No. 1 contender at 155 finally solidified

Benson Henderson never gave Clay Guida an inch to breathe during their heroic battle. Ed Mulholland for ESPN.com

When the lightweight title picture was in a knot early this summer, Benson Henderson was on the distant outside -- so far outside, in fact, he couldn’t even look in. Ahead of him were Jim Miller, Melvin Guillard, Anthony Pettis, Clay Guida and a theoretical wild card in Gilbert Melendez, who was actively lobbying to come over to the UFC from Strikeforce. Meanwhile, Gray Maynard and Frankie Edgar took nine long months to play out while all the back-breathing competition played musical chairs.

As we roll through fall, Henderson emerges as the No. 1 contender in the division by beating Guida in a purposefully downplayed eliminator. It’s an improbable scenario: his acceleration toward Edgar was as stealthy as it was impressive. And for as quiet as he made his way, he couldn’t have been louder in how he did it.

Henderson dominated Miller for three rounds to scramble the contenders back up, then methodically engaged a dervish-like Guida and showcased his entire range. Guida-Henderson was everything people suspected it would be -- back and forth, wire-to-wire action with shutter speed reversals of fortune and whiplashing hair.

It was the greatest fight to ever be as neglected. While millions tuned in for the network debut of the UFC on Fox, Guida-Henderson was relegated to Facebook and Fox Sports en Espanol. The promotion’s deepest division finally found clarity, while its most glamorous -- the heavyweights -- stole the spotlight.

In an early exchange, Henderson downed Guida, who looked to brawl from the get-go like he did with Diego Sanchez when the two met in June 2009. When Guida dug in to toil on the fence, grabbing the double-leg takedown that doomed Pettis -- defaulting to the wrestling that got him here -- Henderson turned into Plastic Man. At one point in the first round, Henderson did a full split to keep from going on his back. That’s a rubberband man component that changes leverage perceptions and maddens game plans.

In the rare times Guida got him down, Henderson was back on his feet in moments. When Guida went for his neck on a couple of occasions, guillotines that for brief moments looked dangerous, Henderson would end up in his own dominant position seconds later. Near the end of the second round, he went from his neck being hung to a body triangle and threatening a rear-naked choke of his own in a few dizzying moments. The whole fight passed in a such a way. Henderson just had too much in his arsenal for Guida to keep up.

After taking the fight unanimously -- 30-27 twice, 29-28 -- Henderson made his call out, saying, “Frankie Edgar, we’ve got a date -- let’s do it baby.” And that’s where we have arrived after a bottleneck 2011 at 155 pounds. The former WEC lightweight champion is making a play for the UFC strap. Not that long ago he was on the wrong end of a highlight reel to Pettis’ Showtime kick in the final WEC show; now he looks like the definitive challenger to Edgar.

And that’s something we haven’t been able to contemplate all year, just who would be the next to challenge for the lightweight belt. Now we know it’s Henderson, who has fought eight of his nine Zuffa battles on free television or on Internet feeds. Here’s guessing this becomes the end of an era, that the UFC will make a "Smooth" transition to pay-per-view from here on out.