It’s nearly unfathomable to think that as recently as 2006, the UFC didn’t even have a lightweight division. Now it is the backbone of the UFC, a weight class that accommodates a variety of backgrounds and body types. 155 is right in that sweet spot that the average adult male can either bulk up or cut down to (along with 145 and 170), which is why it seems like there’s a never ending pipeline of talent entering (and exiting) the division. Heavyweights will always be a more marketable attraction, but that’s an easier mountain to climb based on the fact that for every skilled, coordinated, athletic big man there are 1,000 cans waiting to be crushed. The champion of the lightweight division is truly the best of the best of the best.
When I started doing these rankings, the former WEC lightweight champion had decided to drop down to featherweight to hunt down José Aldo. Because of that, I had planned to exclude him from these rankings. A minor injury nixed that contest prompting Pettis to lobby for another shot at Ben Henderson. A reasonable request since he was the last man to beat Henderson. There was only one problem.
An emphatic victory over once-beaten Gray Maynard established Grant as the clear-cut number one contender by any reasonable measure. Just as importantly, his reputation as a finisher made him a welcome departure from more methodical challengers like Frankie Edgar and Gilbert Melendez. Even without the flash of “Showtime”, Dana White was happy to, er, grant Grant a title shot. Unfortunately, Grant suffered a concussion in training and now he’s being replaced by Pettis. In round about fashion, Pettis is getting the rematch he’s been chasing for the last two years and in his hometown of Milwaukee no less. Funny how things work out.
I mention all this because I won’t be writing anything else about Pettis for now. I had my rankings neatly laid out and he wasn’t in the picture at the time. Just know that if I were including him, he’d be ranked 5th (ahead of Josh Thomson and behind Maynard).
Now let’s wrap this up so I can start working on my next rankings that I’m sure I’ll finish sometime in 2016.
My guidelines (which I promise to follow unless I don’t):
- I place a heavy emphasis on success in UFC contests; I consider two straight in the UFC to be on par with ten straight and only one win in the UFC
- I place a heavy emphasis on success in your division; if you’re a top 10 featherweight and you move up to lightweight you are not automatically a top 10 lightweight. However, based on past performances it is possible to make educated guesses on who a fighter could beat in their new division
- To achieve top 10 status, you need to beat a top 10 opponent or dominate several top 20 opponents. A top 10 ranking is a huge achievement for any fighter and it must be earned properly. That said, you beat someone and you take their spot, even if it’s a fluke: a win is a win
- Subjectivity is a necessary evil. When you get closer to the top of the rankings, it becomes much harder to separate individuals and this is where opinion and analysis can cause rankings to differ greatly
- Fighter’s records are listed as UFC record first (as well as post-Zuffa WEC record if applicable), overall record second (NC = No Contest), current overall winning/losing streak 3rd (W = winning streak, L = losing streak, D = draw)
- For fighters with less than three UFC appearances, I might refer to their last three non-UFC fights for reference; in these situations the combined record is meant to reflect their records at the time they fought the fighter in question
The Lightweight Rankings
10. Joe Lauzon (9-5 UFC, 22-8, L1) (Lauzon MMA)
He’s been around for so long and fought in so many memorable contests, that you wouldn’t be blamed for thinking that Lauzon had already gotten at least one crack at the lightweight title. The truth is that he’s never been able to string together enough wins against the right opponents. Title shots are as much about timing and opportunity as they are about performance.
“Quirky” would be an appropriate way to describe Lauzon, who had a career as a network administrator before getting the call from the UFC to face former lightweight champion Jens Pulver at UFC 63. That fight was meant to be a momentum builder for Pulver going into a coaching gig on TUF 5 and a subsequent rematch with BJ Penn. Lauzon was a 7-1 underdog who stepped in on short notice. Of course, he ended up knocking out Pulver in 48 seconds.
