Jeremy Lambert: Since 2010, only four men have fought for the UFC Lightweight title: BJ Penn, Frankie Edgar, Gray Maynard, and Ben Henderson. Injuries haven’t kept the champion out for a long period of time and there have been no shortage of challengers either. It’s come down to the fact that we’ve needed rematches in every instance due to the first bout being razor close decisions. In what is the UFC’s deepest and most talent rich division, four men have had a stranglehold on the top spot.
This past Saturday night, Nate Diaz solidified himself as the top contender with an impressive victory over Jim Miller. Diaz will now wait for the winner of the Henderson vs. Edgar rematch, which means sitting on the sidelines until early 2013 before getting his title shot. Unless of course Henderson vs. Edgar 2 is razor close, Edgar wins, and the outcry is for Henderson to receive an immediate rematch.
Samer Kadi: The lightweight division is without a doubt, the most unique in MMA. It is the deepest and most talented weight-class in the world, but also the most chaotic and headache-inducing. It is so rich with elite mixed martial artists that it is too competitive for its own good. Few fighters are able to put together a string of legitimately high quality wins due to the incredible level of competition and the sheer talent infesting the division.
Unfortunately, save for the recently absorbed sub-155 pound weight-classes, it is also the division with the least drawing power. Ever since BJ Penn lost his title in 2010, the lightweight division has been consistently failing to capture fan interest. The numbers for Frankie Edgar’s bouts with Gray Maynard and Ben Henderson were as underwhelming as the fights were exhilarating.
Nate Diaz’s career-best performance against Jim Miller last weekend could have provided the division with the sort of interest it so desperately needs. Diaz is a relatively recognizable name – at least compared to his 155 peers – and his performance should have been viewed by the large audience it deserved. However, the ratings for UFC on FOX 3 were extremely disappointing, and lack of pre-show hype and post-fight buzz will likely prove detrimental once Diaz gets his shot.
Jeremy Lambert: Even though the ratings for UFC on FOX 3 were very disappointing and failed to attract over 3 million viewers, which I thought was nearly impossible the week before the event, Diaz is still the most recognizable face in the division. Despite the low ratings, Diaz’s win over Miller was still seen by more people combined than those who purchased Edgar’s last three PPVs as champion. Whether or not those FOX viewers will translate into PPV buyers when Diaz eventually returns to PPV remains to be seen though.
Diaz could return to PPV a lot sooner than expected thanks to an injury suffered by Edgar. Originally scheduled to get his rematch against Henderson at UFC 150 in August, the fight is now off and will have to be pushed back until at least September. That could once again put the division on ice unless the UFC decides to change up the booking by giving Diaz the title shot in August and having Edgar wait until December to get his rematch for the strap.
Personally, I’d like to see Diaz vs. Henderson headline and save UFC 147, but my partner has another (and admittedly better) idea.
Samer Kadi: It is highly doubtful that whatever took place at last weekend’s FOX card is going to translate into PPV buys. For that to happen, casual fans watching had to have been led to believe that what they’re seeing is a big deal. Unfortunately, due to the lack of promotion for the event, both from FOX and Zuffa’s end, the main event got little publicity, and very few outside the hardcore MMA community were aware of what was at stake.
Part of the reason why the UFC’s first FOX show was such a success is because even those who were largely unfamiliar with the two contestants realized the importance of the fight. And while a heavyweight title bout is infinitely easier to sell than a fight for a potential title shot in a division many are indifferent towards, neither the UFC nor FOX seemed to have tried.
Frankie Edgar’s injury puts another twist in the ever unpredictable lightweight division, but it could be a blessing in disguise for the UFC. While one could argue that Edgar deserved his rematch, and there is nothing wrong with seeing him and Ben Henderson go at it once again, the fight was always going to bomb on PPV. With Edgar out, the UFC can now strike while the iron is hot. Instead of having Diaz wait up to eight months for his title shot, and thus kill off his momentum, he could now take Edgar’s spot and challenge Henderson for the title, with “The Answer” squaring off against the winner upon his return with injury. That is not all: Diaz’s bout with Henderson would headline UFC on FOX 4.
A main event pitting Hector Lombard against Brian Stann will simply not provide the UFC with the rebound they need. And with many FOX executives reportedly unhappy with the lack of “PPV caliber main event” for the last show, a championship bout is just what the doctor ordered as far as both parties are concerned. In fact, in Henderson and Diaz, the UFC would hardly be burning some PPV dollars, as the fight would not have done exceptionally well on PPV to begin with. Moreover, by giving away the fight on free TV, the lightweight division would finally get the chance to show fans what they’ve been missing.
Jeremy Lambert: With Stann vs. Lombard as the main event, UFC is banking on two things: 1. That a potential title shot for Lombard will be enough to draw in fans and 2. That Stann’s marine background will play well enough with the casual audience that they’ll tune in. Last weekend proved that the former probably won’t work too well as fans didn’t seem to care much about Diaz potentially earning a title shot with a win. The latter is a good idea, but has a limited potential and could potentially backfire on the company should fans get sick of hearing “Brian Stann is a former marine” every time his name is brought up.
Headline the show with Diaz vs. Henderson and now the fans have something to sink their teeth into. A title fight automatically seems like a big deal and would be pretty hard to screw up the promotion for. The UFC on FOX relationship, like any successful relationship, only works if both parties are committed. UFC treated FOX like a mistress this past weekend as they put all their promotional efforts into Jon Jones vs. Rashad Evans and FOX responded by giving a minimal effort, instead focusing their attention on the Glee Prom and NASCAR.
With a title fight headlining UFC on FOX 4, there’s no way that both parties won’t go out of their way to send flowers just because it’s Wednesday.
Samer Kadi: If the UFC is indeed banking on what my colleague is suggesting, they will be in for a rude awakening. As such, Diaz-Henderson as the main event remains their best realistic option. As mentioned, the potential of such a fight goes beyond pulling decent ratings on FOX – it is about the chance to put an entire division on the map. If Diaz and Henderson – by all accounts two of the most exciting fighters in MMA – put on the kind of battles we’ve grown accustomed to seeing from these men throughout their careers (think Henderson’s first bout with Donald Cerrone for example), this could truly be the much deserved turning point the lightweight division desperately needs.
The division will likely continue to be the most exciting in MMA. Action packed lightweight bouts will continue to be the norm, but unfortunately, it will continue to struggle to draw interest. It might be far-fetched to expect a potential Diaz-Henderson bout on FOX to completely reverse the UFC’s fortunes in that regard, but it will certainly be a step in the right direction.
Jeremy Lambert: It will be a step in the right direction, but the rest of the division still has a lot of catching up to do. Thanks to the same two fighters controlling the top of the division for the best few years and guys failing to put together long win streaks, not many other fighters have been given the chance to stand out.
Beyond Diaz, Henderson, and Edgar the rest of the division is like an abstract painting. Anthony Pettis seems to be next in line behind those three, but his loss to Clay Guida still remains fresh in many minds. Edson Barboza is coming off a highlight reel KO and is undefeated, but lacks a signature win. Donald Cerrone had an outstanding 2012, but is coming off loss. Guida remains one of the divisions most popular fighters, but can’t seem to get over the proverbial hump. Gray Maynard is coming off back-to-back failed attempts at the title. Then there are guys like Joe Lauzon, Evan Dunham, Melvin Guillard, Jim Miller, and Gleison Tibau who are all “in the mix.”
The best thing that could happen to the UFC lightweight division is adding Eddie Alvarez and Gilbert Melendez. They’d be fresh faces at the top of the pyramid and an opportunity for other fighters to score a win over unquestionably top ten talents.