When the UFC first hit the scene in 1993, we saw a spectacle that sought out superior fighters and fighting styles through a raw form of caged combat. The allure of no rules or weight classes was undeniable, and the in-fight applications of martial arts challenged age-old perceptions while opening eyes at the same time.
By 1997 names such as Royce Gracie and Ken Shamrock had moved on to other places in their career, while the competitors inside of the UFC cage only seemed to get bigger and badder. Whether it was brutal brawlers such as David “Tank” Abbott or ruthless tradesman like Mark “The Hammer” Coleman, the UFC was in an arms race that produced memorable moments that – for better or worse – still stick among the sports historical timeline.
This type of packaged violence, of course, drew ire from the Western world in which it operated, namely from politicians such as John McCain, who played a decent role in the UFC’s loss of its – at that time – TV deal, as well as its banning in 36 states. These political pressures forced the UFC to cooperate with state athletic commissions, which eventually gave way to the first weight class separation being rolled out at UFC 12, classifying all fighters 200 pounds and heavier as heavyweights, while the competitors who were 199 pounds and lighter were considered lightweights.
By UFC 14, the promotion renamed the lighter division “middleweight.” Although the lightweight moniker made its return at UFC 16, it now represented all competitors who weighed 170 pounds or lighter. At UFC 26, a 155-pound class was introduced, but it was technically considered the UFC’s bantamweight division.
Finally, in the year 2000, the New Jersey State Athletic Control Board took charge of MMA regulation in its home state, conceiving a set of rules and weight classes that became the base of operations that we are now familiar with today. And in 2001, the UFC complied by realigning its weight classes, starting at UFC 31 – an event that saw the first official lightweight fight at 155 pounds.
Since then, the lightweight division has gone through trials and tribulations like no other UFC weight class, taking four official tries to get it off the ground. Still, the fighters found ways to persevere, and the weight class produced talent that helped open many doors for growth in the modern era. In fact, the 155-pound stable has arguably been the deepest populated division in the UFC for the past decade, consistently providing amazing fights for us to sink our teeth into each year. At UFC 223 on April 7, we get our next major lightweight attraction: interim champ Tony Ferguson (23-3 MMA, 13-1 UFC) vs. Khabib Nurmagomedov (25-0 MMA, 9-0 UFC) for the undisputed belt.
Below, I will do my best to pay homage to the weight class that inspired me to get into this sport in the first place. In chronological order, here are the top 10 fights that I believe helped shape the UFC’s lightweight division.
Jens Pulver vs. B.J. Penn
‘UFC 35: Throwdown’ (Jan. 11, 2002)
Jens Pulver, who was initially crowned the bantamweight champion after defeating Caol Uno at UFC 30, went on to successfully defend his title as an official lightweight against Dennis Hallman at UFC 33. Unfortunately for Pulver, it was ultimately a forgettable five-round decision that fell victim to being on a card that UFC President Dana White said “is the only one I can remember where every fight sucked.”
And subsequently, despite already being a proven champion and pioneer of the lighter divisions, Pulver found himself as a 3-1 underdog heading into a fight with a brash 23-year-old by the name of B.J. Penn.
B.J. Penn and Jens Pulver
The inside circles of the MMA world were excited to see what Penn, who was the first American to achieve a gold medal at the black belt level in Brazil (2000 Mundials), could do inside of the UFC cage. Although many, including noted matchmaker Joe Silva, were initially skeptical of the success that Penn could achieve, the young Hawaiian grappler surprised everyone by storming the UFC scene with three consecutive stoppages due to strikes, propelling him headfirst into a lightweight title fight with Pulver.
Penn, who was training at American Kickboxing Academy at that time, had the familiar faces of Frank Shamrock, Javier Mendes and Bob Cook in his corner. Across from him was Pulver, who had the usual suspects from Miletich Fighting Systems at his back, not to mention a bit of a healthy chip on his shoulder.