In a strange twist, Lauzon was thrown into the same season of TUF that Pulver and Penn were coaching (likely due to the fact that he would be showcased better alongside the other fighters in what was to be a new division). We were spared the awkwardness of Pulver mentoring a fighter who had just cleaned his clock when Penn picked Lauzon to train with him. We complain about title shots today, but this is proof that they’ve never been completely credible. Twitter would explode if a big name got knocked out by an unknown and then had to go through TUF to get a contract while the loser still got their shot.
With the Pulver win, Lauzon was an obvious favourite to win it all and Penn pegged him as a contender from day one. In addition to his acumen on the mat, Lauzon’s attitude and intelligence helped to further chip away at the stereotype that fighters are uneducated brutes. In the tournament, Lauzon was outwrestled by Manny Gamburyan, robbing us of a dream finale of Lauzon and Nate Diaz. Frankly, that’s a fight I’m still waiting for.
Since then, he’s done more than prove he belongs, earning a total of twelve Fight Night bonuses (1 Knockout of the Night award, 6 Submission of the Night awards, 5 Fight of the Night awards). He’s beaten the best (Pulver, Jeremy Stephens, Melvin Guillard, Jamie Varner) and suffered losses (Kenny Florian, Sam Stout, George Sotiropoulos, Pettis, Jim Miller) that have kept him just short of the top of the rankings. Win or lose, Lauzon has never shied away from his desire to finish every fight and that has lead to some extraordinary displays of violence. His fights with Stout, Varner and Miller rank among the best in any organization in the past five years.
I could see how this might seem too high a placement for a fighter who hasn’t won more than two straight fights since 2007, but when it comes to the eye test Lauzon has always passed with flying colours. There are a lot of guys gunning for a top ten spot. Lauzon has one for now.
9. Donald Cerrone (7-2 UFC, 6-3 [1 NC] WEC, 20-5 [1 NC], W1) (Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts)
Yee-haw! Stop your grinnin’ and drop your linen, it’s COWBOY TIME!
It doesn’t work as well when I do it.
Like many fans who made the transition from professional wrestling to MMA, I’m a sucker for a good gimmick. Few fighters live theirs like Cerrone. When he’s not trying out Stetsons and chewing on a straw of hay, Cerrone spends his free time trying to give the UFC officials a heart attack with his talk of bull riding and rock climbing. He grips it AND he rips it.
Along with fighters like Jon Jones, Cub Swanson and John Dodson, Cerrone is responsible for dispelling the absurd notion that Greg Jackson only trains “boring” fighters. The only thing worse than being on the receiving end of Cerrone’s trash talk is when he backs it up in the cage and makes you look even more foolish.
Charles Oliveira was supposed to be the next big thing at 155. Cerrone knocked him out.
Dennis Siver claimed to be the best kickboxer in the division. Cerrone out-struck him before winning by rear naked choke.
Melvin Guillard is a good friend of his. Cerrone nearly killed him with one punch.
It says a lot that short of Jones, Cerrone would have had the best year of any fighter in 2011 if he had been able to get past an intensely focused Nate Diaz. That loss (and another one to Pettis three fights later) likely killed his chances of a trilogy bout with Ben Henderson. Still, if that opportunity were to come up in the future, I’m sure it’s something that Cerrone would jump on even if he had less than 24 hours notice. I reckon, anyhow.
8. Jim Miller (11-3 UFC [1 NC], 22-4, W1) (AMA Fight Club)
We continue our run of crowd pleasers with Jim Miller. From 2005-2011, Miller was nearly unbeatable. He is one of the most accomplished BJJ practitioners at 155, having earned his black belt from Jamie Cruz, a Renzo Gracie disciple. Until his most recent set back, Miller had only lost 4 fights in his career, all to men who have held or challenged for UFC gold (Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard, Ben Henderson, Nate Diaz). After being submitted by white-hot Strikeforce import Pat Healy (later overturned to a no-contest), Miller finds himself at a career crossroads.
