Whoever dared imagine a UFC lightweight division without BJ Penn? Perish the thought. Perhaps the most dominant and thrilling 155-pounder of all-time, Penn appears to have fled for pastures new following the loss of his lightweight crown earlier this year. He leaves in his wake a glut of talented and hungry lightweight contenders, not to mention Frankie "The Answer" Edgar, the man who so impressively nabbed the belt from the Hawaiian in April.
Twelve months ago a lightweight division minus Penn would have seemed an unsettling proposition for most UFC fans. In addition to being one of the most exciting mixed martial artists on the planet, Penn also claimed a dominant stranglehold over the division and boasted an unshakeable, almost invincible air at times. Wins over Diego Sanchez, Kenny Florian, Sean Sherk and Joe Stevenson separated Penn from the rest and, as 2010 approached, it seemed to difficult to pinpoint anybody equipped to topple the champion from his throne.
Up stepped Edgar, a 7-1 underdog in Abu Dhabi, the night he executed the perfect game plan to stifle and defeat Penn. Suddenly Penn, so masterful against so many others, became a slave to Edgar's rhythm, hand-speed and exceptional footwork. Unable to to mount anything resembling a meaningful attack, Penn succumbed to Edgar's tactics and lost a decision over five competitive rounds of action in April.
Four months later and the inevitable rematch was even less competitive, as Edgar extracted confidence from his night in Yas Island and built on his breakout success. He increased his game to the next level and left Penn in his rear-view mirror, again over five rounds, to retain his belt for the first time.
Penn, once so dominant and unbreakable, had now twice been thwarted in matches with Edgar and, through the course of 50 minutes, appeared unable to do anything about the predicament. Moreover, the lopsided nature of the rematch hinted that should Edgar and Penn meet 100 times in the next decade, the New Jersey grafter would win at least 99 of the bouts. He simply had the style to counteract the guile. Penn was title-less and, for as long as Edgar remained king, without viable inroads back to the top.
Last Saturday, Penn took matters into his own hands and made the jump back to welterweight, a division he'd formerly cameoed in with success. He defeated former champion Matt Hughes in merely 21 seconds and looked as explosive and determined as he'd appeared for a long while. Next year Penn will resume his stay at 170-pounds by taking on everybody's favorite "grinder," Jon Fitch at UFC 127 in Australia.
Meanwhile, Edgar (13-1) meets top contender Gray Maynard on January 1 at UFC 125. A Penn-dominated year behind him, Edgar will look to commence 2011 with victory over a man who already defeated him in 2008. Two-and-a-half years ago, Maynard won a unanimous decision over Edgar on a UFC Fight Night show and the Arizona wrestler has since strung together five victories, all achieved via decision.
Nobody would ever mistake Maynard (10-0) for Penn in the excitement stakes, but "The Bully" is certainly dominant in the way BJ once was. Solid in the stand-up and a beast on the ground, Maynard specialises in control and work-rate. Recent decision wins over Kenny Florian and Nate Diaz have hardly seen Maynard sparkle, but they have seen him claim key scalps and rise to the top of the division. Still undefeated and incredibly hard to rattle, Maynard enters his January rematch with Edgar as an even-money bet to steal the title. Having already once bettered Edgar in a three-round bout, Gray carries every chance of doing the same over five.
When 2011 finally swings around, the lightweight division will be governed by either Edgar or Maynard, two high-calibre wrestlers with strong top games and unbreakable wills. Similar fighters in many ways, Edgar and Maynard are hard-nosed, blue-collar types who lead by example and leave nothing to chance. With only one defeat between them, they also have a clear knack of winning. If past history is anything to go by, these two could be residing at the top for the long haul.
Top two wrestlers aside, who else is there looking to invigorate a now Penn-less lightweight division? Well, for starters, division veterans Sean Sherk (36-4-1) and Kenny Florian (14-5) should never truly be written out of any shuffle, simply on the basis of experience and star power. They remain two of the biggest names in the division and Sherk, in particular, is fresh off a somewhat surprising decision win over hotshot Evan Dunham. With the win, 'The Muscle Shark' sneaks back into contention, both eyes set on perhaps a rematch with Edgar, the last man to beat him.
Safer bets for the future of the division are the aforementioned Dunham and Australian George Sotiropoulos. Southpaw Dunham (11-1) suffered the sole defeat of his career to Sherk last time out, but was competitive throughout and, in the eyes of many, did enough over three rounds to deserve victory. Before that, the Portland-based jiu-jitsu black belt had impressed immensely with wins over Tyson Griffin, Efrain Escudero, Marcus Aurelio and Per Eklund.
Sotiropoulos (14-2), on the other hand, stands as possibly the most in-form lightweight in the world right now, having chalked up a six-bout UFC win streak. Not only has the Geelong-native strung together victories, he's also been grabbing them from elite-level opposition. Recent wins over Joe Stevenson and Kurt Pellegrino were bettered, at least performance-wise, last Saturday, when he submitted Joe Lauzon in the second round with a kimura. Possessing some of the best jiu-jitsu - top and bottom game - in the entire division, Sotiropoulos is never in a dull fight and always appears willing to close the show. He next fights Dennis Siver at UFC in Australia, and must be due a title shot not long after. The 33-year-old is clearly the best of the rest right now.
Beating Sotiropoulos to a shot at the title will be the winner of the upcoming lightweight battle between WEC champion Ben Henderson and Anthony Pettis, two WEC lightweights who will soon find themselves among the sharks of the UFC. Henderson and Pettis will meet at WEC 53 on December 16, before being thrown into the title UFC shake-up come the New Year. It has already been confirmed that the winner will challenge for the UFC title in the first portion of 2011.
Colorado scrapper Henderson (12-1) is a relentlessly exciting fighter and has played his part in some of the most high-octane mixed martial arts battles in recent years. Although Pettis (11-1) will present a stern test of his credentials, most expect Henderson to snatch victory and instantly earmark himself as one of the post-Penn UFC lightweight division's new breed.
Looking further afield, perhaps Brazil will be the country to produce the next dominant UFC lightweight champion. Last Saturday night saw the arrival of Edson Barboza as an interesting candidate in the 155-pound shake-up, while countryman Charles Oliveira continues to dazzle whenever he steps foot inside the Octagon. Unbeaten Muay-Thai destroyer Barboza (7-0) excelled in his UFC debut at the weekend, as he stopped grappler Mike Lullo with a punishing dose of spiteful leg-kicks in the third round.
Fellow unbeaten Oliveira (14-0), meanwhile, has emerged as one of the hottest newcomers in all of mixed martial arts with wins over Efrain Escudero and Darren Elkins. Expect both to make significant waves in 2011.
The lightweight division figures to be a far quieter and less colorful place post-Penn, but don't count on it being that way for long. When one dominant force is stripped down and discarded, it opens up the entire division to stake their claim not only for the title but to also pitch the kind of legacy Penn created. Watch this space. 2011 could be the year of the lightweight.