Pulver came out of the gate closing in on his target, while Penn looked to stifle the champion’s pressure with level-changing takedowns. And sure enough, heavy grappling exchanges transpired throughout the first two rounds.
By the end of the second round, Penn was controlling well from topside, hitting transitions like dope mounts, techniques that were ahead of its time in the MMA space, on Pulver. Dropping back from an armbar at the buzzer, Penn appeared to get Pulver to tap, but time had ultimately run out.
Immediate pandemonium erupted in each corner, and we saw both men forced to work through adversity in different ways.
Luckily for Pulver, this was not the first time he had to work through a hard fight. Penn, however, had never found himself out of the first round in what was only a nine-month professional career at that point.
Penn made a solid account for himself on the feet and never showed signs of quitting, but Pulver’s pressure and punctuating counters steadily edged the later rounds. Still, both men swung till the last second of what was a competitive contest.
By the end, the scorecards secured the belt around Pulver’s waist, and both men displayed a strong sense of respect toward one another through their post-fight interviews with the late Ryan Bennett.
Unfortunately for the lightweight division, its first official hurdle at the top came soon after this fight. Negotiations with Pulver and the UFC came undone, and the weight class was without a champion. Although Penn later had contract issues of his own, the loss to Pulver gave the young Hawaiian a special kind of motivation that later served both him and the division well.
Yves Edwards vs. Josh Thomson
‘UFC 49: Unfinished Business’ (Aug. 21, 2004)
Shortly after Pulver – the first official titleholder at 155 pounds – left the organization due to a contract dispute in 2002, a four-man tournament was held to determine the next UFC lightweight champion.
The participants were B.J. Penn, Matt Serra, Caol Uno and Din Thomas. Culminating in a competitive five-round final between Penn and Uno at UFC 41, the judges ultimately called the contest a draw – once again leaving the lightweight division without a champion to hold it together.
Thankfully, the UFC continued to book other exciting lightweights such as Yves Edwards, who also competed on the same UFC 41 card that failed to crown a 155-pound champion by choking out Rich Clementi in the opening prelim that night. Although Edwards later lost a decision to Tatsuya Kawajiri outside the UFC (in the Shooto organization), the Jamaican-born fighter earned his fifth straight UFC win (over Hermes Franca) at UFC 47.
Yves Edwards and Josh Thomson
After the fight, Edwards put on his customary black hat, calling for a showdown with an undefeated hot prospect by the name of Josh Thomson.
Shortly after their run with Penn, American Kickboxing Academy seemingly had another stud it was ready to set loose on the lightweight division. Before hitting the big show at UFC 44, Thomson already had a record of 5-0 against names such as Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto, Kajan Johnson and “Razor” Rob McCullough. At UFC 46, Thomson also earned himself a hard-fought decision victory over Franca, improving his record to 7-0 and demonstrating that he belonged at the top.
With a showdown between the two inevitable, Edwards and Thomson end up colliding at UFC 49.
It was electricity from the start with each fighter prodding with hard kicks and attempted blitzes in bursts. Thomson hit an early takedown, briefly stifling Edwards, one of the craftiest southpaws to grace the UFC cage.
Luckily for Edwards, his technical savvy and knowledge in grappling allowed him to get back to his feet, where the fighters continued to exchange inside of the clinch. And despite Thomson appearing to get the better of wrestling stanzas, Edwards found himself in on the AKA product’s hips, briefly thinking about hoisting him in the air for a suplex.
Thomson smartly fought Edwards’ hands in the effort to create space, but he then decided to throw a spinning back fist on the separation. The problem, however, was that Thomson turned directly into a head kick that Edwards put everything into; he literally left the ground just to throw it.
It was a moment that deservedly lives on through the highlight reels of today, and it served as a statement for the presence and capabilities of lighter-weight fighters.