Putting on exciting fights and winning bonuses is all well and good, but Miller has gone from a sure fire contender to a .500 fighter. That kind of trend can quickly spiral into gatekeeper status or worse, unemployment. Like Lauzon (his dance partner in one of 2012’s best fights), Miller isn’t endangering himself on purpose, he just has a versatile, aggressive style that usually results in someone getting seriously hurt. If Miller can put together two or three big wins, the fans aren’t the only ones who will be ecstatic with the results.
7. Pat Healy (0-0 UFC [1 NC], 29-16, W6) (Team Quest)
After going on a six fight winning streak for Strikeforce, Healy was hovering around the bottom of the top 20, likely lamenting a cancelled fight with Gilbert Melendez. That all changed when he beat Jim Miller in his UFC debut. Then it all changed back.
Post-fight, Healy tested positive for marijuana. Not only was the win scratched from the record books, the UFC also rescinded two Fight Night bonuses totalling $130,000. Ouch.
Look, I hate seeing something like this happen. I don’t believe that marijuana is a performance enhancer in any way nor do I think it’s detrimental to the health of these athletes. But it is illegal and Healy knows this. I can just see him stressing out over finally making it to the UFC and being given a top 10 opponent right off of the bat. That sort of pressure demands immediate relief and if relaxing with a fat blunt is how Healy chooses to unwind, can you blame him? Worst case scenario, he wouldn’t have made it through the rigors of training camp without a little something something to kick back with. He did what he had to do. So did the commission.
The incident makes Healy’s ranking tricky as he technically has a 0-0 record in the UFC. I think we’re all smart enough to realize that this minor transgression doesn’t erase the impressive run Healy has been on since dropping to lightweight (9-1 [1 NC]). The Michigan Wolverines made it to two Final Fours. Barry Bonds hit a lot of home runs. Healy beat Miller. Healy is a top ten lightweight.
6. Nate Diaz (11-7 UFC, 16-9, L2) (Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu)
Can someone please explain to me why Nate and Nick Diaz don’t have their own reality show yet? MTV, you have failed me. One of the most fun aspects of the show would be figuring out which brother is the true bad boy of the family. Let’s look at some of Nate’s highlights:
- picked a fight with Karo Parisyan when Parisyan visited the cast of TUF 5\
- threw the double bird at Kurt Pellegrino after trapping him in a triangle choke
- alongside Nick, jumped Jason Miller in the cage at the infamous Strikeforce: Nashville event
- spends the majority of his fights spewing more profanity than a Tarantino movie
- was recently suspended for tweeting a homophobic slur
None of this is to say that Diaz is a terrible person, just unfiltered and impulsive. Imagine what he’d be like if he didn’t smoke marijuana. Count this as another point for drug advocacy.
Amidst all the drama (and a predictably difficult stint at welterweight), Diaz was finally able to get a title shot after 16 UFC appearances. As mentioned above, Diaz doesn’t have an overwhelmingly superior resume to Joe Lauzon (or Donald Cerrone or Jim Miller for that matter), but he won the right fights at the right time and he’s always had an organic connection with the fans that can’t be manufactured. As lopsided as the loss to Henderson was, the fact that Diaz made it that far is a testament to his brilliance as a mixed martial artist. It has to be discouraging to be in the prime of your career and to be beaten so definitively, but Diaz is a young man who has already experienced the peaks and valleys of a professional fighter. Only the highest peak was out of his reach.
5. Josh Thomson (3-1 UFC, 20-5 [1 NC], W1) (American Kickboxing Academy)
I didn’t really get into MMA until around the mid-2000s and even then all I knew was the UFC. It wasn’t until years later that I watched Gilbert Melendez reclaim the Strikeforce title from Thomson in an awesome contest that I realized there were many great fighters out there who weren’t under the Zuffa umbrella. If it weren’t for these two, I might still only be a UFC fan boy.
Fighting in relative obscurity for most of his career, Thomson managed to get himself widely recognized as one of the 10 best lightweights in the world for years. Alongside Melendez, he was the classic big fish in a small pond.
