The merger of the two biggest MMA promotions, UFC and Strikeforce, brings a lingering subject screaming forward: Does Strikeforce lightweight champion Gilbert Melendez really belong as the No. 1 contender to the UFC lightweight title? Based on records alone, the answer would be a resounding “yes.” Looking at the opposition faced by current champion Benson Henderson and the other top contenders creates a fairly questionable situation for Melendez, however.

To be fair, there is no question that Melendez deserves to be in the lightweight title conversation. The lightweight division on a global scale, not just in Zuffa promotions, is stacked with a ton of world-class fighters. The major issue arises in the fact that none of the top contenders carry a long-standing record of rolling through every fighter they have faced in the last few years except Melendez. When looking at the competition they’ve faced, however, the top contenders are still UFC guys like Jim Miller, Joe Lauzon, Gray Maynard, Donald Cerrone and Anthony Pettis, and for good reason.

While Melendez was knocking off really good fighters like Josh Thomson, Jorge Masvidal and Shinya Aoki, the UFC guys were all facing the best of the best in a web of upsets and defeats for several years. To make matters worse, the division’s inter-connectivity will make a level head spin. Edgar beat Maynard, who beat Guida, who beat Pettis, who beat Lauzon, who beat Varner, who beat Cerrone, and so on.  Within this abbreviated fight lineage, there are wins that avenge the losses, and one can’t help but recognize that the UFC’s lightweight division truly contains the best fighters in the weight class. At UFC 155 next Saturday, Lauzon will be facing off against Miller for what many believe should determine the next person to face Henderson—but it is very possible the winner will have to follow Melendez to a title shot.

The merger between the UFC and Strikeforce was necessary, but the level of competition Melendez has faced should not get him a free pass to the front of the line. Donald Cerrone, in five years of combined WEC and UFC action, has beaten Rob McCullough, Jamie Varner, Dennis Siver and Melvin Guillard. His only losses have been to Varner, Henderson and Nate Diaz, all champs or title contenders. Anthony Pettis, in three-and-a-half years of combined UFC and WEC action, has beaten Lauzon, Jeremy Stephens and current champ Henderson, and has only lost to Guida and Bart Palaszewski.

Both Cerrone and Pettis are on two-fight winning streaks in the UFC, and have made huge impacts in the organization that earned them shots now. Miller and Lauzon also deserve shots immediately, but after next weekend that will change, as one will move into title contention while the other drops to the back of the pack.

Melendez is a top-10 lightweight in the UFC, but he should really have to earn at least one UFC win to get a title shot, much like Pettis chose to do after the UFC/WEC merger left him belt-less. (He took out Henderson in the WEC’s last fight to earn that strap.) Unfortunately for Pettis, he lost his play-in fight against Guida, which set him back. The same should be required of Melendez. As has become apparent lately, however, there’s nothing fair about the current state of the UFC.

With the recent crowning of Ronda Rousey as UFC women’s bantamweight champion despite having no UFC fights, these sort of popularity contests have become commonplace in the organization. Rousey has been repeatedly ducking challenges from Cristiane “Cyborg” Santos and has top contenders waiting in Sara McMann and Miesha Tate, but gets Liz Carmouche as her debut fight. In Melendez’s case, he gets to just fight for the title after these other guys have been working for years to earn their shots.

To make matters worse, the UFC lightweight division has been in a complete holding pattern with the repeated championship rematches between Edgar and both Henderson and Maynard. If it weren’t for the fact that all of the contenders were still relatively young, many of them could get too old to fight before they could even get their shot.

This brings up another problem. On a global scale, arguably the biggest weight class in the world by sheer volume is the lightweight division. There are so many fighters, not just in the United States but all over the world, licking their chops at a chance to fight on the big stage, and all of this divisional regurgitation is creating a situation where the organization doesn’t have the time or room to really see what they might be missing.

At the end of the day, the Melendez-Henderson fight is going to happen in 2013, and, hopefully, the injury bug won’t bite and the winner can quickly face the winner of the Lauzon-Miller fight. After that, it’s time for Zuffa to get it together and keep the conveyor belt moving so the veterans that deserve their shots get them before it’s too late.

As with any quickly evolving sport/organization, there will always be growing pains, but after two decades some of these issues should have been anticipated and planned for accordingly.

Photo: Gilbert Melendez (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

  • unbeknownst

    I don’t know why you’re hung up on the Lauzon-Miller fight. Yeah, it’s a co-main event, but on a very main event heavy card. Miller is coming off a loss (in very convincing fashion) and is a replacement fighter. Meaning this is not a natural #1 contender fight. I think you have a very sort term memory too about Lauzon too. Just because of his one amazing fight with Varner doesn’t erase resent history. If you recall it was just earlier this year that Lauzon was KO’d by Pettis. I doubt either of these fighters are as close to fighting for belt as you seem to think.

    If Pettis wins in January, on the other hand, that’s going to be the next 155 challenger. Imagine how easy it’ll be to market and promote Henderson seeking revenge against the last guy who beat him. I’m sure he UFC already has that promo trailer already cut, using that “Showtime Kick” a million times in it. However if Cerrone wins, well, he’s lost already to Henderson twice and his last loss was a very beating by the guy who just fought for the belt, and lost.

    Melendez will probably have a play-in fight perhaps against the Lauzon-Miller winner or Varner-Guillard winner.

    Don’t forget about Eddie Alvarez who will also have a play-in fight as well against a top ten UFC guy.

    Then there’s always perennial #2 guy Maynard. The return of Diego Sanchez, who’s only loss at Lw is against Penn. Plus both Rafael dos Anjos and Khabib Nurmagomedov who have looked great of late. Hopefully they don’t get Edson Barboza’d along the way.