Benson Henderson, Josh Thomson and the Strange State of the Lightweight Division

Chad DundasMMA Lead WriterJanuary 23, 2014

Benson Henderson gestures while fighting Gilbert Melendez in a UFC lightweight championship mixed martial arts fight in San Jose, Calif., Saturday, April 20, 2013. Henderson won by split decision to retain the championship. (AP Photo/Jeff Chiu)
Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

For a long time, the UFC lightweight division was beyond reproach.

Just as light heavyweight was once regarded as the fight company’s glamour division, the 155-pound class was for years universally heralded as the Octagon’s most competitive. In a sport where chaos was often the default setting, lightweight was so dependably great for so long, perhaps its supremacy was something we all started to take for granted.

Note the past tense in that paragraph.

As Benson Henderson and Josh Thomson prepare to fight over fairly inexplicable stakes on Saturday night, the 155-pound division finds itself in a precarious position. Not to play Chicken Little here, but it’s starting to feel as though MMA’s best weight class just ain’t what it used to be.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

The champion is injured, the erstwhile No. 1 contender is injured, and—depending on what happens between "Bendo" and "The Punk" at UFC on Fox 10—matchmakers could have a dilemma on their hands as they attempt to pave the way forward.

If you’re a fan of the lightweight division—or maybe if you just like your fighting to come equipped with coherent storylines—your best bet may be to root for Thomson this weekend.

Henderson is close to a 3-to-1 favorite, but a win by the former champion might do nothing but cast the weight class into even more prolonged stasis. He has already lost twice to champion Anthony Pettis, and after their lopsided UFC 164 bout, company president Dana White said Bendo is not likely to get a third chance.

Pettis said this week he’s targeting a July return (and that he’s picking Henderson over Thomson), but UFC-affiliated orthopedic surgeon Robert Klapper poured cold water on that notion during Wednesday’s episode of UFC Tonight.

“I would pray for him,” Klapper said. “Coming back in July? That’s really optimistic.”

Meanwhile, TJ Grant—the man with the best claim to top contender status—remains sidelined after suffering a concussion last summer. He has no timetable for a comeback, and at this point we’re all just hoping his medically mandated vacation isn’t permanent.

So, yeah, complete and utter gridlock.

If Henderson beats Thomson and Pettis recovers from his injury before doctors can clear Grant, maybe we should just start drawing names out of a hat.

Assuming Henderson holds serve, it’s possible the next title shot could default to Gilbert Melendez, who is officially ranked as the UFC’s No. 2 lightweight. But "El Nino" is just one fight removed from his own loss to Henderson (No. 1) nine months ago, and in a perfect world, he’d need at least one more victory over a ranked opponent to solidify his status.

To that end, a fight between Melendez and the fast-rising Khabib Nurmagomedov (No. 7) that was targeted for UFC 170 was recently scrapped for undisclosed reasons. Nate Diaz (No. 5) also reportedly refused the organization’s terms for a fight against Nurmagomedov, and the whole mess only added to the feeling that nobody at lightweight is going anywhere fast.

It’s frustrating. You’re not supposed to have these problems at this weight class.

But maybe after years of being the UFC’s most treacherous shark tank, the 155-pound class is just plain worn out. Perhaps its long tenure as the sport’s most notorious meat grinder has finally taken a toll.

Many of the division’s perennial stalwarts—Gray Maynard, Jim Miller, Melvin Guillard—have fallen off the pace of late.

Fan favorites Frankie Edgar and Clay Guida are now featherweights, as are lesser-known commodities like Dennis Siver, Jeremy Stephens, Charles Oliveira and Nik Lentz.

We’re still waiting to see if former contenders such as Evan Dunham and Gleison Tibau can right the ship before it’s too late, and longtime title threats like Diaz and Donald Cerrone don’t have unlimited windows, either.

At the same time, the division’s young guns—far and away the best reason to hope for its quick return to prominence—still aren’t quite ready for prime time. Men like Nurmagomedov, Bobby Green, Edson Barboza, Rafael dos Anjos and Michael Johnson could all be stars by the end of 2014, but as of right now they all need to incubate a bit longer.

As lightweight has slumped, suddenly juicy plot twists at welterweight and middleweight have stolen some of its thunder. A vacant title and a wealth of contenders at 170 pounds will arguably make that division the UFC’s most interesting during this calendar year, and the swirling controversy around Vitor Belfort’s upcoming 185-pound title shot should garner a good deal of spotlight as well.

If lightweight wants to go on being the UFC’s most respected division—heck, if it just wants to keep up—it better find a way to break out of its current funk, and fast.