In his first run with the UFC, Thomson went 2-1 with wins over “Razor” Rob McCullough and Hermes França. A 5-1 record with Strikeforce earned him his first shot at Melendez and the lightweight title. He handed Melendez the second loss of his career and snagged the championship in the process. That victory sent him soaring to the top of the rankings.
Cue record scratch.
A broken ankle sidelined him for a year after which he would drop the belt back to Melendez in his first defense. He continued to find success in Strikeforce with wins over Pat Healy, Gesias Cavalcante and KJ Noons. A trilogy closing meeting with Melendez proved to be their closest battle yet (I had it 48-47 Thomson) and the champ narrowly escaped with a split decision win. The sterling effort reaffirmed Thomson’s status as a top lightweight. In the words of the great Randy Bachman: “You ain’t seen nothing yet.”
Nobody was counting him out against Nate Diaz, but even the biggest Thomson fan couldn’t have predicted how that fight would unfold. The Diaz brothers had developed a ferocious reputation for going toe-to-toe with the most dangerous strikers (Donald Cerrone, Paul Daley, Takanori Gomi, BJ Penn, KJ Noons, to name a few) and coming out on top. Thomson fought a smart fight. He repeatedly beat Diaz to the punch before finishing him with a head kick in the second. It was the first time Diaz had ever been stopped by strikes. Melendez or no Melendez, Thomson once again finds himself close to becoming the number one contender.
4. Gray Maynard (9-2-1 [1 NC], 11-2-1 [1 NC], L1) (American Kickboxing Academy)
For a guy called “The Bully”, Maynard doesn’t seem like a bad dude. He’s always been humble, honest and surprisingly funny. Then again, it’s probably easy to be all of those things when you know you can beat up anyone who rubs you the wrong way.
Maynard is the man who would be king. He’ll always be able to tell people that he beat Frankie Edgar…too bad it was years before Edgar had the lightweight title. Maynard/Edgar II was a perfect opportunity for Maynard to reassert his dominance over the smaller fighter. He came as close as you can come to finishing without actually finishing. The fight was a classic that ended in a draw, though anyone could see Maynard had a legitimate claim to the crown. However, I do want to dispel the myth that if the opening round had been scored more heavily in his favour he would have won the fight. Here are the scorecards of each judge (mine would match Jarman):
If either Trowbridge or Rosales had scored the first round a 10-7, the outcome would have been the same. Only Jarman awarding a 10-7 to Maynard would have changed the outcome (Maynard would have won a split decision). The discrepancy between the scores is negligible (note that Trowbridge was also the only one to give Maynard the 3rd), which to me is the definition of a draw. Whether you believe Maynard should have won at UFC 125, all questions were answered in the final meeting between the two that Edgar won by knockout.
Maynard wasn’t always the most appealing competitor. It’s obvious that his ascension to main event player coincided with his shifting to a heavier hitting, boxing based attack. The growing popularity is in inverse relation to his results. He’s only won one once in the last two years. A constant influx of hungry challengers at 155 keeps pushing veterans like Maynard to the back of the line. In the cruel world of professional sports, that championship window can shut all too quickly.
3. TJ Grant (8-3 UFC, 21-5, W5) (Fit Lab)
Along with Jim Miller and Pat Healy, Grant completes the triumvirate of top ten lightweights who also have top ten beards. Pound for pound, these are some of the finest beards in all of MMA.
I can’t grow a beard.
Beard envy aside, what’s not to love about Grant? He’s undefeated as a lightweight, he’s from Cole Harbour, Nova Scotia and he beat both Matt Wiman and Gray Maynard faster than anyone else ever. The man fights with the reckless abandon of a hockey player or a lumberjack, Canada’s two most popular professions. He would have fit right in during the outlaw era of the UFC. I can just see him getting a submission win by gnawing Kimo’s face off.
I’m super bummed he’s not getting to face Ben Henderson. Get well soon, TJ.
