The depth of the UFC lightweight division is one of the reasons why it’s considered to be one of the best and most difficult divisions to rise to the top. The idea of this post stems from the number of title contenders that got close to getting UFC title shots until they ran into someone that beat them inside the Octagon. It’s a wide variety of fighters, who got up there and lost under a variety of different circumstances.
- Evan Dunham was being talked about as a title contender for a large portion of 2010. He started his UFC career beating Per Eklund and former PRIDE star Marcus Aurelio, before being matched up with TUF champion Efrain Escudero at UFC Fight Night: Maynard vs Diaz. After surviving a difficult first round, Dunham came back to win via nasty armbar in the third round. Dunham only strengthened his resume by dominating Tyson Griffin at UFC 115, who at that point had only lost to UFC title holders Sean Sherk and Frankie Edgar. He was then matched up against Sean Sherk at UFC 119. It was one of the worst decisions of 2010, as the judges awarded the fight to Sherk even though Dunham had clearly won the last two rounds. The UFC and fans pretty much treated Dunham as if he had won the fight, so he was matched up against Kenny Florian at UFC Fight for the Troops 2. But it was then announced that Kenny Florian was injured, so Melvin Guillard stepped up to fight Evan Dunham. Most figured that Dunham’s superlative submission skills would be too much for Melvin Guillard, who does have issues with submission defense. But we never saw that, as Guillard did a great job at keeping the fight on his feet to knock out Dunham and take away his hopes of any near future title shot. Later in 2011, Dunham beat Shamar Bailey in a totally one sided fight and he is now penciled in to fight Nik Lentz in January 2012.
- George Sotiropoulos was another rising star in 2010, someone that used really great and stylized grappling to get close to a title shot. A member of the The Ultimate Fighter: Hughes vs Serra, he first started in the welterweight division until getting settled in the UFC lightweight division. After winning two fights there (one against current featherweight fighter George Roop), he stepped up in competition and faced Joe Stevenson in a star making performance at UFC 110. After that win, he would go on to beat Kurt Pellegrino via decision and then beat Joe Lauzon in a great fight via kimura submission. He started his 2011 by fighting with Dennis Siver at UFC 127, who the UFC promoted as the best striker that Sotiropoulos had ever faced up to that point. And they were right, as Siver kept the fight standing (he did a great job avoiding the takedown) and beat Sotiropoulos via decision in what was pretty much a kickboxing match. Sotiropoulos returned at UFC 139, where he was the recipient of a knock out by Rafael Dos Anjos.
- Anthony Pettis walked into the UFC with a title shot waiting for him, but how did he get there? He had a spectacular WEC run, a run that started with him beautifully outgrappling Mike Campbell. He then faced Bart Palaszewski, he lost that fight but everyone who has seen that fight came out thinking that Pettis was the true winner. He then had a four fight run that included him knocking out Danny Castillo, submitting Alex Karalexis, submitting Shane Roller and beating WEC lightweight kingpin Benson Henderson in a classic fight that included the showtime kick. He was assured he was getting the title shot, but a draw between UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard at UFC 125 led to Dana White giving Gray Maynard the shot he had originally promised to Pettis. He didn’t want to wait, so Pettis agreed to fight Guida. Then Frankie Edgar got injured, so Pettis was offered a fight against Maynard, but Maynard turned the fight down since he was also suffering from injuries. So Pettis ended up fighting Guida at the TUF 13 Finale in what was an incredibly competitive grappling match. Guida was scoring the takedowns, but it was Pettis who made it interesting as he had a wicked guard and was constantly being aggressive off his back. Unfortunately for Pettis, the judges favored the top position and gave the fight to Guida. So he lost his official shot at the title, but went on to beat Jeremy Stephens at UFC 136 and is now set to face Joe Lauzon in February 2011.
