There will be some old-school fans among those reading that will scoff at what I'm about to say.
They'll issue a hearty laugh, or they'll roll their eyes and then leave a comment about how I don't know what I'm talking about. You'd think I'd try to avoid those kinds of scenarios, right? But I guess I'm a glutton for punishment, so here we go.
If Benson Henderson beats Gilbert Melendez this weekend, he'll be the greatest lightweight competitor in the history of mixed martial arts.
Let that sink in for a moment, will you? It's quite a thing to say. But it's true, or at least I think it's true. And I think that those of you who are gearing up to argue with me—you're stretching out your fingers and shaking your heads and just can't wait to put your hands on that keyboard in front of you so you can call me an idiot—I think that if you stopped to actually consider the statement for a moment instead of rushing wildly to defend B.J. Penn and his place in history, well, I think you'd probably agree with me.
In beating Melendez—and as much as I like and admire what Melendez has done outside of the auspices of the Octagon, I believe he's going to lose to the current champion—Henderson will be the lightweight king. At the very least, he'll tie Penn's record for most consecutive wins in lightweight championship fights. Penn beat Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez in title fights, while Henderson bested Frankie Edgar two times, followed by Nate Diaz.
Penn beat Stevenson to capture the lightweight title. After losing to Penn, Stevenson went on to lose 8 of his next 11 bouts. As nice as Joe Stevenson is—and you won't find many people who will say a bad word about him—he wasn't exactly a top lightweight fighter even when competing for the belt. He got his place in the title fight opposite Penn simply because there were no other outstanding candidates. Right place, right time.
Sherk, Florian and Sanchez were all formidable opponents. They were the best available for Penn at the time. But I have to believe, as I have for over a year now, that beating Frankie Edgar two times means so much more, especially when you consider Edgar's battles with Gray Maynard. "The Answer" was tested through blood and fire and came out with his hand raised on the other side. For Henderson to beat that man, and to (in my eyes) do it convincingly, is an impressive thing.
Henderson also went out in the cage last December and utterly dismantled Nate Diaz. You'll hear folks tell you now that Diaz never deserved to be in the cage anyway, which wasn't true and never will be. Diaz was completely deserving; wins over Takanori Gomi, Donald Cerrone and Jim Miller were enough to ensure that he was a credible title challenger. And Diaz didn't just beat those guys, he utterly annihilated them. He made them look hapless. If that isn't the hallmark of someone who deserves to fight for the title, well, I don't know what you're looking for.
So yes, Diaz was a deserving title challenger, and Henderson still crushed him. He made it look easy, scoring 50-45 on two judging scorecards and even a 50-43 on a single card. So great was Henderson's beatdown of Diaz that one judge gave him at least two 10-8 rounds, and this happened in an era when 10-8 scores are much more rare than they should be.
Next on the docket is Melendez, a deserving challenger if there ever was one. Let's nip that one in the bud right now: Melendez has seven wins in a row and he's coming over to the UFC from Zuffa's old top competitor. You can talk all you want about Melendez and his quality of opposition all you want, but the simple fact is that a champion vs. champion fight is intriguing as hell, especially on free television. I mean, we're going to see this fight on network television. I'm getting excited just typing this up.
Henderson hasn't cleaned out his division yet. Far from it. You've still got Gray Maynard and T.J. Grant hovering around the outside edges of title contention, and there are plenty of challengers like Khabib Nurmagomedov, Pat Healy and even Jamie Varner working their way up the ranks.
Apologies to Mr. Penn, who was a fantastic competitor for his time and will be one of the UFC's enduring superstars from the early days; he was on a different plane from all other lightweights when he competed with the best.
But Henderson is thriving in the deepest lightweight division the UFC has ever known, and he's establishing himself as the baddest bully in a playground absolutely filled to the brim with savages.
By beating Melendez—particularly in dominant fashion—Henderson will establish himself as the absolute greatest lightweight of all time.
And if I were you, I'd make sure to tune in on Saturday night, because you'll be watching history in the making.