Top fighter at 155 still too close to call

April, 22, 2013
4/22/13
12:15
PM ET
Dundas By Chad Dundas
ESPN.com
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For what it’s worth, my personal scorecard now has Benson Henderson 1-3 in UFC title fights.

And what it’s worth, of course, is a hill of beans. In the real world, Henderson on Saturday moved to 4-0 in UFC championship bouts, tying BJ Penn’s record of three consecutive lightweight title defenses as he edged Gilbert Melendez via split decision in the main event of UFC on Fox 7.

Like a lot of people, I had Melendez taking it 48-47, thinking he stormed out to an early lead in the first two rounds, lost his momentum in the third and fourth and then rebounded to craft an ever-so-slight advantage in the final stanza. It turned out we were wrong, and the judges allowed Henderson to retain his belt on a wildly eclectic assortment of scorecards.

The crowd booed. Henderson asked his girlfriend to marry him. She said yes. They booed some more, and somewhere in there another fight between the two best lightweights in the world failed to produce a decisive victor.

The decision was not an outrage. The action here was too good and too competitive for anyone besides Melendez to be heartbroken about the outcome. The UFC’s official statistics backed up Henderson’s win and rather than continuing to doom the lightweight title to a series of equally impenetrable rematches, company brass moved quickly to say the champ’s next fight will be against the winner of the Gray Maynard-TJ Grant bout at UFC 160.

That’s fine. No argument. It may not be fair to Melendez, but after years and years of questionable decisions in MMA, we’ve been conditioned to let the close ones go. Really, we have no choice, because the alternative would do nothing but keep us up at night.

Make no mistake, however -- there is a disquieting trend developing in the UFC lightweight division, wherein it’s getting increasingly difficult to tell the winners from the losers. In a sport that places such a premium on tangible consequences and decisive results, that’s sort of a problem.

Saturday’s back-and-forth struggle was just the latest in a spate of 155-pound championship fights that have been exciting, technically exquisite and ultimately impossible to score. Dating to 2010, six of the past eight lightweight title bouts have gone to decision, many of them nail-biters. Three of those produced split verdicts and three times we saw rematches effectively put the rest of the division in limbo while we cleared up messes at the top.
[+] EnlargeHenderson/Melendez
Rod Mar for ESPNBy pushing Benson Henderson, right, to the brink, Gilbert Melendez stated his case as one of the lightweight division's best.

Lightweight has long been regarded as MMA’s most competitive and treacherous division,and this series of ratchet-tight title fights only underscores the point. The parity is a testament to the weight class’ depth, but it also makes answering simple questions like who’s the best? and who should be champion? and even Who won? trickier than it ought to be.

At first we blamed the uncertainty on Frankie Edgar, whose diminutive stature and pesky style seemed scientifically engineered to produce close fights.

Now though, Henderson looks well on his way to establishing a similar rhythm. All seven of his UFC outings have gone the distance, as compared to just two decisions in six earlier bouts in the WEC. Officially, he’s won all seven Octagon appearances, but his pair against Edgar and now this one with Melendez all easily could’ve gone the other way.

That alone makes trying to figure out who is the best lightweight in the world a daunting task.

Henderson’s latest victory obviously means he keeps his belt and likely retains his ESPN.com Power Rankings place as No. 1 in the division and No. 5 pound-for-pound. At 19-2 overall, having matched Penn for most successful title defenses and owning wins over Edgar, Melendez and a host of 155-pound notables, any reasonable debate about who is the greatest lightweight in UFC history now also must include him.

Unless, like me, you scored both Edgar fights and the Melendez bout for the other guy. If that’s the case, then -- yes, like me -- you’ve got a real quandary on your hands.

None of this is to say anything particularly negative about Henderson, mind you. His size, speed, strength and skills still have him looking every bit like the prototype for the next generation of successful UFC lightweights. He’s a great fighter who already has defied the expectations we lowered after watching him drop his WEC title to Anthony Pettis in December 2010 in a fight that came down to yet another very close judges’ decision.

But after this weekend, am I prepared to say Henderson is better than Melendez? I am not.
Am I prepared to say he’s better than Edgar? I am not.

Am I prepared to say he’s better than Pettis or Maynard or Michael Chandler or Eddie Alvarez? No, I am not.

Truthfully, I am not prepared to say much at all about who is tops in the lightweight division right now. I won’t be until someone, anyone, does something other than eke out a controversial decision.

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