MMANonsTOP 5 – Lightweights
As we work our way another fifteen pounds “down the scale,” we start to see a significant difference in the size and speed of the fighters entering the cage from around the world. Most American (and several overseas) MMA outlets consider the lightweight division to be the range between 146lb – 155lb; however, the Shooto organization continues to recognize 143lb as the upper limit of their LW division). In the history of the UFC’s lightweight division (formerly known as the Bantamweight division prior to UFC 31, May 4, 2001), there have been four title holders: Jens “Lil’ Evil” Pulver (Won the title by defeating Caol Uno at UFC 30 in Feb 2001, and defended twice against Dennis “Superman” Hallman at UFC 33 in Sept 2001, and “the Prodigy” BJ Penn at UFC 25 in Jan 2002), Sean “Muscle Shark” Sherk (Won the title by defeating Kenny “Kenflo” Florian at UFC 64 in Oct 2006, and defended one time against Hermes Franca at UFC 73 in July 2007), BJ Penn (Won the vacant title by defeating Joe “Daddy” Stevenson at UFC 80 in Jan 2008, and defended three times against the “Muscle Shark” at UFC 84 in May 2008, “Kenflo” at UFC 101 in Aug 2009, and Diego “Dream” Sanchez at UFC 107 in Dec 2009), and finally Frankie “the Answer” Edgar (Won the title by defeating BJ Penn at UFC 112 in April 2010, defended against Penn at UFC 118 in Aug 2010, as well as Gray “the Bully” Maynard at UFC 125 in Jan 2011). A riddle that puzzled the rest of the world’s top lightweight fighters, Edgar found the “Answer” to defeating the Prodigy: he just had to beat him to the punch. But we’re not here to cover BJ or Frankie, no no, we’re here to breakdown the world’s other mmanonsTOP 5 LWs.
5. Eddie Alvarez (22-2) – Primarily known in the MMA world for his natural boxing abilities, Alvarez was a two-time National HS Prep All-American in Kensington, PA at 145lbs. After graduating he went directly to professional MMA, and in only his sixth fight Alvarez won the MFC WW title (which would later become known as the BodogFIGHT WW title) by KO’ing Derrick Noble in June 2006. Eddie would eventually make his way to fight for the EliteXC and DREAM, and found a home fighting in the LW class. It was in Japan where Eddie made his rise to stardom by defeating the likes of Andre Amade (Mar 2008), Joachim Hansen (May 2008) and Tatsuya Kawajiri (Jul 2008) before signing an exclusive contract to fight for Bellator Fighting Championships. He entered and won the LW tournament by defeating Greg Loughran (Apr 2009), Eric Reynolds (May 2009) and finally Toby Imada (Jun 2009), to become the first Bellator LW Champ. He has since fought and defeated Katsunori Kikuno (Dream 12, Oct 2009), Josh Neer (May 2010), and Roger Huerta (Oct 2010) in non-title affairs, before successfully defending his title against Pat Curran by way of UD in Apr 2011.
It’s unclear what lies ahead for Eddie and the Bellator LW division, but one thing is clear – if he wants to get any higher than the number five spot, he will have to make his way into the UFC to fight higher level competition.
4. Shinya Aoki (28-5, 1 NC) Also known as “Tobikan Judan” or “the Grandmaster of Flying Submissions,” Shinya Aoki has dazzled the world over with his fantastic displays of Judo and Brazilian Jiu Jitsu, but has shown to have issues with superior strikers. Aoki has competed in almost every organization for MMA from DEEP, Shooto, Pride and K-1 to DREAM, Sengoku and Strikeforce. In his 30+ fights he has squared off with some of the world’s best lighter weight fighers such as Hayato “Mach” Sakurai (x2), Kuniyoshi Hironaka, Akira Kikuchi, George Sotiropolous, Joachim Hansen (x3), Gesias “JZ” Cavalcante (x2), Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro, Lyle “Fancypants” Beerbohm, and most recently Rich Clementi. You may notice I left one particular name off the list, Mizuto Hirota. In a fight that will forever be remembered as a black spot on Aoki’s win record, Hirota was defending his newly acquired Sengoku LW title that he had just won off of Aoki’s longtime friend Satoru Kitaoka, when he found himself in a very compromising position with his arm trapped behind his back in a hammerlock. While his opponent’s pride wouldn’t allow him to tap, Aoki took it upon himself to not only snap Hirota’s arm, he then proceeded to stand over his wounded opponent cursing him and giving him the finger before doing the same to the crowd – he would later apologize, saying that the excitement of winning the match had pushed him to an extreme. “Tobikan Judan” should not be remembered solely for his outburst, rather, he cemented his legacy in MMA history when he pulled off the first ever mounted gogoplata against Katsuhiko Nagata (the move would later be dubbed “the Aoki-plata”) during the DREAM LW Grand Prix. At Dynamite!! 2008 on New Year’s Eve, Aoki submitted Eddie Alvarez via heel hook to become the very first WAMMA Undisputed World LW Champion – basically a whole lotta letters not including UFC. With 18 of his 28 wins coming by way of tapout, Aoki is widely considered to be the best submission fighter in the MMA world today.
