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By Matt Pelkey, MMATorch Columnist
With fighters like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Randy Couture once roaming the land, and now with guys like Jon Jones, Quinton Jackson, Mauricio Rua, and Rashad Evans ruling the roost, light heavyweight has long been considered MMA's marquee division. With that kind of star power, that title is unlikely to move divisions anytime soon. But light heavyweight is top heavy and more or less falls off a cliff after the top-10. Heavyweight and middleweight are similar, but even thinner. Welterweight is great, but its Georges St-Pierre and then everybody else. Featherweight and bantamweight are loads of fun, but they lack the depth and star power that comes with longtime exposure inside the UFC Octagon.
Lightweight has no such shortcomings. Since the suits at Zuffa decided to bring back the 155lb. division back in 2005, it has flourished as MMA's deepest and most exciting weight class, and UFC 136 this past Saturday was the perfect example. No other weight class can match lightweight's propensity for putting on long, exciting fights, while also delivering decisive finishes and shocking upsets.
I made the point leading up to UFC 136 that the card itself was fantastic, but it would likely do a low number of pay-per-view buys because of the lack of a proven headliner anywhere on the card. I still think the numbers will validate that opinion, but for just a minute let's ignore the business aspect of things and just focus on what matters in this sport, i.e. what happens in the cage. Including the Spike TV preliminary card, three of the top seven fights were contested at lightweight.
It kicked off with Anthony Pettis, former WEC Lightweight Champion and kinda-sorta-maybe former UFC #1 contender, taking on Jeremy Stephens, either the first or second hardest puncher in the division (Melvin Guillard is raising his hand right now). Pettis sits in the bottom half of most people's top-10 (that Ben Henderson win sure is lookin good now, huh?), while Stephens probably checks in somewhere around 25. Such is life in the lightweight division. There's no other weight class where such a gulf between fighter's standings could produce such a close, competitive match-up. But that's what we got. A 29-28 split decision victory for Pettis where he was forced to use his new found wrestling skills to best the brawler. It wasn't the barnburner everyone, including me, was expecting when the fight was announced, but it was close, it was competitive, and it was fascinating to watch a normally flashy fighter like Pettis use the one skill he was thought to be deficient in to take out such a dangerous opponent. He put Stephens on his back repeatedly and used stifling top control to get the nod from the judges.
The next lightweight contest was between Melvin Guillard and Joe Lauzon. Guillard came in on a five fight win streak and was thought to be one more impressive performance away from locking up a shot at the winner of the main event. So much for that thought. Guillard, creeping into many people's top-5 at lightweight following a string of devastatingly impressive performances, probably thought this was a showcase fight for him. After all, he'd run through Evan Dunham, a much more highly thought of fighter than Joe Lauzon, with ease during his streak of wins. Somebody forgot to tell Joe Lauzon what his role was. Lauzon, once again objectively the greatest first round fighter in the history of MMA, pulled off the upset of the night. And this wasn't the lucky one-punch kinda upset you see so often in the higher weight classes. Sure, it started with a punch that staggered Guillard as he was coming in carelessly, but the upset never happens without Lauzon's brilliant grappling, as he quickly brought Guillard to the mat, took his back, and summarily choked him out less than a minute into the fight. Again, such is life at 155. No where else does a fighter ranked somewhere in the 20's have that kind of skill and killer instinct. The division is so deep that even after that brilliant performance and a shocking upset of a top-5 fighter, Joe Lauzon is unlikely to crack most people's top-10.
And that brings us to the night's main event. It was a long time coming. Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard had spent 40 minutes in the cage with each other before this fight. Their last contest went to a draw after five rounds in a classic fight. At times in the first round it looked like they wouldn't make it to 45 minutes as Gray Maynard once again had the champion on the ropes for much of the round, dropping him once and staggering him multiple times on the way to a(nother) 10-8 first round. However, just like in their last battle, the champion shook off the first round and came storming back. Without having a cloudy headed Edgar standing in front of him, Maynard was unable to out-land the quicker, more technical champion. Round three was more of the same, only Edgar's punches started landing with much more force than before, rocking Maynard's head back violently several times. Then, just as we entered the championship rounds and it looked like a sure thing we'd reach 65 minutes of in-cage time between the two, Frankie Edgar shot in for a takedown. It was unsuccessful, but in hindsight it might've been exactly what he was planning.
As Maynard dropped his hands to defend, Edgar separated and landed a beautifully timed uppercut that staggered the challenger. Maynard, clearly hurt, began to backpedal, but sort of a lightweight version of Lyoto Machida-Rashad Evans, Edgar followed him back landing three huge right hands right on the jaw that finally floored Maynard. He followed up with two brutal lefts on the mat as Maynard laid face-first and Josh Rosenthal stepped in. With roughly a minute left in the fourth round, Frankie Edgar put an end to a fantastic trilogy.
He'll now move on to face either a debuting (and reigning Strikeforce Lightweight Champion and consensus #2 lightweight in the world) Gilbert Melendez, or the winner of the upcoming Clay Guida-Ben Henderson fight. In most divisions, Melvin Guillard's upset loss would've sent the UFC brass scrambling to find a new #1 contender. Not at lightweight. At lightweight, the loss only slightly alleviated the logjam at the top. There's still three guys with a claim to that spot, and with Anthony Pettis' win, fights like Donald Cerrone-Dennis Siver coming soon, and Melvin Guillard and Gray Maynard surely itching to get right back in the thick of things, there's plenty more on the way.
With B.J. Penn moonlighting at welterweight for the time being, lightweight lacks its one big name to help sell pay-per-views, but its also giving other guys a chance to carry the ball. But if the 155ers keep putting on performances like they did at UFC 136 the eyeballs will come around. This was MMA's finest division at its finest.
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