Lightweight is one of MMA’s most-interesting groupings to rank based on how the top 155-pound talent is spread out over multiple promotions as opposed to the lot, or even bulk, calling the UFC home as is the case outside of the division. With DREAM, Strikeforce, and Bellator all having a stake in the “Top 5” it’s difficult to compare common opponents or know how each man would fare if paired against one of his elite peers calling a rival organization home. It’s also the closest race where the top slots are concerned with every fighter having a case for #1.
As always, don’t consider the following gospel. The fact is, when two finely-tuned individuals step into a cage and let loose the difference between consciousness and looking up at the ceiling is a matter of milliseconds no matter who is ranked where. The individuality inherently involved in a subjective endeavor like ranking fighters, many of whom could easily be argued as deserving different spots based on personal criteria, is not only recognized on Five Ounces’ end but also encouraged in the form of offering your own lists in the “Comments” section below.
1. Frank Edgar (13-1-1)
Edgar’s mixture of boxing, wrestling, and conditioning make him extremely difficult to defeat as evident in two consecutive wins over a man who was believed to be unbeatable at 155-pounds, B.J. Penn, as well as a gutsy showing against Maynard this past weekend. The UFC lightweight champ’s speed and movement is also among the best in the division. While I’m far from confident he’d handle any of the three men below him, I’ll never doubt Edgar’s ability to emerge victorious in the face of adversity. He may have fallen victim to Maynard’s ground-control and size/strength advantage when they originally faced off, but with his dubyas over Penn, plus Sean Sherk, Tyson Griffin, and Jim Miller, I think he’s definitely deserving of the division’s top spot, especially after weathering the storm at UFC 125 and clinging on to his belt with a draw.
2. Gilbert Melendez (18-2)
“El Nino” reminds me a bit of Edgar in terms of technical prowess with power in place of the New Jersey fighter’s quickness. He’s rarely outwrestled and can stand with the best if a fight’s pacing dicates the necessity to do so (or he simply feels like proving a point). I personally thought he deserved the decision over Mitsuhiro Ishida at “Yarennoka 2007”, and would have likely received it had the bout been somewhere other than Japan, but a loss is a loss and there is no arguing his underwhelming performance against Josh Thomson in June 2008. However, I believe he grew from each experience and is even better today. For evidence of his evolution, look at the fact he knocked Ishida out in their rematch and thoroughly dominated Thomson when they faced off again, not to mention his dismantling of Shinya Aoki earlier this year.
3. Eddie Alvarez (21-2)
For those that might question Alvarez’s ranking, especially when you consider neither of his career losses have involved the judges’ scorecards, I think the proof is in the poundings. Alvarez has only won by decision twice in his twenty-one total victories and is currently riding a streak of seven straight finishes. Maynard has half his wins and a tenth of his TKOs/submissions, while Penn is coming off back-to-back losses and won’t be returning to 155-pounds until mid-2011 (if ever). Alvarez has power, multi-tiered striking, athleticism, and high-level grappling. In baseball terms, Alvarez is a “five-tool” player, and from a rounded-skills standpoint might be the best overall in this total bunch.
4. Gray Maynard (10-0-1)
I have Maynard slightly above Penn based on his boxing and wrestling, as well as dedication to 155-pounds rather than making a run at welterweight. The XTreme Couture original has never cleanly fallen, only earning a “No Contest” after knocking himself and his opponent out with a slam and a draw against Edgar, while racking up wins over multiple names on this list. He also, of course, beat Edgar in their original bout, as well as the always-tough Nate Diaz and Roger Huerta in other respective match-ups. He may not always come away victorious in the most pleasing of fashions but he’s effective at what he does in the ring and will remain an extremely tough draw for any adversary until proven otherwise.
5. B.J. Penn (16-7-1)
Penn is as unique as they come in MMA and defines what it means to be a genuine “fighter” better than most in the sport. His knockout of Hughes at UFC 123 was amazing, as have been so many of his victories, and I truly believe a motivated Baby Jay is likely to mop the floor with anyone who doesn’t have phenomenal wrestling/top-control. He took former UFC 205-pound champ Lyoto Machida to decision in 2005. Need I say more?
6. Sean Sherk (36-4-1)
“The Muscle Shark” is an interesting case, as all four of his career losses have come to former/current UFC champions (Penn, Edgar, Matt Hughes, and Georges St. Pierre). Considering that fact, in addition to the notion he’s fought 41 times and beaten people like Ken Florian, Evan Dunham, and Nick Diaz, it almost seems as though he deserves to be higher on most lists, including this one. However, his victory over Dunham was razor-thin and saved him from consecutive defeats and he hasn’t been particularly active over the last few years. With five fights since 2007, two of which involved defeat, it’s difficult to know exactly how he stacks up in the mix. Though the 37-year old’s wrestling and top-control are top notch, they’re also his only real weapons in the cage and aren’t always enough to carry him to victory.
