 4-0 in the UFC and 11-0 overall after beating Tyson Griffin, and he'd looked pretty impressive along the way. Then he came on some hard luck with a terrible decision loss to Sean Sherk (the decision was terrible, not the loss) followed by a quick knockout at the hands of the surging (at the time) Melvin Guillard. He's since battled back with dominant wins over Shamar Bailey and Nik Lentz, and now he faces one of the UFC's hottest prospects (which he was two years ago) in Edson Barboza. Barboza, of course, is coming off of what will almost surely be the Knockout of the Year in a victory over the tough Terry Etim, and his striking has looked scary at times. So will he encounter the same fate as Dunham in suffering a setback, or will he continue his rise among the ranks to become a buzzed-about pseudo-contender? And can Dunham use the experience he gained in the last two years to work his way past a young lion, or will he have to wait longer to see if he can take the leap into elite competition? This is a tough one. I have a feeling Barboza will pull it out, but Dunham certainly has the tools to take Barboza places he hasn't been before if he fights smart. This is simply a great matchup.
Jacob Volkmann (14-2) vs. Paul Sass (12-0) – UFC 146 – May 26
It almost seems premature to talk about either of these guys being close to the elusive "Mix," but let's look at what we have here. We've got Volkmann, who's won five in a row in increasingly impressive fashion since dropping to lightweight, and you've got Paul Sass, who has eleven submission wins in 12 fights. We talked about Sass before, but how do you ignore either one of these guys with a win in this fight? Volkmann has been submitted before by Martin Kampmann, but he's got underrated grappling skills and I don't think Sass will be able to tap him easily. That having been said, I do think Sass will pick up the victory, and maybe even via submission. But Volkmann isn't going to make it easy.
Matching up the Rest
In this section we'll take a look at who's left, and how they fit in together. We'll start with those who won their last fights.
If we start at the newest guys in the division, you've got a pretty decently sized group here. There's Fabricio Camoes (14-6-1), who just made his way back into the UFC and picked up his first win inside the Octagon after going 0-1-1 in his first stint with the company. Then there are the 1-0 fighters, like Justin Salas (10-3), who beat Joe Ellenberger (Jake's brother) to get into the UFC but was underwhelming in his first victory, Tim Means (17-3) who hasn't lost in 10 straight fights. I like the idea of matching Michael Johnson (10-6) against Camoes. Johnson looked as good as we've seen him against Shane Roller at the last FOX show, and this could give us an idea of where they both are right now. Salas and Means could fight each other as well to see who moves up the ladder from little-known to slightly-more-known.
Another good fight would be either Thiago Tavares (17-4-1) or Gleison Tibau (25-7) against up-and-comer Khabib Nurmagomedov (17-0)
. Both are UFC stalwarts who would tell us just how for real the Russian is right now. Whoever doesn't fight Nurmagomedov could match up with Takanori Gomi (33-8, 1 NC) to finish out Gomi's UFC run. (I'd love for it to last longer, but it's just not going to unless they run a bunch of shows in Japan and match him with cans). Paul Taylor (11-6-1, 1 NC) and Sean Sherk (36-4-1) have both been inactive for a while, so we'll leave them together in unknown territory. It actually wouldn't be a bad fight either if they come back around the same time. That leaves TUF finalist Ramsey Nijem (5-2) and Tim Means (17-3), and that sounds like a good match to me.
Now let's take a look at those who were not so fortunate as to have been victorious in their last outings. One potential fight that would be a lot of fun and jumps out at me right away is Shane Roller (10-6) vs. Terry Etim (15-4). That's two well-rounded and fast-paced fighters that could put on a great show and get back on track with a win. Etim will be a part of every 2012 highlight, and likely beyond that with his epic KO loss to Edson Barboza, while Roller was on the receiving end of Michael Johnson's most impressive win. There are also four names nearer the top of the
division who would match up well in nearly any combination. There's Melvin Guillard (29-20-2, 1 NC), George Sotiropoulos (14-4), Clay Guida (29-12), and Gray Maynard (10-1-1, 1 NC). All four were either title contenders or almost title contenders, and none of them have fought each other. I don't think you can go wrong any way you slice it with matchups in that combination. Maynard, for his part, has been rumored as a possible opponent for Gilbert Melendez (20-2), but I don't know how likely that is. I think it's more likely that Melendez stays in Strikeforce and fights Strikeforce guys (Josh Thomson for a third time?) until the promotion's contract with Showtime is up again, and then they'll go away and Melendez will be where he's supposed to be, in the UFC.
Another potentially exciting fight could be Joe Lauzon (21-7) taking on Yves Edwards (41-18-1). Both of these guys have their ups and
downs and come ever-so-close to contending, only to come up short in the big fights. But they're both fun to watch, so they hang around. Spencer Fisher (24-8) is an interesting case. I don't know how much longer he plans on fighting, so if you think he's still got some gas in the tank, maybe you give him Bernardo Magalhaes (11-2) to see if he can get back on track. Then either Magalhaes atones for how bad he looked against Tim Means, or Fisher gets back in the win column. Then there's Fisher's old nemesis Sam Stout (17-7-1), who could take onNik Lentz (21-5-2, 1 NC) to see where those two are. Neither looked especially inspired in his last fight. That leaves us with Eiji Mitsuoka (18-8), Mitch Clarke (9-1), Anton Kuivanen (16-5), and Tommy Hayden (8-1). They could match up in any way to make sense.
If we're looking outside of the UFC, there are definitely some names of interest, and most of them are with Bellator. Most notably to me is Eddie Alvarez (22-3), despite his loss to new Bellator champ Michael Chandler (9-0). I want to see what Alvarez can do in the UFC, and I have for a while, so I'm hoping that happens when it can. Also you've got Alvarez's next opponent, Shinya Aoki (30-5), who I'm not quite as enamored with as a top fighter despite his insane submission acumen. I think Aoki, if he can't get a submission quickly, wouldn't be all that competitive with the top lightweights in the world.
So that's about it. Did I miss anyone? Let me know what you think in the comments, shoot me an email at ennistorch(at)gmail(dot)com, or hit me up on Twitter - @shawnennis.
History of the UFC Lightweight Championship
*Bold indicates title changing hands
2/23/01 – J. Pulver def C. Uno (Decision)
9/28/01 – J. Pulver def D. Hallman (Decision)
1/11/02 – J. Pulver def B. Penn (Decision)
*Pulver stripped due to contract dispute*
2/28/03 – B. Penn draw C. Uno
*Lightweight division dissolved*
10/14/06 – S. Sherk def K. Florian (Decision)
7/7/07 – S. Sherk def H. Franca (Decision)
*Sherk stripped due to positive steroids test*
1/19/08 – B. Penn def J. Stevenson (Submission)
5/24/08 – B. Penn def S. Sherk (TKO)
8/8/09 – B. Penn def K. Florian (Submission)
12/12/09 – B. Penn def D. Sanchez (TKO)
4/10/10 – F. Edgar def B. Penn (Decision)
8/28/10 – F. Edgar def B. Penn (Decision)
1/1/11 – F. Edgar draw G. Maynard
Longest Title Reign: BJ Penn – 812 days
Most Title Defenses: BJ Penn/Frankie Edgar (3)
Current Title Reign: Ben Henderson (19 days, 0 defenses)
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