UFC championship fights just aren’t what they used to be.

In recent years, the emergence of dominant champions combined with the lack of new contenders in most of the promotion’s divisions have removed much of the mystery from its title bouts. Where once it might have been difficult to predict the outcomes of the UFC’s ostensibly most important fights, today it’s all but certain that the champions will retain their titles. This isn’t necessarily a bad thing—after all, seeing an incredible champion defend his title time and time again carries with it a certain amount of intrigue—but the presumption that most of the UFC’s champions will simply dispatch of their challengers probably makes it a little tougher to properly hype an event.

Anderson Silva is certainly the most prominent example of this phenomenon. Silva has held the UFC middleweight title for six-plus years and, with the exception of Chael Sonnen holding him down for four-and-a-half rounds, hasn’t shown any weaknesses. He’s even jumped up to 205, just for kicks, and easily dispatched his opponents there as well. Such has been Silva’s dominance in his own division that he has literally left it bereft of a consensus No. 1 contender.

Welterweight champion Georges St-Pierre has successfully defended his title seven times since winning it in 2008. He made the smothering wrestling of Jon Fitch look amateurish, he overwhelmed then-lightweight champion B.J. Penn to the point where Penn’s corner stopped the fight, and he’s made the five other challengers since look like they didn’t even belong in the cage with him. Unlike Silva, however, GSP has waiting for him former Strikeforce welterweight champion Nick Diaz and another legitimate title contender in Johny Hendricks. Hendricks’ world-class wrestling and incredible knockout power will both be dangerous for the champion, and Diaz’s well-rounded and somewhat unorthodox game and unlimited endurance could prove troublesome, but how many people really doubt that GSP would walk out of either of those fights still holding his belt?

There is a similar issue in many of the UFC’s other divisions. Jose Aldo (featherweight) and Jon Jones (light heavyweight) have been so successful against fighters in their own weight classes that the UFC has recently begun bringing in ones from other divisions to challenge for their titles. Aldo will next face Frankie Edgar, late of the lightweight division, at UFC 156 and Jones is in between a doubleheader of title defenses against fighters who naturally fall outside of his weight class (first Vitor Belfort and, in April 2013, a fight against Sonnen, both of whom have more recently plied their trade in the UFC as middleweights).

Dominick Cruz has technically been the world’s best bantamweight fighter since 2010 when he won the WEC’s 135-pound belt, and he hasn’t lost a fight since being brought to the UFC. His problem of late is that he can’t seem to stay healthy. Cruz’s last title defense was in Oct. 2011 and he’ll reportedly be on the shelf for several more months. Meanwhile, at heavyweight, Junior dos Santos is a relatively new champion, but his next opponent will be Cain Velasquez, who he positively wrecked to win the title in the first place. That rematch was mostly the result of a lack of other adequate contenders and, while potentially explosive, dos Santos should be looked at as the significant favorite.

The flyweight division could actually prove to be pretty competitive, but it’s too early to say since the UFC flyweight title was just established in September.

Which leaves the lightweight division as the lone weight class containing much mystery atop its ranks. After Frankie Edgar defeated B.J. Penn for his title at UFC 112, none of the division’s title contests have been easy to predict. First, Edgar faced Penn in a title rematch. Given Penn’s previous reign over the division, many expected “The Prodigy” to successfully avenge his first decision loss to “The Answer.” That did not, however, prove to be the case, as Edgar notched an even clearer decision victory to retain the belt.

Following that fight, Edgar had a pair with Gray Maynard—the first of which was a fantastic back-and-forth affair that ended in a draw—before losing his title, and the subsequent rematch, to current 155-pound champion Benson Henderson. Henderson will now face Nate Diaz on Saturday in the first lightweight title fight since April 2010 to not involve Edgar, and the best part about the fight is that no one is really sure how it’s going to turn out.

First, let’s look at it from the most quantitative standpoint in fight sports: the betting lines. In recent months, fans have seen some pretty ridiculous odds (to go with some equally ridiculous matchmaking) in a handful of main event fights. For Henderson/Diaz, Bovada currently has Henderson as the favorite, but only at a modest -165 (meaning that if a person bet $165 on Henderson, he would win $100 if Henderson is victorious) while Diaz is a slight underdog at +135 (a $100 bet would win $135). Certainly very close, especially compared to the sort of odds some title match-ups have recently yielded.

Then, look at the qualitative aspects of Henderson/Diaz. Henderson is primarily known for his wrestling, which he has used with extreme effectiveness during his current five-fight UFC winning streak, so he might not have much difficulty putting Diaz on his back. Unlike many of Henderson’s former opponents, however, Diaz is just as dangerous on his back as he is anywhere else. Diaz is clearly the superior submission artist and has a number of victories by guillotine or triangle choke (both of which are typically executed on one’s back). Henderson will not simply be able to rely on his wrestling this time around, making the outcome difficult to predict.

It doesn’t get much clearer if the fighters remain standing. Henderson, a former NAIA All-American wrestler with thighs that look like tree trunks, is probably the better pure athlete. His best bet will be to try to trap Diaz against the cage to stymie any striking attempts and set up a takedown. Time and time again, however, fans have seen how the Diaz Brother recipe of high-volume striking combined with limitless cardio has negated the perceived athletic advantages of their opponents. In addition, Diaz will have a height and reach advantage of three and six inches, respectively, which should amplify his ability to keep Henderson at a distance.

When was the last time a title fight outside of the UFC’s lightweight division had a potential outcome that was this much in doubt? Cruz/Faber? JDS/Velasquez 1? Machida/Rua 2? It’s been a little while, regardless of which fight you choose.

The mystery leading up to the lightweight title fight is a perfect reason for it to be showcased at the end of what looks to be a pretty entertaining UFC on Fox 5 main card. The entire event, and particularly the Henderson/Diaz title fight, is catered perfectly to appeal to MMA fans both new and seasoned. Mike Swick versus Matt Brown could be a barn-burner, there’s a light heavyweight title eliminator between former champion Shogun Rua and up-and-coming challenger Alexander Gustafsson, and the return of former two-division champion B.J. Penn, who himself fights a dangerous fellow contender in Rory MacDonald. At the end of it all will be a title fight.

The very presence of a title fight should automatically increase the perceived importance of the card, particularly among the uninitiated, and that should draw more potential viewers in just because, hey, it’s a title fight. The particulars beyond that aren’t that important to newer fans, as long as the fight is as competitive as it has the potential to be.

For viewers already familiar with the UFC, the fact that the lightweight division is the only one without a dominant champion at the moment, and thus the only one with some mystery surrounding its title fights, just makes the event that much more appealing. Henderson and Diaz have nine “Fight of the Night” awards between them (and Henderson actually owns two “Fight of the Year” awards as well). In short, there is literally no reason that this fight should not be headlining a UFC card on network television.

One day, either because of retirement, injuries or just plain old age, the dominant champions we currently see in most of the UFC’s divisions will be deposed, replaced by some younger, better fighter. Admittedly, there is a certain amount of mystery already surrounding GSP’s next fight, just because of Diaz and Hendricks’ previously demonstrated dominance both standing and on the ground. But those fights haven’t been booked yet.

Until they are, or until the dominant champions in the UFC lose a step or two, fans should relish the competitive lightweight title fights that are sure to take place in the meantime, especially if they’re on Fox.

Photo: Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson (top) delivers an elbow (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.