Eyeing contenders in wake of UFC 136

BY foxsports • October 11, 2011

The road leading up to UFC 136 held a great deal of promise, with the potential for clarity within the contender ranks the greatest of those possibilities.

As can be expected in the organization that uses the tagline “Anything Can Happen,” sometimes you end up with overcast skies even when they’re predicting everything to be clear.

Both the lightweight and featherweight divisions have become increasingly competitive over the past year, and the road to the top is not clearly marked.

Here’s a look at who could be on the verge of making some championship noise in each of those divisions in the coming months.

LIGHTWEIGHTS

In his victory over Gray Maynard this past Saturday, Frankie Edgar not only proved his heart and will are both ironclad, but also removed any doubt about his standing as champion. Defeating B.J. Penn in back-to-back matches should have been enough, but after ending in a draw with Maynard at UFC 125, the questions resurfaced. That speculation was erased in grand fashion at UFC 136, and while his status as the king of the lightweight mountain is clear, who he’ll face next most certainly is not.

Gilbert Melendez

With funeral music seemingly playing for Strikeforce, UFC president Dana White has spoken openly about bringing the organization’s lightweight champion into the mix. The hitch is that Melendez has a bout against Jorge Masivdal scheduled in December, and there have been no indications as to whether or not it still will take place.

Should “El Nino” be added to the UFC roster, the only fight that makes sense is an immediate shot at Edgar’s crown. Any other matchup would be more risk than reward for both the Strikeforce champion and the UFC. Melendez burns to be recognized as the best lightweight fighter in the world; the winner of this bout would have no challengers to that title.

Clay Guida and Ben Henderson

Guida, the human version of the Energizer Bunny, has been on a tear. Impressive victories over Takanori Gomi and former WEC champion Anthony Pettis pushed him to the top of the list of contenders.

Following his decision victory over Pettis, it appeared that Guida would have to get comfortable in line behind Jim Miller, but after Ben Henderson ousted Miller in Milwaukee, the stage was set for what promises to be an action-packed showdown. Should Guida find the answer for Henderson, a shot at the title seems likely.

The same goes for Henderson if he's able to slow down Guida.

Henderson has led the charge of former WEC standouts as they have earned legitimacy in the UFC. He has looked outstanding against Miller and Mark Bocek, two fighters who are tough outs for anyone in the division, and getting the call to face Guida serves as the UFC’s way of recognizing his efforts. Henderson’s pace typically breaks his opponents, and if he can find a way to outwork Guida in November, he should get next.

Anthony Pettis

When the WEC merged with the UFC, the reigning king of the blue cage was promised a title shot.

Following the New Year’s Day draw between Edgar and Maynard, Pettis decided he did not want to sit on the sidelines while the trilogy played out. This proved to be a costly decision for the young Milwaukee native, as Guida was able to take him down repeatedly, nullify his numerous weapons, and turning Pettis’ first appearance in the Octagon into a learning opportunity.

This past weekend, the Duke Roufus-trained fighter showed he hit the books hard following his loss to Guida, rebounding with a split-decision victory over slugger Jeremy Stephens. Pettis showed he is willing to choose substance over style, using a wrestling-based attack to neutralize Stephens’ power punching and keeping Stephens' flash contained to just a single capoeira kick at the close of the first round.

He showed maturity and a willingness to adapt against Stephens; both positive signs for a fighter who will have to overcome some serious wrestlers if he wants to make it to the top. While Pettis is at least another victory away from a title shot, he is certainly in the mix of contenders.

Donald Cerrone

Some may be surprised to see Cerrone’s name on this list, but “Cowboy” has been on fire.

He has entered the UFC with a “anyone, anywhere, anytime” mentality, and it has him knocking on the door of the upper tier. Cerrone has rattled off five consecutive wins — three since being added to the UFC roster — and his first-round knockout of Charles Oliveira garnered well-deserved attention.

Never one to sit idle, Cerrone took the opportunity to replace Sam Stout and face surging German striker Dennis Siver at UFC 137. With a victory over Siver, it will be hard to deny Cerrone a place among the division’s elite.


FEATHERWEIGHTS

Jose Aldo faced what many considered to be his toughest challenge to date when he fought Kenny Florian on Saturday in Houston.

After a promising first round for Florian, the champion did what champions do: He adjusted his approach. For the remaining four rounds, Aldo punished Florian coming in and out of the clinch en route to his 13th consecutive victory. Whereas his counterpart in the lightweight division has numerous suitors, Aldo faces different issues in the featherweight ranks.

Chad Mendes

Most indicators point to Mendes getting the next shot at Aldo’s title.

The Team Alpha Male fighter has steamrolled every opponent he has faced and shown improvement every step of the way. Mendes has used a blend of power and wrestling to overwhelm the opposition, and despite being in the relatively early stages of his career, he’s yet to see the loss column. The biggest knock on Mendes is his penchant for going to the scorecards, but wins are wins, and his wrestling could be the key to solving the Aldo puzzle.

Hatsu Hioki

When the news broke the UFC had signed the Japanese star, Hioki immediately was pushed to the top of the list of contenders.

He makes his organizational debut against George Roop at UFC 137, and a win in Las Vegas validates his position amongst the top competitors in the division. In fact, an impressive performance for the Shooto champion could vault him past Mendes and into a title bout opposite Aldo.

Erik Koch

Talent and potential seem to be a common thing around Duke Roufus’ gym these days. In addition to the attention garnered by Pettis, his teammate and best friend Koch also has been making waves. “New Breed” has been a force inside of the cage, earning back-to-back Knockout of the Night bonuses for his victories over Francisco Rivera and Raphael Assuncao.

His most recent outing resulted in a unanimous decision victory over TUF winner Jonathan Brookins, giving Koch a four-fight winning streak heading towards the holiday season. The only blemish on his record came against Mendes, and at 23 years old, making the necessary adjustments shouldn’t be a problem.

Dustin Poirier

Poirier most likely is sitting on the outer fringes of contention, having put together a nice win streak since suffering the lone loss of his career to Danny Castillo in August 2010.

In all honesty, his victory over Josh Grispi doesn’t hold the same clout as it did at the time, seeing as Grispi has since dropped another bout and been bitten by the injury bug once again. But three consecutive wins between the WEC and UFC is nothing to blink at. Up next for Poirier is the always unpredictable Pablo Garza in November’s UFC on FOX debut, and should he emerge victorious from his battle with “The Scarecrow,” a shot at the featherweight title should be on the horizon.

Frankie Edgar

These days, all people want to talk about are Super Fights: Georges St. Pierre vs. Anderson Silva, or Silva vs. light heavyweight champion Jon Jones. While the possibilities are limited and the likelihood is slim, a champion-vs.-champion battle between Aldo and Edgar could be tangible.

Edgar is one of the smallest fighters in the division he currently rules, and a drop to featherweight wouldn’t take much work. The matchup is a dream come true, stylistically speaking; Edgar’s movement and boxing vs. Aldo’s speed and pinpoint striking would guarantee excitement.

While the current congestion at the top of the list of lightweight contenders is a hurdle that would need to be cleared, the potential pairing would be an easy sell and a surefire hit.


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