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5 Oz. Feature: Putting the UFC lightweight title picture into focus

I get many emails and questions about the UFC lightweight division with people asking things such as “what happens to the title if B.J. Penn versus Georges St Pierre doesn’t happen until after the New Year?” And “if Kenny Florian is not the number one contender, than who is?” Or, “how many wins does Tyson Griffin need before he gets a shot at the title?” And people also want to know where Joe Stevenson and Sean Sherk fall into the mix?

Well I seem to have accidentally erased Joe Silva off of my speed dial, and my mind-reading abilities are rusty at best. Regardless, I will try to clear up the murky UFC lightweight picture for you as best as I can.

As everyone in the MMA Universe knows by now, Penn is getting his deepest wish from Dana White and getting his rematch with St Pierre. It is assumed that this will be a welterweight title fight for the 170 pound belt. The fight was supposed to have taken place five months from now at the end of the year show, but now GSP is making rumblings about taking some time off and facing Penn after the New Year.

With several top flight contenders in the lightweight division looking at a five-plus month lockout from the belt, there will be plenty of room to jockey for position in the contenders line. A previously advertised number one contender bout between Florian and Roger Huerta at UFC 87 was already downgraded to a fight between “top contenders.” All meaning that with a possible eight-to-nine month layoff between lightweight title defenses, the UFC will have to get creative with the division so it does not stagnate while the pound-for-pound studs battle for supremacy.

Below is a list of the top contenders in the lightweight division with descriptions of why they are contenders, what is planned next for them and possible scenarios for their immediate future. Granted none of these scenarios are guaranteed, and injuries or “The Dana White factor” can change things at a moments notice.

Top of the Totem Pole…

Kenny Florian
Record: 10-3
UFC record: 8-2

How he got here: Florian got to the finals of season one of “The Ultimate Fighter” reality show. He lost to Diego Sanchez but was fighting at middleweight, which was not the proper division for his build. After dropping to lightweight he rattled off three wins and received a title shot against Sean Sherk for the newly-minted Lightweight title belt. Florian lost the fight but gained thousands of new fans in a gritty and bloody five round war.

After the lost title shot, Florian re-dedicated himself to his striking game and with the help of Muay Thai guru Mark DellaGrotte, he is at the height of a five fight win streak. He was given a number one contender match with Roger Huerta, but after outclassing the brawler in a three round unanimous decision win it was taken back. Right now he arguably still sits among the top of the heap as the next to face Penn for the lightweight title.

Next scheduled fight: Dana White confirmed this week that Florian’s next fight will be against Joe Stevenson at UFC 91 in Oregon. He wanted to remain active but he’s going to fight to protect his top contender status as a result.

Possible scenario:
Since White made it official this week, Florian can focus his energy on preparing for Stevenson specifically. Florian is great at gameplanning fighters and if you give him close to three months then he should be able to figure out a good strategy to contest Stevenson.

Tyson Griffin
Record: 12-1
UFC Record: 5-1

How he got here: Tyson brought an undefeated record to the UFC with notable wins over WEC featherweight king Uriah Faber and Duane “Bang” Ludwig. After an impressive first round win over David Lee in his Octagon debut, he suffered his first loss in memorable fashion with “fight of the night” honors for the Frankie Edgar bout. Griffin almost snatched victory from the jaws of defeat with a last-minute knee bar but a stubborn Edgar would not tap. He has since pounded out four wins in a row, three of which were Brazilian Jiu Jitsu black belts. His stand up attack is ever-improving and he has been dubbed “impossible to submit” by his coaches at Xtreme Couture.

Next scheduled fight: He is scheduled to take on Sean Sherk at UFC 90 in Chicago on October 25th.

Possible scenario: This was a huge step up for Tyson but the only logical choice in my opinion. He has demonstrated that he is worthy to tangle with the elite in the division, and they don’t get much tougher than Sherk. A win here will put him in line for a shot at Penn, and depending on who Florian’s next fight is with, it could position him as the man to beat. Five wins in a row including a recent win over Sherk might be too much for the UFC to ignore.

Sean Sherk
Record: 32-3-1
UFC record: 6-3

How he got here: Sherk has been around for a long time and as such has acquired a rather gaudy record. His only losses are to arguably three of the best fighters in the short history of the sport in Matt Hughes, St. Pierre, and B.J. Penn. He has used his strength and wrestling to smother everyone else who has crossed his path. He only has three fights in the lightweight division, but his overall resume and obvious talent put him in the upper echelon of the division. Coming off a failed drug test and a title fight drubbing at the hands of BJ Penn, he will be all the more anxious to get a win. Until he pulls off a win doubts about his post-steriod performance will continue to swirl around him.

Next scheduled fight: He is scheduled to fight Tyson Griffin at UFC 90 in Chicago on October 25th.

Possible scenario: There was a rumor that Sherk turned down an offer to fight Gray Maynard and instead asked for Tyson and it’s not hard to see why. A win over Griffin puts Sherk right back into the mix at the top of the heap. Depending on what happens with Florian in his next fight, a Florian loss could put Sherk one or two more high-profile wins away from a rematch with Penn. If Sherk loses against Griffin, I wouldn’t rule out a return to the welterweight division for Sean.

