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UFC lightweight contenders and pretenders

Thank you, Frankie Edgar. For a few agonizing moments, it looked as if UFC 136 was potentially headed, amazingly enough, to another draw. Instead, Edgar finished the fight in the fourth round, and the notorious logjam at 155 can get moving again.

Now, the question is what to make of said logjam. There’s a ton of talent in the lightweight division. Who earns the title shot in 2012 and who makes the most of it?

Watching Edgar through four title fights and 19 rounds, I think there are three qualities a challenger needs to beat him.

Quality 1: Endurance. The little guy doesn’t cut any weight. He is very much like a featherweight fighting at lightweight, and that means he moves well and he moves a lot. If you can’t finish him early, you better have terrific stamina, because he’ll wear you out otherwise.

Quality 2: Speed. It kills. And simple brute strength doesn’t negate it. Honestly, I thought it would. But Gray Maynard couldn’t tie Edgar up and take him down, and the speed difference showed throughout both fights. Whoever eventually beats this guy will have to somewhat match his speed.

Quality 3: Finishing efficiency. Killer instinct. Don’t just hurt him, put him away.

Keeping those in mind, and considering their current place in the division, here are the 17 lightweights that have some shot at winning the title in 2012.

The Long, Long Shots: Evan Dunham, Edson Barboza, George Sotiropoulos, Sam Stout, Tony Ferguson.

These guys make the cut but none of us really expect them to earn a title shot next year or, if somehow they do, beat Edgar. The guy I like most in this group is Ferguson. He has demonstrated serious power, and his speed allows him to recover when he makes a mistake. Sotiropoulos won seven fights in a row and yet it seemed he was never close to a title shot. Following back-to-back losses, he might need to win 15 in a row to sniff the title. Barboza is young, so maybe it’s in the cards down the road. But it's tough to see it happening next year.

The really good guys who will absolutely not get a title shot in 2012: Gray Maynard, Jim Miller.

Doesn’t matter if these two dropkick their next opponents out of the Octagon, they’re chances of entering the title picture next year are downright horrible. Maynard for the obvious reasons. I actually wouldn’t mind seeing the fourth bout between Maynard and Edgar; is that right to admit? But it’s not happening for a very, very long time. And Miller, fair or not, is one of the least marketable figures in this logjam. He wins a ridiculous amount of fights, but the fact this guy was undoubtedly the most deserving of a title shot but didn’t headline a Versus card (Hardy versus Lytle in August) shows how little faith the UFC has in him as a sellable asset. Thinking about it, these two should actually fight each other.

The favorable schedules: Dennis Siver, Joe Lauzon.

Lauzon to a far lesser extent after the Guillard win, but these two are “in the mix” despite not really having all that many signature wins. Before beating Guillard, Lauzon’s best win was what? Jens Pulver back in 2006? Gabe Ruediger? Most of the time when he stepped up in competition (Kenny Florian, Sam Stout) he lost. And Siver, listen to the names on this guy’s hit list: Matt Wiman, Sotiropoulos, Andre Winner, Spencer Fisher, Paul Kelly, Dale Hartt and Nate Mohr. Who truly impresses you there? Not saying Siver and Lauzon are incapable of winning it all, but their records don’t really scream future champ.

The wild cards: Nate Diaz, Donald Cerrone, Melvin Guillard.

All three have the skills to earn a title shot and give Edgar trouble, but man, are they inconsistent. Guillard overlooked Lauzon -- plain and simple. His aggressiveness is a good thing, but when you have no respect for your opponent’s skills, it can cost you. For all the pro-Guillard talk we’ve had lately, let’s not hold back and just admit his mental game might very well prevent him from ever holding a belt. Cerrone is on a serious roll and he has an extra dose of that killer mentality, Quality 3 we talked about earlier. But he was 0-3 in WEC title fights and built a reputation as guy who didn’t respond well, mentally, to the big ones. Diaz, we saw how good he can be in his last fight against Takanori Gomi, in which he was clearly amped about fighting a personal idol. If that Diaz shows up regularly in 2012, he has a shot at the belt.

The forgotten: Jorge Masvidal.

While everyone talks about bringing Gilbert Melendez to the UFC, nobody is talking about Gamebred, who just assaulted K.J. Noons in his last fight. Skills-wise, he’s crazy fast -- maybe the fastest at 155. Masvidal versus Edgar would be interesting.

The future champ: Anthony Pettis.

I believe 100 percent Pettis adds “UFC lightweight champion” to his Wikipedia page; I’m just not sure when. Clearly, his response to the Clay Guida loss was to work on his wrestling. A split decision win Saturday might not look great on paper, but I was impressed. We already know about his standup. We saw his evolution in this last fight. It was a very “professional” win, using the word his trainer Duke Roufus used in the corner during the fight. We’ll see if 2012 is Pettis’s year. If not, 2013 looks good.

The favorites: Clay Guida, Ben Henderson, Gilbert Melendez.

Obviously, the fact these guys are already close to a title shot doesn’t hurt. Guida is the least scary of the three. He nails Quality 1 but not so much 2 and 3. Melendez is the popular pick, which is hard to argue. He has the talent, and his chances increase dramatically if he doesn’t have a fight between now and the title. My favorite, though, is Henderson. I like him stylistically against Guida and Edgar. He’ll look huge in the cage compared to Edgar. He’s a workhorse, and his win over Jim Miller, despite ending in a decision, showed that fire-in-your-eyes crazy side we hadn’t really seen in him before. My guess is Henderson wins the UFC lightweight title in 2012.