At the end of the match, Edwards expressed to Joe Rogan in his post-fight interview how he felt that he and Thomson were currently the best, adding, “Even though I don’t have a belt around my waist and am not the official UFC lightweight champion, I’m the people’s champion.”
UFC 49’s event title of “Unfinished Business” referenced the headliner between Vitor Belfort and Randy Couture, but it was arguably a more appropriate description for the state of the lightweight division during that time.
Sean Sherk vs. Kenny Florian
‘UFC 64: Unstoppable’ (Oct. 14, 2006)
After a couple of years of stagnation on the title front, the UFC was finally ready to take another stab at establishing 155 pounds as a proper division.
The organization was experiencing a new era of growth after recently making a successful debut on Spike TV with the now staple series, “The Ultimate Fighter.” Kenny Florian, one of the middleweight finalists of the show (and most notably the smallest contestant in the house), shook off a tourney-final loss to Diego Sanchez and hit the ground running in the UFC.
Accumulating a three-fight winning streak that saw him work his way down to 155 pounds, Florian steadily added to his skills as he proved that hard work accompanied by the wits of a warrior could compensate for a lot. He was a thinking man’s fighter who was doing his part to change the perception of what was a sprouting sport. And though Florian was still growing, as well, he quickly found himself in a title fight with a face that was familiar to hardcores.
Enter “The Muscle Shark.”
Sean Sherk and Kenny Florian
Sean Sherk, a former welterweight whose initial run saw him challenge for Matt Hughes’ title in previous years, was now in his second stint with the promotion. After being overpowered by a fast-rising Georges St-Pierre, Sherk took one last fight at 170 pounds, earning a hard-fought decision win over Nick Diaz at UFC 59 before deciding to make the drop to lightweight.
Offered another shot at a UFC strap, Sherk took the opportunity seriously and made trial runs to the weight class before committing to it. Renowned for his wrestler-like work ethic and insane physique, Sherk embodied the opposite stereotypes that Florian drew, making this a styles match on multiple levels.
This comparison became only clearer once each fighter made the walk at UFC 64.
Florian, representing his martial arts spirit, walked to the cage in full samurai garb (sword and all), blasting “The Ecstasy of Gold” by Ennio Morricone over the speakers above. And just as Florian touched down on the mat, the lights in the arena cut to spotlights as Sherk’s classic “Jaws” intro cued a walkout that seemed very fitting for the times.
Despite the fight being one-sided on the scorecards, the clash of styles made the exchanges exciting and the swings in momentum palpable. In the second round, Florian cut Sherk with an elbow off his back that ended up painting the entire canvas by the end of the fight, as well as providing an example of offense that’s still referred to today.
Still, Florian’s efforts were not enough, and Sherk was crowned just the second man to sit atop the lightweight throne.
Sherk’s title reign, however, was ultimately short-lived. He successfully defended his belt with a win over Franca the following summer at UFC 73, but both men tested positive for elevated levels of nandrolone, leaving the lightweight division, once again, without a champion.
Roger Huerta vs. Clay Guida
The Ultimate Fighter 6 Finale (Dec. 8, 2007)
With the lightweight division champion-less due to a pair of positive tests at UFC 73 (Sherk and Franca), the weight was once again placed on the working class of 155 pounds to represent its spot in the sport.
Doing more than his part at the time, Roger Huerta – who recently became the first mixed martial artist to end up on the cover of “Sports Illustrated” magazine – was on a five-fight UFC winning streak, and he lost only once prior to entering the organization.
Still, Huerta found himself as the betting underdog to the future staple in Clay Guida. A more seasoned fighter who accrued experience in other promotions such as Strikeforce, Guida had already faced the likes of Gilbert Melendez and Thomson.
That said, as a Las Vegas local, I can still remember seeing the billboards for this fight being posted around town, thinking to myself, “Who are these guys?”
And it wasn’t in a disrespectful way, mind you. At the time, if you did see an MMA advertisement at that level, it was typically accompanied by a recognizable name or body north of 155 pounds. With that in mind, an expectation to deliver was definitely at play.
