The UFC’s lightweight division has rarely been what you’d consider "tidy"; in fact, it’s usually a mess at the top. First it was Frankie Edgar and his series of rematches that hijacked the rest of the division for what seemed like years. Now it’s Anthony Pettis, who lives in a state of convalescence. He "might" come back in July from his knee injury to defend his belt. He might not.
Eh, it just sort of depends.
It gets more complicated that TJ Grant, the division’s true No. 1 contender, is out indefinitely with lingering symptoms from a concussion, and Gilbert Melendez won’t fight Nate Diaz, both top fivers, because they are Cesar Gracie guys with a solemn oath not to engage in the laying on of hands against one another. And Josh Thomson, the heir apparent to Grant, lost his footing against Benson Henderson on Saturday night in Chicago. Now he’s thinking about walking away from the game altogether.
And speaking of Benson Henderson, possibly the greatest pound-for-pound Split Decision Champion that ever was, that’s where this drifting lightweight vessel loses its signal altogether. Henderson won again a fight that he lost at UFC on FOX 10. Or, he won a fight that plenty of people thought he lost, which feels about like the same thing, especially since this is a recurring theme. He got his arm raised in losses to Gilbert Melendez and Edgar too, the second time anyway, and possibly the first.
The law of averages says he should have actually lost -- rather than theoretically lost -- at least one of those. But he didn’t. The official record ignores all the foreheads being smacked in unison.
Somehow Henderson always manages to get the skew. At this point it’s not so much controversial as it is enchanting; Henderson makes everyone introspective about the mysterious workings of celestial beings playing over the fight game. He keeps calling heads and the coin keeps coming up heads. How does he do it? The judges have the final say, but what Higher Agent is governing these judges and their perceptions? Who can we lodge complaints with above the these judges, who’ve sat scored his fights in Colorado, in Japan, in California and in Illinois, all of them bewitched by thigh punches, axe kicks and the hair?
It’s difficult to tell the judge’s scorecards from Tarot cards whenever Benson Henderson competes.
But right now the problem isn’t (just) that he wins close fights. The bigger problem with Henderson is he’s 0-2 against Pettis -- the guy holding what he wants -- but 20-1 against everybody else. He may be the luckiest man competing in MMA right now, but he’s not all that lucky in the grand scheme of things. Until somebody knocks Pettis off his perch, Henderson will become a titan-sized gatekeeper, one that will either win emphatically, or win somewhat more…esoterically. Narrow wins with public-drawn asterisks.
Either way, that’s at least a small conundrum for matchmakers.
Now, because there are more elite-looking 155ers than the UFC knows what to do with, the short-term solutions are there. While Pettis heals, give Khabib Nurmagomedov (the man who nobody wants to fight) to Henderson, give Melendez to Rafael dos Anjos (if he beats Rustam Khabilov at UFC 170) or TJ Grant (when he’s ready), and let Donald Cerrone fight Nate Diaz again because, dude, why not? If anybody acts up, dial Edson Barboza. Or Josh Thomson, whose foot -- while only half out -- could probably be persuaded back inside the door.
Mix and match. There are lots of possibilities. There are plenty of probabilities, too.
Until you get to Henderson, where improbability has become the norm. Nobody likes the sound of the gavels quite like Henderson does. And if you’re a lightweight contender, and you draw the ex-champion as a means of getting to Pettis, you might consider what it is you’re getting into.
You can’t just beat Henderson; you’ve got to beat him. Otherwise you might end up losing a fight that you won in popular opinion, but not in the Wikipedia sense. You end up like Melendez, who hovers as a contender because it’s easy to add quotes around his "loss" to Henderson. Or Thomson, the latest to "lose."
In other words, to fight Henderson means you might end up as a shareholder in his purgatory. And that holding station of in-betweens is exactly what the lightweight division has been trying to get away from for the last five years.