Don't look now, but there those who believe that the UFC's lightweight division has a bleak future. Or even a bleak immediate future.
I don't think that's the case.
It's true that no lightweight fighters have ever stepped up to fill the void left by B.J. Penn, but let's face it: those are some pretty big shoes to fill. Penn was one of the UFC's legitimate superstars and a gigantic fan favorite; it's a tough thing to find someone else with the same combination of charisma and fan appeal that Penn carried into the Octagon.
Frankie Edgar couldn't do it, and he beat Penn two times before drawing and winning in two scintillating battles against Gray Maynard. And yes, I fully realize that Maynard and Edgar have fought three times, but it's the latter two that count.
If those fights couldn't make Edgar a UFC superstar, well, then nothing could. Edgar was plenty likable as champion; he was the scrappy featherweight who was constantly given underdog status, yet somehow managed to overcome the odds when the odds looked as long as they could possibly get.
That was Edgar; a pint-sized Rocky, constantly and consistently felling his larger foes. And yet he still didn't connect as a pay-per-view draw, not even after turning in one gutsy performance after another.
But perhaps the problem in all of this isn't Edgar, so much as it is our own perception. Perhaps we need to stop fretting about who becomes a pay-per-view draw or who connects with the public. Why do we consider that stuff for even a moment, anyway? It doesn't benefit me in any way, shape or form if someone sells millions of pay per views or if they're buried on the undercard of a Fuel TV card, and I'd suspect it doesn't affect your bottom line, either.
So why do we care? Why don't we just focus on the one thing we SHOULD be interested in as fight fans: the fighters and the fights? Isn't that what drew you to your television for three-plus hours a few times per month in the first place?
Let's leave the discussions of buyrates and superstars and yearly projections to the guys who actually find themselves affected by such things—and by that I mean Dana White and Lorenzo Fertitta and the other guys in suits in that glass office over on Sahara in Las Vegas—and let's talk instead of fights and fighters and who might be a future lightweight championship title contender.
We're looking at three different categories here, and I'd like to break them down for you before we get started.
THE PERENNIAL CONTENDERS: These are the guys who could conceivably contend for the title on numerous occasions over the years to come. These are pretty much the names you'd expect them to be.
THE DARK HORSES: Fighters who can inch their way into contention sooner than you'd think. Actually, this would just be the singular, since I only have one fighter listed in this category.
THE ONE WHO MOVES UP: This is self explanatory, and I'm sure you can already guess who falls under this one. But let's just go with it, okay?
Sound good? Let's go.
THE PERENNIAL CONTENDERS:
Gray Maynard: He's dropped off the map since his last fight, but Maynard is returning at UFC 160 in May to face T.J. Grant. More on Grant in a few minutes. But needless to say, with a win over Grant, Maynard will be right back in title contention, particularly since Edgar is no longer the champion; it would've been a tough sell trying to convince folks that Maynard would beat Frankie the third time around. A bout with Henderson or Melendez represents something new and fresh, and that alone might be enough to get "The Bully" back in the title picture before the end of 2013.
Anthony Pettis: He's moving down to 145 to challenge Jose Aldo this summer (in Milwaukee, no less!), but there aren't a lot of people out there who give Pettis much of a chance to dethrone the featherweight champion. You can consider me in that same boat. I like Pettis and I think he's great and dynamic and all of that, but let's be real with each other for a second: Pettis isn't beating Aldo. Nobody's beating Aldo at 145.
Which means it'll be back to lightweight for Pettis, and that's okay. He's probably better off with the 155-pounders anyway. And you can rest assured that he'll be a contender in this division for as long as he decides to fight, which could be a very long time.
THE DARK HORSES
T.J. Grant: Don't laugh. T.J. Grant is one bad dude. And don't look now, but he's undefeated since dropping to lightweight after a less-than-spectacular run at welterweight. With the exception of Carlo Prater, Grant's lightweight wins were over tough (and yet unheralded) opponents.
If Grant can beat Gray Maynard at UFC 160—and let me assure you that I'm not the only one who thinks that's a distinct possibility—he's one win away (or less) from a title shot. He's got all the tools to be a serious player in the division. You're probably laughing at me now, but I'll be the one laughing in 12 months or less when this guy is contending for the belt.
THE ONE WHO MOVES UP
Jose Aldo: This one is inevitable, and you know it. Aldo is getting bored at featherweight, and he's making more and more noise after each of his dominant featherweight wins about how he wants to move up and challenge for the lightweight title. Eventually, his coach and team are going to let him make the jump, and he's going to be deadly just like he is at 145 pounds.
Don't believe me? Just watch.
Jose Aldo is the future lightweight champion, and it's only a matter of when he decides to make the switch in weight classes.
All apologies to Benson Henderson, who is a fantastic fighter and a truly great sporting fighter, but that belt already belongs to Aldo.
You just don't know it yet.