Now that the TUF 9 Finale is behind us, we have a slightly clearer picture of how the UFC lightweight situation is playing out. You have everybody and their momma talking about getting a title shot, so what I'd like to do is list the 'main players' in the UFC lightweight division and what they need to improve upon to get to title shot contention. Check it:
BJ Penn-Well, BJ Penn can pretty much do it all when motivated as he's the current UFC lightweight champion that's scheduled to defend his title against Kenny Florian. If he has room for improvement it would be his gas tank. However, other than that he's pretty much got the game covered. Some people would say he needs to work on his take down defense after watching GSP mow him down. The fact of the matter is GSP could quite possibly be the best 'MMA wrestler' in the entire sport, so you kind of have to overlook that fight.
Kenny Florian-"Kenflo" has improved his game tremendously over the past 4 years. He's gone from primarily a BJJ blackbelt with a little stand up, to a fighter with legitimate stand up skills and the ability to finish his opponents. Florian was taken down repeatedly in his initial title shot against a very good wrestler in Sean Sherk, but Florian has been able to shore up his take down defense since then. But, other than Joe Stevenson he hasn't really faced a guy with good take down skills. The only thing I can think of that he probably needs to improve would be the wrestling aspect of his game. However, besides BJ Penn, Florian is probably one of the most well rounded lightweights in the UFC.
Gray Maynard-Gray has tremendous wrestling ability, and ever improving stand up skills. He has a great gas tank and is tough as nails. However, to reach that next level he needs to work on his ground game BJJ wise as well as the ability to finish his opponents. He's great at getting dominant positions, but he has figure out a way to cause maximum damage instead of gritting it out for decision wins. He spends a great deal of time on the ground with his opponents, so he also needs to continue to work on his submission defense as well.
Diego Sanchez-Diego had improved his skill set tremendously as well. He's evolved into a competent striker and was always a great grappler with a great gas tank. However, if Diego wants to become an elite fighter he needs to shore up his take down defense. As noted by Joe Rogan on Saturday night, Sanchez has a great top game in regards to BJJ. However, he's not as effective off his back as evident by the Guida fight. He had a couple of submission attempts, but Guida was able to control him for long periods of time once he got the fight to the ground. That could cause huge problems for him against someone like Gray Maynard.
Frankie Edgar-Edgar looked great in his last outing against former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk. He put crisp combinations together stand up wise, and showed the ability to shrug off take downs from a very good wrestler in Sherk. He also exhibited a very good gas tank in wars against Sherk and Tyson Griffin. The only thing was Sherk didn't shoot for take downs often at all, so I'm not quite sure how much Edgar has improved his take down defense. Gray Maynard was able to take him down at will and keep him there. So he needs to shore that portion of his game up.
Tyson Griffin-Griffin is a good wrestler with evolving stand up skills. He has a very good gas tank and is tough as hell, however, he needs to show the ability the finish fights. He's only finished one opponent in his entire UFC career.
Joe Stevenson-Joe is a very strong grappler with limited standup skills, and kind of got lost in the shuffle trying to become a striker against 2 of the very best lightweights in the world. He needs to continue to evolve his striking game, but at the same time not forget where his strengths lie. He got back to his roots against Nate Diaz and pulled out the win.
Clay Guida-You all know how I feel about this guy. He's got madd heart, is a good wrestler, and is very difficult to finish. However, he pretty one dimensional in that if you stop his take downs it's pretty much a wrap for him at this point. He needs to develop a striking game, and the ability to pass his opponents guard once he lands the take down.
Nate Diaz-Nate Diaz has tons of potential. He just needs to utilize the tools he has to the maximum. The reach advantage along with letting his hands go is a must. However, the main thing he needs to do is get stronger and improve his take down defense. He's never going to maximize his potential until he's able to stop people from taking him down and bullying him around. He can rely on his BJJ from his back against lower tiered fighters, but against top competition you can't afford to do that. He also needs to implement the mean streak that his brother has when he fights. Just let his natural skills go and he'll be just fine.
There are plenty of other lightweights I probably could have mentioned, but these are the main players right now in regards to the upper tier of the UFC lightweight division. There are others like Hermes Franca, Joe Lauzon, and Spencer Fisher that could be thrown into the mix as well. Give me your thoughts this, and if I missed anyone feel free to chime in in the comments section. I'll be doing this for the other weight divisions in the UFC as well.