Fresh off his face-lock submission of Rich Clementi at the DREAM – Fight for Japan event in May 2011, Aoki is now awaiting his next booking and some would argue he’s earned the right to challenge #2 on our list, “El Niño” Gilbert Melendez to the rematch (under DREAM rules) he was promised when the two squared off for “El Niño’s” Strikeforce LW title in April 2010 at Strikeforce – Nashville. With all the uncertainty around what the MMA Gods have in store next for Aoki, I highly doubt we see “Tobikan Judan” in any K-1 “Special Rules” exhibition matches anytime soon. After an embarrassing outing against Yuichiro “Jienotsu” Nagashima where Aoki repeatedly broke the K-1 rules stipulated for the first round. In what appeared to be a deliberate stalling tactic to run out the clock, Aoki did all he could to avoid the potent striking attack of “Jienotsu” so that he would have the decided advantage in the second round being governed by MMA rules. In a twist of irony, and much to his chagrin, Aoki was KO’d at the 0:04 mark of round two by way of flying knee (since the fight was an exhibition match, the loss does not show on Aoki’s record). Paging Dr. Karma….you just bit Aoki in the ass!
3. Jim Miller (20-2) The younger of two brothers in the UFC, you can find Jim Miller currently tearing through the UFC LW division and building his case for a title shot. Riding a 7-fight win streak (9 UFC wins) he’s worked his way up the ladder, stumbling only to our #1 contender, Gray Maynard at UFC 96 (Mar 2009). Some of the feather’s found in Miller’s cap include the likes of Matt Wiman (UFC Fight for the Troops, Dec 2008), TUF 6 winner Mac Danzig (UFC 100, July 2009), Duane “Bang” Ludwig (UFC 108, Jan 2010), Mark Bocek (UFC 111, Mar 2010), and Gleison Tibau (UFN 22, Sep 2010). Before joining the UFC Jim held the Cage Fury Fighting Championships Lightweight Championship and Reality Fighting Featherweight Championship. In suffering his first career defeat he relinquished the later title (ironically) to current UFC LW Champ Frankie “the Answer” Edgar at Reality Fighting 14 (Nov 2006). During his current win streak Jim finished four of those seven opponents, the most recent two in exciting fashion; Charles Olivera by way of 1st round kneebar at UFC 124 (Dec 2010), and at UFC 128 (Mar 2011) he unleashed a wicked uppercut followed by a knee to Kamal Shalorus’ face forcing the TKO stoppage in the 3rd round.
