On April 7, Tony Ferguson and Khabib Nurmagomedov will be in Brooklyn’s Barclays Center in a fight for the 155-pound championship that has had quite a history in the UFC over the years.
Pulver. Sherk. Penn. Edgar. Henderson. Pettis. Dos Anjos. Alvarez. McGregor. All have etched their names in the annals of UFC history for their reigns over what many believe is the toughest division in the sport.
And though all-time great lists like this are always subjective and are meant to spark debate and discussion (and no, Conor McGregor is not included here, as he has only fought once in the UFC at 155 pounds), there is no question that each of the fighters listed below are among the best to ever step into the Octagon as a UFC lightweight.
This is The 10: Best Lightweights in UFC History.
The first lightweight champion in UFC history, Pulver was also one of the first guys to turn his wrestling pedigree into a defensive tactic, using his ability to stuff takedown attempts to keep fights standing. He made “sprawl and brawl” a style and it’s too bad no one came up for a cool nickname for his innovation comparable to how everyone calls Mark Coleman “The Godfather of Ground & Pound.”
Pulver had fast hands and tons of heart and, at one point, he earned consecutive victories over John Lewis, Caol Uno, Dennis Hallman and BJ Penn, with his win over Uno earning him championship gold and his triumphs over Hallman and Penn coming in title defenses.
That first fight with Penn might be the best lightweight fight in UFC history too.
Bottom line: Pulver was a pioneering force in the lightweight division and this list wouldn’t feel complete without his inclusion.
Yes, Alvarez has only made seven appearances in the Octagon, but have you checked out who he’s faced?
In order, “The Underground King” has fought Donald Cerrone, Gilbert Melendez, Anthony Pettis, Rafael Dos Anjos, Conor McGregor, Dustin Poirier and Justin Gaethje.
That’s three UFC champions, a Strikeforce titleholder, the one and only lightweight champ in WSOF history and two perennial contenders. He went 4-2 with one no contest against that crew and won the lightweight title himself.
Wins and losses are always important, but sometimes, you have to look beyond the results and focus on the quality of competition and there are few fighters in UFC history who have faced the Murderer’s Row Alvarez has battled over his first seven trips into the Octagon.
Diaz actually feels like the ultimate “it’s about more than wins and losses” guy on this list because while he’s never won UFC gold and six of his 11 career setbacks have occurred in the lightweight division. But I would bet that if you asked most people to compile a list like this, most would include the pride of Stockton, California.
His standing as a cult hero and two-fight series with Conor McGregor certainly influence that, but Diaz has also enjoyed a great deal of success in the 155-pound ranks and is responsible for a couple iconic moments – the “double bird and flex” celebration as he locked up a triangle choke on Kurt Pellegrino and his post-fight speech after beating Michael Johnson on FOX are both indelible memories for any longtime fight fan.
Rafael Dos Anjos
Dos Anjos’ time in the lightweight division was bookended by consecutive losses – he started by dropping back-to-back outings to Jeremy Stephens and Tyson Griffin and exited after falling to Alvarez and Tony Ferguson. In between, he went 14-3, claimed the lightweight title in dominant fashion and added victories over Diaz, Evan Dunham and Donald Cerrone amongst others.
The Brazilian standout remains a shining example of growth and development over an extended period of time, and since taking his talents to the welterweight ranks, he’s posted three straight wins to move into title contention there.
“Smooth” rattled off seven straight wins upon arriving in the UFC that included dominant victories over Jim Miller and Clay Guida, a pair of close championship triumphs over Frankie Edgar and successful title defenses against Diaz and Gilbert Melendez.
Even though that stretch is flecked with close decisions, it still represents one of the best individual runs anyone has ever put together in the lightweight division. All told, Henderson went 9-3 competing in the 155-pound ranks and spent his entire run as a Top 5 talent in the most talent-rich division in the sport.
When you can go 9-0 in the UFC lightweight division, I’m including you on this list.
I know I said wins and losses aren’t the be-all and end-all to determining inclusion, but not only has Nurmagomedov been perfect inside the Octagon in terms of results, but he’s been near-perfect in terms of his execution as well.
Who else has paused mid-fight to tell an opponent he’s manhandling that he should just give up? Who else can slingshot another grown man around the cage 21 times to get the record for most successful takedowns in UFC history? Who else can dominate former champ Rafael Dos Anjos and perennial contender Edson Barboza, even though they’re elite competitors?
“The Eagle” is already one of the best lightweights in UFC history and he still has plenty of time to add to his legacy, starting at UFC 223.
If I’m going to include Nurmagomedov, I’ve got to include the man he’ll face in the UFC 223 main event next month in Brooklyn.
The current interim champion has collected 10 consecutive victories, becoming just the seventh man in UFC history to reach double digits and the first lightweight to accomplish the feat. During that stretch, Ferguson has beaten prospects and veterans, former champions and future contenders and he’s done it all with panache.
He has the chance to hand Nurmagomedov the first loss of his career in a couple weeks and if he does so, it will only further cement his standing as one of the greatest lightweights in UFC history.
I look at “Cowboy” as the Jim Kelly of the UFC lightweight division – a superb talent who accomplished a great deal without winning the big one.
People want to knock Kelly and the Buffalo Bills for losing four straight Super Bowls (sorry Bills fans), but never truly seem to appreciate how difficult it is to reach four straight Super Bowls. That’s how I feel about Cerrone as well. As much as it’s easy to say, “Well, he always came up short when the chips were down,” few people recognize how damn hard it is to remain a perennial contender in the deepest division in the sport for five years.
Besides, Cerrone won 15 lightweight fights during that time, including victories over two former champions in Alvarez and Henderson. His eight-fight run of success that came between his twin losses to Dos Anjos was outstanding and the ornery New Mexico resident deserves more praise for what he has accomplished inside the UFC cage.
Half of Edgar’s lightweight appearances in the UFC were championship fights. Two of them were instant classics, three were nail-biters that could be argued either way and one was a dominant showing against arguably the best lightweight ever.
So yeah, it’s pretty safe to say “The Answer” deserves a place on this list.
What makes Edgar’s success in the 155-pound ranks even more impressive (at least to me) is that he was always undersized, but never outgunned. He mixed things up well, used great footwork and speed and fought with the unmatched amounts of toughness, heart and tenacity, earning himself a place in the pantheon of all-time greats, both in the division and in UFC history as a whole.
For my money, if you’re looking to see the greatest run of dominance in the history of the UFC lightweight division, start with Penn’s victory over Pulver at the TUF 5 Finale and watch his next four fights within the division. There has never been a greater string of performances in the 155-pound weight class in my opinion.
Here’s the thing: not only did he defeat Joe Stevenson, Sean Sherk, Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, but he beat them so handily, so decisively that none of them were ever quite the same after sharing time in the cage with “The Prodigy.”
It’s hard to reconcile where Penn fits amongst the best fighters of all-time these days because he’s struggled so much in recent years, but coming out of that fight with Sanchez, if you told me you thought BJ was the best fighter in MMA history, I wouldn’t have argued.
Do yourself a favor: go watch those five fights; Penn was amazing.