Heading into his UFC 119 bout with Sean Sherk, Evan Dunham was considered one of the best lightweight prospects the UFC had to offer. Guys like B.J. Penn, Kenny Florian and Sherk had dominated the lightweight division since UFC President Dana White decided to bring it back into the fold in 2006, but Dunham was part of a crop of young 155-pound fighters looking to make the jump into title contention. The seeds of change had already been planted when Frankie Edgar and Gray Maynard had taken out Penn and Florian respectively at UFC 118 a month earlier, and Dunham had a chance to solidify the changing of the guard with a win over Sherk.

Prior to his fight with Sherk, Dunham was riding an impressive four-fight winning streak and his momentum was at an all-time high. A dominant knockout victory over Per Eklund at UFC 95 got the ball rolling for Dunham, and after passing the first test of his young career against Marcus Aurelio, the Oregon-based fighter was ready to battle some big names inside the Octagon.

Dunham’s first big fight inside the Octagon came against undefeated TUF 8 winner Efrain Escudero in the co-main event of UFC Fight Night 20 in early 2010. Although most of the attention was placed on fellow lightweight contenders Nate Diaz and Gray Maynard, who headlined the card over Dunham and Escudero, the stage had never been bigger for Dunham and a win would likely earn him a top-level opponent.

After a shaky first round that saw Dunham bested by Escudero, Dunham came back strong to finish the bout, winning the majority of the final two rounds before locking in a fight ending armbar. The comeback and stoppage earned the Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu black belt “Submission of the Night” honors for the first time in his career, but more importantly, they earned him a shot at a top contender for the belt in Tyson Griffin.

Griffin was one of the most established fighters in the lightweight division at the time of his UFC 115 fight against Dunham, and after wrecking Hermes Franca at UFC 103, Griffin was looking to get back into the UFC title picture with another win. With the only losses on his UFC resume coming at the hands of Frankie Edgar and Sean Sherk, Griffin didn’t need much more than another win in order to get back into the mix at 155, and beating Dunham seemed like a mere formality to many fight fans.

Instead, Dunham proved that the potential people had noticed in his previous fights had started to reveal itself. Dunham controlled his former Xtreme Couture teammate for much of the bout, locking onto Griffin’s back on numerous occasions and forcing his opponent to constantly defend submissions. Griffin was able to stay out of trouble by constantly walking towards his corner to secure advice, but Dunham’s control was just too much for the former contender to handle. A dominant performance for Dunham weirdly ended in a split decision victory, but Dunham had passed his first major test as a title contender and was soon scheduled to fight former champion Sherk.

The fight between Dunham and Sherk was an exciting and bloody affair. Sherk opened a cut on Dunham’s forehead early in the bout, but Dunham suffered through the pain and massive blood loss to rebound and out-strike Sherk for the remainder of the bout. Even when Sherk was able to get the fight to the floor, it was Dunham with the advantage, locking in several chokes that would have put most fighters to sleep. However, Sherk isn’t most fighters, and his submission defense was enough to get the fight to the scorecards, where Dunham suffered the first loss of his career.

The decision was highly controversial and the majority of fans believed Dunham had done enough to score the upset. Dana White expressed his displeasure after the bout as well, and it appeared that despite suffering the loss on his record, Dunham’s place near the top of the lightweight division wasn’t in jeopardy.

As it turns out, the loss to Sherk started a string of events that effectively ended Dunham’s time as a contender to the lightweight title.

Following the loss, Dunham was booked to fight former title contender and consensus top-five lightweight Kenny Florian in his next bout. Florian was another big-time opponent for Dunham, and a win over “Ken-Flo” would throw him right back into the mix for the belt. Sadly, it just wasn’t meant to be for Dunham. Florian suffered an injury that forced him out of the bout, leaving Dunham to fight Melvin Guillard on short notice. Guillard had neither the resume nor the fanfare of Florian, but he had power in his strikes that Florian could only dream about, giving Dunham a completely different riddle to solve heading into the fight. Dunham wasn’t able to adjust properly and Guillard put him away with strikes in the first round of their bout, giving Dunham his second straight loss and sending him to the back of the line at 155.

Since that loss, Dunham just hasn’t quite been able to break back into the upper echelon of the division. His 3-1 record since his losing streak is decent enough, but an influx of talent from Strikeforce and the WEC has left the lightweight division full of contenders and Dunham has been left on the outside looking in.

Heading into his bout with Rafael dos Anjos this weekend, Dunham is still one of the most overlooked fighters at 155 pounds. His only loss since his two-fight losing streak came to top contender T.J. Grant in a “Fight of the Night”-winning bout, and he’s beaten some quality opponents in Gleison Tibau and Nik Lentz. However, he still hasn’t been given a shot at a top contender in the lightweight division, and even if he beats dos Anjos, he isn’t guaranteed a top-level opponent.

Dunham may never get back to the top of the lightweight division, but at the very least he’s made his mark in the weight class. At one point, Dunham was considered one of the brightest young stars in the UFC, but a few losses have made him an afterthought in the lightweight division. His exciting fighting style and tendency to win fight night bonuses will likely keep him on the roster, but barring a massive winning streak, Dunham will never reach the potential fight fans saw early in his career.

Photo: Evan Dunham (Jeff Sherwood/Sherdog)

About The Author

Vince Carey
Staff Writer

Vince Carey has been writing about the sport of mixed martial arts since 2010. Although he is just 21 years old, the Omaha-based writer is looking to provide readers with interesting content on all things related to MMA.