7. Ken Florian (13-5)
Florian is constantly on the cusp of lightweight greatness but hasn’t been able to get over the hump for some reason. He’s an underrated striker with solid wrestling and the ability to attack from any position on the ground. “KenFlo” has only been finished once at 155-pounds, to Penn, while submitting the likes of Clay Guida, Takanori Gomi, and Joe Stevenson, but also struggled in some of his biggest fights including both of his past title-shots (and most recently a bout against Maynard set to establish a top divisional contender).
8. George Sotiropoulos (14-2)
The Aussie is one of the hottest 155-pounders out there at the moment. He’s riding an eight-fight win streak, including convincing performances against Stevenson, Joe Lauzon, and Kurt Pellegrino. He’s also yet to be finished in sixteen bouts. His stand-up is crisp and diverse, while his BJJ is other-worldly at times and always a major threat to ending an opponent’s evening.
9. Shinya Aoki (26-5)
Aoki is a victim of not having consistently faced ranked lightweight competitors and often stumbling against foes viewed as inferior competition. While his affiliation with DREAM has allowed him to occasionally take on some of the division’s best, he also gets drawn into bouts built for padding his stats rather than furthering his career. He’s good enough to beat Alvarez, J.Z. Cavalcante, and Tatsuya Kawajiri, yet was completely out-classed by Melendez and has had his knees-knocked on more than one occasion in the past (including a knockout loss during the MMA portion of a ‘special rules’ fight on New Year’s Eve). There’s no question he’s a submission savant but until he improves his takedown defense and stand-up I see his future involving a number of ups and downs, and he can’t get better taking on people like Marcus Aurelio and Yokthai Sithoar in back-to-back bouts.
10. Tatsuya Kawajiri (27-6-2)
Kawajiri has faced a number of talented lightweights over his years in Japan and, though he hasn’t always come out ahead in terms of result, he’s been a consistent competitor whose wrestling and power have been good enough to earn victory more often than not. His four losses over the past six years came to Melendez, Alvarez, Aoki, and a prime Takanori Gomi. Other than that, “Crusher” emerged victorious in all sixteen other bouts during that period minus a draw with Caol Uno in early 2004, and he looked as good as he ever has against a very game Thomson on NYE at “Dynamite!! Power of Courage”.
11. Evan Dunham (11-1)
Dunham is a rising star to be sure with a single loss thus far in his career (and a split-decision to Sherk at that). His performances haven’t been mind-blowing in nature but it’s hard to fault him too much when considering who he’s faced since joining the UFC. However, with each in-ring appearance, the diamond that Dunham is becomes more and more apparent. He’s growing from simply being good at everything to great.
12. Jim Miller (19-2)
If Miller had more high-profile fights under his belt in the UFC I honestly believe he’d be a consensus “Top 10” guy, maybe even higher depending on result. Miller has quietly racked up seven wins in the UFC with single loss to Maynard at UFC 96. He’s won his last six bouts while beating respectable adversaries like Mac Danzig, Charles Oliveira, Duane Ludwig, and Mark Bocek during the streak. On top of that, the 27-year old New Jersey native has never been finished in his career and his only other loss besides Maynard came to Edgar four years ago.
14. Clay Guida (28-11)
Guida’s performance against Takanori Gomi, coupled with his other showings both in success and failure against a number of his top peers, are enough to bounce him into the “Fine Fifteen”. The man who makes the Energizer Bunny look like a slacker by comparison has looked sharp in his last three outings – all wins – and beaten a number of tough draws in his 39-fight career including Nate Diaz, Josh Thomson, and Mac Danzig.
15. K.J. Noons (9-2)
Though Noons hasn’t necessarily fought any “Top 10” lightweights, he went five full rounds against Five Ounces’ #4 welterweight (Diaz) last October and put enough pepper on his face in their previous match-up to merit a doctor’s stoppage. He’s perhaps the most powerful, boxing-based fighter in this group and has shown improvement in terms of both his wrestling and submission-defense as of late. He’d won six straight prior to the decision loss to Diaz and was not only the first person to TKO Jorge Gurgel, but the last person to finish Yves Edwards (two years ago).
Josh Thomson (18-4) – Thomson looked solid in a losing performance to Kawajiri on New Year’s Eve. Though he may have been out-wrestled, he scrambled well and landed some nice strikes when the action took place while standing. The loss was only his second since early 2006 and along the way he’s beaten, among others, Melendez and J.Z. Cavalcante. / Anthony Pettis (13-1) – It’s hard to argue against Pettis being one of the division’s names to watch. The 22-year old’s only loss was a split decision to well-rounded veteran Bart Palaszewski and he’s looked exceptional since. With eleven finishes in thirteen wins, and an work-belt full of tools to use in the cage, Pettis doesn’t seem too far off from a run at the “Top 10” in 2011.