Nipping on their heels…

Rich Clementi

Record: 32-12-1
UFC Record: 5-3

How he got here: Rich Clementi is a nine-year veteran of the fight game with over 40 fights to his resume. After a disappointing debut in the UFC with a loss to Yves Edwards at UFC 41, he gathered some more wins outside of the promotion and was invited back for season 4 of “The Ultimate Fighter: The Comeback.” He showed grit and determination in that season and even though he went 1-2 in the promotion after the series was over, the UFC did not give up on him which was rewarded with six wins in a row including four in the UFC. He is showing dramatically improved standup along with a much more patient and mature game plan. Combined with his already slick BJJ game, he is a major win away from being a threat to the big dogs in the division.

Next scheduled fight: He had back to back fights in UFC’s 83 and 84 in April and May and is now getting a well-deserved rest. However, he’s going to have to get back in the gym and prepare for a possible fight vs. Gray Maynard that is expected to take place on Oct. 25 at UFC 90.

Possible scenario: If Rich can win at UFC 90, I’d love to see him take a deserved step up in competition against the loser of the Florian vs. Stevenson bout at UFC 91.

Joe Stevenson

Record: 29-8
UFC Record: 6-2

How he got here: Stevenson became the welterweight winner of the second season of “The Ultimate Fighter” after beating Luke Cummo in the finale. After winning the show, he made a less than stellar debut with a unanimous decision loss to Josh Neer. The drop to lightweight that preceded the Neer fight was the best decision Stevenson ever made as he defeated his next four opponents and positioned himself for a shot at the vacant lightweight title. An appointment with Penn was not what the doctor ordered though, as Stevenson was thoroughly dominated and the scene of the fight looked like an episode of CSI. But “Joe Daddy” proved he is made of stern stuff as he came back from his thrashing with an excellent win against a very good Gleison Tibau and has once again stepped back into the thick of things at 155.

Next scheduled fight: Stevenson is slated to fight Florian at UFC 91 in November.

Possible scenario: If Stevenson beats Florian it will be too soon for him to get another shot at the title. However, if Penn ultimately vacates the title, then a win over Florian would make it hard for the UFC not to give Stevenson another shot at the title.

A Few Wins Away…

Frankie Edgar
Record: 9-1
UFC Record: 4-1

How he got here: Edgar started his MMA career with a blistering fighter fight win streak that included big wins against Tyson Griffin and Spencer Fisher. The New Jersey-based fighter possesses an excellent wrestling background that is complemented by solid boxing skills. His tenacity and work ethic combined with the heart he showed in the Griffin fight when he didn’t tap to an incredibly deep kneebar won over fans and the UFC brass alike. He seemed to be on the fast track to a shot at the lightweight title until he ran into a big, strong, pitbull of a wrestler named Gray Maynard. Maynard bullied Edgar around for 15 minutes with vicious takedowns and grinding ground control. Many hardcore fans and press alike were calling for Edgar to drop down a weight class to avoid any similar losses to the bigger competitors in the division. But Edgar stuck by his guns and decided to rectify the situation instead of run from it. He added some mass and made himself that much more dangerous in a stacked lightweight division. A dominating win over a dangerous Hermes Franca has shown that Edgar is for real in the lightweight division.

Next scheduled fight: Edgar fought most recently at UFC: Silva vs Irvin in July. He does not currently have a fight scheduled.

Possible scenario: Edgar stumbled against Maynard but got back on the right track with a huge win against Hermes Franca. He could find himself added to UFC 91, UFC 92, or to the live season finale of TUF 8 in December. And if he wins his next fight, why not put him against some such as Sherk, Florian, or Stevenson?

Nate Diaz
Record: 9-2
UFC Record: 4-0

How he got here: Nate Diaz is the winner of season six of “The Ultimate Fighter.” After an impressive performance in the show, Diaz won a somewhat controversial finale when Manny Gamburyan succumbed to a shoulder injury after dominating much of the fight. While being criticized by fans and critics for his less-than-convincing win, he has quietly put a four fight win streak together. To Diaz’s credit, he asked for a step up in competition and got it in a very game Kurt Pellegrino. Diaz looked to be in over his head during the first round as Pellegrino performed a ground and pound clinic on Nate. But Diaz showed the incredible heart and will to win that seems to run in the family. He opened the second round more focused and showed why he has one of the most dangerous guards in the lightweight division. Diaz hung tight and finally capitalized on a mistake by Pellegrino with a triangle choke submission. In recording the win, he proved he belongs in the mix at 155 lbs.

Next scheduled fight: The UFC has continued Nate’s step up in competition by setting him up against an extremely underrated Josh Neer. They will headline the UFC Fight Night 15 card on September 17th in Omaha, Nebraska.

Possible scenario: If Diaz can beat Neer in a headlining fight on national television and stretch his unbeaten streak to 5 in the UFC, he will position himself as a top contender in the upcoming months. A fight against one of the top 5 fighters in the division could be in his future after the New Year.

Honorable Mention…

Gray Maynard (Overall Record: 5-0-1/UFC Record: 3-0-1) – He is still young in the game. But coming off an absolutely huge win over Frankie Edgar, his next bout is expected to take place at UFC 90 against Rich Clementi.

Spencer Fisher (21-4/6-3) – Fisher is one of those supremely talented fighters who cannot seem to put it together for the big victory. He continues to be one of the elite and a tough match up for anyone in the division.

Clay Guida (23-9/3-3) – Guida has gathered a huge fan following with his frenetic pace and reckless-abandon style. He has been relegated to gate keeper status but is always one big win away from title contention.

Roger Huerta (20-2-1/6-1) - Although he recently suffered his first defeat in the octagon at the hands of Kenny Florian, he has not fallen far from the title picture. If his somewhat exorbitant contract demands don’t keep him from the octagon, he is only a win or two away from his former status as a contender.

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