- Jim Miller was someone that some fans discussed as being more worthy than Anthony Pettis, and someone that people latched onto after Pettis lost to Guida. The younger of the Miller brothers had developed a fantastic reputation for being one of the toughest lightweights around. He had only two blemishes on his record, which came from UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar and then number one contender Gray Maynard. It wasn’t one single victory that made fans want to see him fight for the title, it was his nine wins in the UFC, which included a seven fight win streak leading into his fight with Benson Henderson. Some of the guys he went through include David Baron (UFC 89), Matt Wiman (UFC Fight for the Troops), Mac Danzig (UFC 100), Steve Lopez (UFC 103), Duane Ludwig (UFC 108), Mark Bocek (UFC 111), Gleison Tibau (UFC Fight Night: Marquardt vs Palhares), Charles Oliveira (UFC 124), and Kamal Shalorus (UFC 128). So at UFC Live: Hardy vs Lytle he stepped in to fight former WEC lightweight champion Benson Henderson. The WEC veteran proved a vast majority of fight fans wrong as brutalized Miller for 15 minutes in one of the best fights of 2011. It was an amazing performance from Benson Henderson, and Jim Miller is going to have to work his way back up to get close to a title shot. Miller is next scheduled to fight Melvin Guillard on the first UFC on FX later this month.
- Melvin Guillard went from someone that was considered a b-level fighter to someone that people thought was a serious threat to the UFC lightweight crown. After defeating Evan Dunham, he gained a lot of recognition for his improved takedown defense and his serious knock out power. He went on to knock out Shane Roller a few months later, adding another win to make it a five fight win streak. He was then scheduled to fight Joe Lauzon at UFC 136. He came out like a star, cocky as hell and looking like he thought he was going to walk through Joe Lauzon. But the Massachusetts native had other plans as he landed a sharp left hook and tapped out Guillard in less than one minute as the Houston audience roared with approval. As good as Guillard got, his submission defense was still an issue and we’ll see how well he does against Jim Miller in a few weeks.
- Dennis Siver became ranked highly after beating George Sotiropoulos, and soon found himself fighting Matt Wiman at UFC 132. It was a hotly debated decision, but I agreed with the judges that Dennis Siver was the true winner of that fight. He had a nice four fight win streak that also included Andre Winner and Spencer Fisher, and was signed to face Donald Cerrone at UFC 137. The Cowboy put on the best performance of his career as he crushed Siver with his kickboxing and then tapped him out on the ground. Dennis Siver is now looking to drop down to the featherweight division and try to climb that ladder to one day face Jose Aldo.
- Clay Guida and Benson Henderson seemed like the perfect title eliminator, both guys are incredibly aggressive and resilient fighters. But it also made perfect sense since Guida beat the previous number one contender in Pettis and Henderson beat the next number one contender in Miller. Guida’s streak included wins over Gomi via guillotine submission and Anjos via submission due to broken jaw. Benson Henderson had lost in December 2010, but had bounced back quickly with wins over Mark Bocek and Jim Miller, quickly establishing himself as one of the elite guys on the roster. It was an exciting fight, much more thrilling than the Velasquez vs Dos Santos headliner on Fox, that featured a mix of all the exciting elements in MMA. At the end of the fight, Benson Henderson had earned the title shot via decision and will face Frankie Edgar in February 2012. Not sure where Guida goes from this point, although he’ll probably get another top fifteen level fighter in the near future.
- Donald Cerrone lost on his PPV debut on WEC 48 to Benson Henderson, but in his next fight he quickly showcased his improvements as a fighter. He beat Jamie Varner and Chris Horodecki in his final two WEC bouts, and then went on to the UFC. He stopped Paul Kelly, decisioned Vagner Rocha, TKO’d Charles Oliveira, and tapped out Dennis Siver. Since his WEC 48 loss, he was on a six fight win streak and considered to be a top ten fighter who was next in line for a title shot if he could beat his next opponent. As good as Cerrone’s kickboxing is, it was no match for some Stockton boxing as Nate Diaz displayed at UFC 141. He picked Cerrone apart at will, breaking FightMetric records and most importantly showcasing what a special and unique fighter Nate Diaz really is. I imagine that Nate Diaz will now face another tough fighter, perhaps the winner of Pettis vs Lauzon. Not sure who Cerrone will get next, but it’ll be exciting to see him back in the cage in 2012.