Clay Guida and Roger Huerta
Thankfully, the style differences between Huerta and Guida made for an exciting affair that quickly exceeded expectations. The exchanges were back and forth on the feet while they lasted, but Guida, the better wrestler of the two, was able to get the fight to the floor and finish both Rounds 1 and 2 on top.
As fun as the fight was, there was a clear sense of urgency in Huerta’s corner. They knew they were likely down 0-2 to Guida heading into the final frame. And when the camera cut to Huerta before the start of the third round, you could see the look of a man possessed – a demon, if you will.
Coming out on fire, Huerta seemingly hit Guida effectively with everything he threw, and he landed a knee that changed the course of the fight. Guida dived in for a single-leg takedown soon after, but Huerta was able to spin out and take Guida’s back for the rear-naked-choke finish.
It was an emotional comeback and an instant classic, an example of what 155 pounds could bring to the UFC. Huerta moved on to face Florian (who coincidentally made his color-commentary debut during this fight), and Guida went on to become a “Fight of the Night” regular for the promotion for years to come.
B.J. Penn vs. Joe Stevenson
‘UFC 80: Rapid Fire’ (Jan. 19, 2008)
With Sherk sidelined due to a suspension following a failed drug test, the lightweight title was once again up for grabs.
Penn was coming off a successful return to 155 pounds while avenging his only lightweight loss – to longtime rival Pulver. Whereas Joe Stevenson, the welterweight winner of “The Ultimate Fighter 2,” was on a four-fight winning streak at lightweight that included victories over the likes of Edwards, Melvin Guillard and Kurt Pelligrino.
The two men met for a vacant lightweight title fight at UFC 80 in Newcastle, England – a country that wouldn’t see another UFC title fight until UFC 204 in 2016.
B.J. Penn and Joe Stevenson
Both fighters were Americans fighting in front of a Newcastle audience, but you would have thought Penn was an Englishman with the hero’s welcome that he received from the crowd, who chanted, “B.J.! B.J.!”
A division that seemingly had no legs suddenly started showing signs of the cross-pollination that the UFC would thrive on for years to come.
Penn, whose physique was in top form at this time, came storming out of the gates, dropping Stevenson in the first exchange with a pinpoint uppercut. Penn settled in on top immediately after and got after Stevenson with strikes and positional advances.
Stevenson fought valiantly from the bottom and was able to stifle a decent amount of Penn’s passes. However, as the first round came to a close, Penn hit a picturesque elbow over the top of the guard that split Stevenson wide open, causing him to spray blood like a fire hydrant. The cutmen did their best to stop the bleeding, but it was apparent that this fight now had a new time limit.
Stevenson came out determined to work through the adversity, landing an elbow of his own early in the second round. Still, it didn’t take long for Penn to land clean with another uppercut, forcing Stevenson down to the mat once again. By that time, the two fighters looked like there were grappling in Stevenson’s blood as Penn mercifully locked in his patented rear-naked-choke finish, trapping the arm in transit.
After getting Stevenson to tap, Penn – who then celebrated on his cornermen’s shoulders while licking the blood off of his gloves – became just the second person in UFC history to earn titles in two different weight classes, a prestige that only Randy Couture had at the time.
In his post-fight speech with Rogan, Penn cut a memorable promo to Sherk, who was invited to commentate cageside due to his ties to the evening’s winner.
“Sean Sherk, you’re dead!” Penn exclaimed.
And in an instant, Sherk was up and out of his seat, heading straight into the cage like it was a Monday night professional wrestling event. Sherk, who never lost his belt in competition, then took the mic from Rogan to respond to Penn.
“That belt still belongs to me,” he said. “You got one more fight before you are UFC champion.”
The two men then acknowledged their upcoming battle ahead with a handshake, and like that, the UFC lightweight division was back.