As I continue to delve into a side by side comparison of the current champions in the UFC, Strikeforce and Bellator, things start to get real interesting. That's because here in part III of my seven part series, I take a look at the champions at lightweight (155 lbs.); finally a division where all three organizations boast a champion.
Arguably the most competitive division in the sport, I believe it to be so because of the number of top level lightweights there are in the world. All three organizations, including Bellator with its short history, have rosters filled with lightweights of world class caliber. Yet, as talented as these champions are, there is one that clearly and currently stands out above the rest.
Here are my rankings of the champions as I see them:
1.) Strikeforce - Gilbert Melendez (20-2, 11 KO's 1 sub)
Happy Birthday to 'El Nino', which translates to 'The Kid', who ironically turns 30 years old as I am writing this. However, it is not a gift I am giving him by ranking him the best of the three current champions, because he has truly earned it. Patience, determination and loyalty has been the code Gilbert Melendez (pictured above) has lived by since he's been in this game and it is finally beginning to pay dividends.
Hard to imagine that a 30 year old can be considered the old man in this group, but that's what Melendez is. Not only by age, but in experience as well as he's been fighting professionally now for 10 years. In that time span, Melendez has traveled the world and toiled in relative obscurity as he worked to make a name for himself in this sport.
Early on, the hardcore's all knew who he was, by quickly becoming a fan favorite in Japan. However, it was when he finally found a home in Strikeforce in 2006 that the entire world began to take notice; oddly enough, it was a failed title bid against arch nemesis Josh Thomson that made people realize. That would be his last loss over four years ago.
Since then he's won six fights in a row, including the title in a second fight against Thomson. After 10 rounds against each other, the two will finally settle the score next month. While he's widely considered the best lightweight in the world, had I wrote this piece a year ago he may have been ranked third on my list behind former Bellator champ Eddie Alvarez and former UFC champ Frankie Edgar. However, it's not last year, the time is now; Gilbert's time to shine.
2.) UFC - Benson Henderson (16-2, 2 KO's 8 subs)
There's a reason Henderson is nicknamed 'Smooth', just look at the way he fights and it's evident. Whether he is striking, grappling or even defending a choke hold, his approach to the fight game and life in general is as "smooth" as they come. Granted he's only been the UFC lightweight champion for less than two months, but his credentials are unquestioned.
That is because he was a former world champion in the now defunct WEC. While there he had some fights that are considered legendary classics such as his first fight with Donald Cerrone and the last fight ever in the WEC where he lost his title against Anthony Pettis. Yet, since coming to the UFC he's continued that legendary trend with such instant classics such as his five round epic against Clay Guida and his title winning effort against former champion Edgar.
Henderson's title reign will be far from easy as his defenses most likely will have to contend with rematches against Edgar and Pettis, among a slew of other great lightweights in the UFC. However, if he is able to rise above these challenges, he may very well go down as one of the all-time greats before he is done.
3.) Bellator - Michael Chandler (9-0 , 3 KO's 4 subs)
As stated above had Eddie Alvarez remained champion, then Bellator would have topped this list of lightweight champions. However, as great as Alvarez is, he lost and all respect is due to current champion Michael Chandler because it was no fluke. As a matter of fact, Chandler defeated Alvarez in what is arguably the fight of 2011.
This young 25 year old is quickly becoming a star, not just in Bellator, but in all of MMA. That is because this former division one wrestler is displaying skills far beyond his experience, which professionally is still less than three years. That is because of his nine pro fights, eight have taken place in Strikeforce and Bellator.
Thus, he is facing world class competition every time he steps in the cage and his improvement has shown with every fight. It is solely because of lack of experience that he finds himself third on this list. However, Bellator will not use that as an excuse as he will be thrown in against a living legend of over 50 fights in his next bout when he faces Akihiro Gono on May 4. We'll see soon enough how much Chandler has grown.
Next up in a couple of days, clear cut and controversial as we look at the welterweight division.