Jim will have to win at least one more time to remain “in the mix” and right now he’s scheduled to face off with former WEC LW Champ, Ben “Smooth” Henderson in August at UFC on Versus 5. As we’ve seen these two men know how to push the pace and take the fight to their opponent, and both men have spectacular wrestling and grappling skills which I think will negate each other. I expect to see a stand-up affair much like what we saw in the Henderson/Pettis fight at WEC 53, although I don’t see Miller pulling out any fancy “Showtime Kicks” off the cage a la Pettis, I do see him winning the striking battle and ultimately the fight on the judges’ score cards by way of split decision. If Miller wants to get the next shot at the title he needs to push the pace and try to finish Henderson off with strikes (something no other fighter has been able to do yet). A solid T/KO victory would cement him as the next title contender over the streaking Clay “the Carpenter” Guida
2. Gilbert Melendez (19-2) Storming in at the #2 spot on our list is the Strikeforce LW Champ Gilbert “El Niño” Melendez. He was the inaugural WEC LW Champ after defeating Olaf Alfonso at WEC 10 (May 2004), and then went on to win the SF title from the afore mentioned “Carpenter” at SF Revenge (Jun 2006) in his 10th pro fight. With little competition to challenge for his title in SF, “El Niño” made his way to Japan for a few fights with the Pride organization before it was purchased by UFC parent company, Zuffa LLC. At Yarennoka: New Year’s Eve 2007, Melendez suffered his first career defeat by way of Unanimous Decision against Mitsuhiro Ishida, and following a TKO victory over Gabe Lemley at SF: Shamrock vs. Le (Mar 2008) he would suffer his only other career defeat – again a UD loss this time in the SF main event to Josh Thomson (Jun 2008). Although he lost the title to “the Punk,” Thomson was injured so badly in the fight and during training while trying to recover, that SF was forced put up an interim title at SF: Shamrock vs. Diaz (Apr 2009). At the event “El Niño” made his first return since the title loss, and showed improved striking when he KO’d Rodrigo Damm in the 2nd round to earn the interim title. He would then avenge his losses to Ishida and Thomson respectively to defend and then unify the SF LW title, before smashing “Tobikan Judan” for five rounds at the now infamous SF: Nashville event (Apr 2010). It would be almost one full year before Melendez would step into the cage against “the Crusher” Tatsuya Kawajiri – whom he crushed in the first round at SF: Daley vs. Diaz (Apr 2011).
Unofficially up next for Melendez is Jorge “Gamebred” Masvidal, and with a decisive victory Melendez will have built a strong case to unify the SF and UFC LW titles. “El Niño” will have his hands full, as “Gamebred” has shown time and again that he’s not one to back away from the fight and in fact may just be the one to push the pace given his success this weekend outboxing K.J. Noons which earned him the title shot. Melendez will need to own the center of the cage and use his movement to keep changing the angles for “Gamebred” to set his feet and avoid the crisp counter strikes that will undoubtedly be coming his way. In order to secure the victory, retain his belt, and ultimately make his case to unify the UFC & SF LW title’s, “El Niño” will have to finish his next fight in the same fashion he did his last one. Drawing from his experience in previous championship fights against opponents who don’t want to bring the fight to him, Gil will have to utilize a dynamic counter-striking-mixed-with-takedowns game to keep the taller “Gamebred” from getting comfortable and finding his range where he could potentially sit and work from the outside. By mixing up his attack, and dragging this fight on into the championship rounds I see Melendez out working “Gambred” en route to the UD victory (49-46, 49-46, 48-47). Should be a great fight just the same.
1. Gray Maynard (10-0-1, 1 NC) How does one become the top contender in the UFC LW division (or any weight class)? By staying undefeated, that’s how…not to mention having a past victory over the current champ. Although he managed to TKO himself while doing the same to Rob “the Saint” Emerson at the TUF 5 Finale (Jun 2007), and he most recently brought the pain to LW Champ Frankie “the Answer” Edgar in a five round war that somehow managed to end in a draw. Aside from these two minor setbacks, “the Bully” has managed to take eight of his opponents the full distance which has made him somewhat of a hard-sell for the marketing machine even though he’s defeated top flight competition including: Rich “No Love” Clementi, Jim Miller, Roger “El Matador” Huerta, Nate Diaz, and Kenny “Kenflo” Florian. With his outstanding wrestling pedigree and ability to take his opponents down at will to control the fight, Maynard has often been criticized as a “lay and pray” fighter, but as we saw in the first round of his title fight with Edgar, “the Bully” has been working diligently to improve his standup game. The two went back and forth for the full 25min war, but I had “the Bully” ahead at the end of the fight and I suspect we’ll get to see him take home the gold in the rematch this fall.
In order to make it official and become the LW Champ, Gray will have to finish Frankie decisively and his best chance at doing that is to throw some heavy combinations and cut off the angles that Frankie likes to use. I keep coming back to it because it was picture perfect, but if Gray can repeat his first round from the last fight and take that momentum thru the 2nd, I think he will break Frankie early in the 3rd round to become the new UFC LW Champ and the #1 LW in the world. He’s got the blueprint, he’s even laid the foundation…now he’s just got to finish building his dream.
Next week we’ll move even further down the scale to 145lbs, and look at who is going to make their claim as the top contender to challenge Jose Aldo, Jr. as the world’s top Featherweight.
Brendan Churchin will examine the Top 5 fighters in each weight class and is featured exclusively on MMANonstop.com. Follow him at twitter.com/bchurchin48