Up until Frankie Edgar swept B.J. Penn this year, it was difficult to imagine anyone other than "The Prodigy" as king of the 155-pound division. In the wake of Penn's two losses, the division is a bit unstable: there is a wealth of legitimate, elite talent outside of the UFC, and Edgar's next title defense is against the less-than-inspiring Gray Maynard at UFC 125. Already owning a victory over Edgar, Maynard could very well take the belt this weekend and cast even more doubt on the UFC champion being the best in the division.
Lightweight is one of the deeper divisions in the sport and Zuffa doesn't come close to having a monopoly on its talent. Here are the guys they're lacking:
The Known Commodities:
Although Bellator champion Eddie Alvarez delivered eviscerating performances against UFC veterans Roger Huerta and Josh Neer, I think more highly of Strikeforce champion Gilbert Melendez at the moment. Melendez doesn't have a loss he hasn't avenged following an epic 2009 rematch with Josh Thomson, and thoroughly trounced Shinya Aoki - the last man to beat Alvarez - in April of this year. At the time Melendez fought Aoki, the DREAM champion was widely regarded as the #2 lightweight in the world.
Alvarez won his championship by running through the 2009 Bellator lightweight tournament. Prior to that, he'd gone on a solid run in Japan with victories over Joachim Hansen and Tatsuya Kawajiri until running into Aoki. His dominating performances against Neer and especially Huerta generated interest in a co-promotional bout in which Alvarez would face Melendez, which would have significantly strengthened either man's claim to supremacy in the division. Unfortunately, the match never came close to fruition.
Aoki rebounded from the Melendez loss with easy victories over the well-regarded Kawajiri and a past-his-prime Marcus Aurelio. At Dynamite!! 2010, Kawajiri is scheduled to face Thomson in a match that could determine either man's relevance near the top of the division for the coming year. Kawajiri's last bout was the quick loss to Aoki, whereas Thomson pulled off a tightly-contested decision win against Gesias Cavalcante. Calvancante, once a top fighter in the division, has dropped three of four (albeit against top competition) following a stretch of knee injuries. The former winner of a pair of K-1 HERO'S tournaments, "JZ" hasn't looked close to the old form that saw him obliterate Vitor "Shaolin" Ribeiro in 2007.
KJ Noons returned from a sojourn to boxing by knocking out headhunter Jorge Gurgel. Noons then dropped a decision to Nick Diaz in a rematch at welterweight, but the former EliteXC lightweight champ could find himself challenging for the Strikeforce title with a win or two in the coming year.
The Fresh Faces
Lyle Beerbohm took a controversial decision from Vitor Ribeiro in St. Louis back in May, keeping his perfect record and leading a crop of young Strikeforce talent that will be interesting to watch in 2011. It'd be great to see Beerbohm get in there with Billy Evangelista, who is also undefeated and has taken wins over Gurgel and current UFC fighter Nam Phan. Also in the mix is Justin Wilcox, who didn't have much trouble against "Shaolin" at last month's Strikeforce Challengers event (are we sensing a theme here with Ribeiro?).
Pat Curran won the second Bellator lightweight tournament by taking a thin decision from veteran Toby Imada. It wasn't the most inspiring win for the youngster, but his potential is certainly intriguing as the fight with Roger Huerta surprised many including myself. The kid I'm most looking forward to seeing, however, is Marcin Held, the 18-year-old Polish MMA prodigy scheduled to compete in Bellator's third lightweight tournament.