2. Gilbert Melendez (0-1 UFC, 21-3, L1) (Cesar Gracie Jiu-Jitsu)
They tried to tell me. I wouldn’t listen.
I’d seen “El Niño” (for those of you who don’t know, that’s Spanish for…The Niño) fight many times, I just wasn’t buying into the hype that he would “smash” (a common keyboard warrior claim) any of the guys in the UFC. In his final Strikeforce title defence against Josh Thomson, he looked like a disinterested fighter already looking ahead to bigger things…which was exactly what he was.
That said, with Strikeforce being the de facto number 2 organization in the world, it was more than fair for the matchmakers to reward Melendez with an instant title shot. He had a 21-2 record and he is in the prime of his career. What would be the point in waiting? Much like his home organization, Melendez was viewed as the second best (if not the best) lightweight in the world by hardcore fans. It was a dream match-up.
Though it lacked the ebb and flow of the Thomson fight, this was an incredibly close contest. I had scored it 48-47 for Melendez, especially since it looked like Henderson was so confident that he was ahead that he gave up the last round. Amazingly, one of the judges gave Henderson the final frame and that was enough to ensure the belt returned to the champion. The only rounds the judges did agree on were 1 and 3. As with Edgar/Maynard II, the winner was almost impossible to call.
When you come that close to beating the champ, you deserve to keep whatever hype you had going in. I know I’m convinced. Melendez gets a chance to redeem himself against the hyperactive Diego Sanchez. If he wins there, he’ll stay within range of Henderson. He might find himself with another trilogy on his hands.
1. Ben Henderson (7-0 UFC, 5-1 WEC, 18-2, W7) (MMA Lab)
(art by Scott Cohn)
It never ceases to amaze me how quickly the fans can turn on someone when they finally make it to the top. It’s lonely up there, as they say.
For the longest time, Henderson represented the little guy (ironic since he’s a huge 155er). The WEC was the UFC’s kid brother and there was one division the two entities had in common: the lightweights. Even though their fights were as or even more exciting than their big show brethren, the WEC lot were still thought of as second class citizens. After all, if they were really that good why weren’t they already in the UFC?
Leading the way were Jamie Varner, Donald Cerrone, Anthony Pettis and Henderson. Fans weren’t exactly flooding the Zuffa offices with letters and e-mails calling for a potential match-up with guys like BJ Penn and Frankie Edgar, but Henderson had quietly eked out a spot for himself amongst the elite. His epic battle with Pettis cemented the WEC’s legacy even as the organization was being absorbed into the UFC.
This is where the story starts to turn ugly. As the competition has ramped up, Henderson has fought more carefully. He takes less risks. He favours positional advantage over searching for a finish. This strategy has allowed him to win the lightweight title and defend it 3 times. However, in the court of public opinion, Henderson has stumbled badly.
One thing Henderson isn’t is a drawing champion. You could argue that Penn was really the only fighter to ever draw at 155, though fighters like Kenny Florian, Nate Diaz and Diego Sanchez have certainly had their fair share of followers. He’s kind of odd and nothing like the typical jock or alpha male that North Americans find so attractive. He hasn’t finished a fight in over 4 years. This drought has come against some of the toughest fighters in the world and more often than not the fights are exciting, but many observers need that exclamation point to be satisfied. His goal since winning the title has always been to be as indomitable as Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva and he’s well on his way. I just doubt that he will ever reach their level of acclaim.
But why dwell on things he can’t control? Henderson is a magnificent martial artist. His relentless positivity belies the cool, calculating warrior that steps into the octagon to battle for 25 minutes. He never seems to sweat (that’s why they call him Smooth) and his extraordinary flexibility creates points of leverage other fighters wouldn’t even consider:
He scores points. He scores and he scores and he scores and when he’s not scoring, he’s doing something to shift the perceptions of the judges in his favour. He stays ahead one round at a time and as confused as the fans sometimes are by his tactics, imagine how his opponent feels when they see his hand getting raised instead of theirs. It’s a sight that we should all be used to by now.