Barring any injury or unforeseen development, Ben Henderson will next defend the UFC lightweight championship against Nate Diaz, possibly even before the end of 2012. When he steps into the cage, he still has much to prove. While Henderson has an impressive record of 17-2 and back-to-back victories over Frankie Edgar, neither of them proved quite definitive.
The first had scores that painted him as the legitimate champion, yet there was still an outcry that Edgar had won. Among those who echoed the sentiment was UFC president Dana White. The second fight was even closer, going his way by split-decision. And again, there was controversy.
None of this means that Henderson is unworthy of the belt around his waist. B.J. Penn fought Edgar twice and got routed the second time. Gray Maynard fought him in back-to-back fights and was ultimately knocked out. At the end of 10 rounds with Edgar, Henderson was still standing and smiling, and that's more than most can claim. But the fight with Diaz will answer some new questions about him. In that one, there will be no safe harbor. Diaz attacks everywhere, from his unrelenting striking to his chain submissions. He's also the far bigger man. He's three inches taller, has a six-inch reach advantage, and has experience fighting the monsters at welterweight, so if Henderson can beat him, well, the questions will finally begin to be silenced.
On to the matchups…
Will he or won't he? The possibility of moving to 145 has been the black cloud over Edgar's head for a couple of years now, even as he repeatedly proved he could not be run over at 155. If he's ever going to make the move, it's now. After fighting Henderson twice, he won't be given a third match anytime soon. Ultimately, the opportunities are going to be more plentiful at lightweight, and the lure of possibly becoming a two-division champion might be too strong for him.
Prediction: Edgar drops to featherweight and fights Chad Mendes
Given his willingness to fight frequently (he fought five times in 2011), Cerrone seems a likely candidate to compete one more time in 2012. Having won six of his seven UFC fights thus far, Cerrone isn't realistically that far out of contention. It might hurt his candidacy for a No. 1 contender spot if Nate Diaz beats Henderson since he lost to Diaz so recently, but Cerrone is definitely "in the mix."
Prediction: Cerrone vs. Anthony Pettis finally happens
The early seconds of the fight went so well for Guillard, but it all changed when Cerrone landed a head kick that led to the end. To be fair, nearly anyone would have been knocked silly by that strike, but the fact remains that Guillard has struggled in the big fights. From his submission loss to Joe Stevenson so many years ago to his chokeout at the hands of Nate Diaz to his recent stretch, he hasn't been able to get over the hump and take a place among the division's elite talents. So it's back to the drawing board for one of the UFC's most enigmatic lightweights.
Prediction: He takes a step back and faces Tony Ferguson
Shields has never cared about winning on style points, and except for the fact that it usually costs fans money to watch him, there's something respectable about that approach. Shields doesn't hide what he is. He wants to grind you out, put you on the ground and look to submit you. He couldn't completely employ his plan against Ed Herman, but Herman ultimately chose to play his game and drowned in quicksand as a result.
Prediction: He faces fellow submission grappler Rousimar Palhares
Herman may feel like he robbed himself of a great opportunity after initiating most of the clinchwork against Shields. The strategy was understandable in the first round after Shields had publicly admitted he had not properly adapted himself to fighting at elevation, but Herman stayed with it too long and paid the price.
Prediction: He faces Riki Fukuda
On the heels of back-to-back losses, including a stunning third-round knockout at the hands of Tim Boetsch after winning the first two rounds, Okami had to be relieved to get back into the win column, even if it came on short notice against an opponent who had never fought someone of his caliber. Sometimes, a win is a win, and you move on from there.
Prediction: It's back to the deep end for Okami, who draws Hector Lombard next
The youngest man in the UFC came across like a star, with vastly improved wrestling to complement his mature striking game. Of course, it's quite a leap from facing the young Justin Lawrence to some of the division's best, so Holloway should be allowed to progress at a fair pace.
Prediction: He faces Nam Phan