Diaz raised legit question: Who's No. 1?

May, 8, 2012
5/08/12
10:23
AM ET
Dundas By Chad Dundas
ESPN.com
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We’ve come to expect, even look forward to the passionate postfight ramblings of the Diaz brothers.

It wouldn’t really feel like a Diaz victory, after all, without copious shout-outs to the homies. It wouldn’t feel right without some chest-thumping on behalf of the 209, or Stockton, or NorCal, or just California in general (it seems the place the Diazes call home gets bigger the farther away they get). The evening just wouldn’t be complete without the now obligatory praise for a newly vanquished opponent and at least one out-of-the-blue announcement to make us all narrow our eyes at the TV a little bit and go: “Huh?”

On Saturday night in New Jersey, it was Nate Diaz’s turn.

Diaz had just defeated Jim Miller at UFC on Fox 3 to solidify his position as top contender for the organization’s lightweight title. In an absolutely appropriate summation by UFC color commentator Joe Rogan, Diaz had “completely handled” Miller en route to dealing him the first stoppage loss of his MMA career via funky second-round guillotine choke. It was Diaz’s third win in a row since dropping back down from welterweight last year. He seems to have suddenly come into his own inside the Octagon and is now set to take on the winner of the Aug. 11 do-over between champion Ben Henderson and ex-champ Frankie Edgar.
[+] EnlargeHenderson
Susumu Nagao for ESPN.comUFC champion Benson Henderson can solidify his claim to the 155-pound title with another win over Frankie Edgar.

When asked by Rogan how he views his own standing in the sport’s most competitive division, Diaz first stumbled through the typical clichés about wanting to be top dog, but then tacked on an addendum that -- while not exactly surprising -- speaks to the unique landscape of the 155-pound division right now.

“I’m trying to be the No. 1 in this world,” Diaz said. “There’s only one person above all of us and that’s Gilbert "El Nino" Melendez, the true world champion lightweight.”

Diaz, of course, is terribly biased. He and Melendez are longtime teammates on the Cesar Gracie fight team, so it’s in no way shocking that he would use a live mic on national television to give the Strikeforce champion his propers. However, it is somewhat surprising that anyone on the doorstep of a UFC title shot would so readily and publicly admit he thinks the best fighter in his weight class competes elsewhere.

Also, even if Diaz didn’t know it, he had a point. His words actually did much to underscore the fractured state of the lightweight ranks right now.

For perhaps the first time in the modern history of the sport -- or, at least, in recent memory -- there are no fewer than five fighters who can lay somewhat serious claim to being the No.1 lightweight in the world. Sure, maybe not all of them could make overwhelming cases for themselves, but you wouldn’t immediately laugh any of them out of the room, either.

Since, as Diaz sort of pointed out, several of said guys don’t fight in the UFC, it makes the question of who is truly the best in the world more difficult to answer than ever. It also obviously makes the 155 pound class one of the most interesting in the sport.
[+] EnlargeMelendez
Mark Rebilas for ESPN.comAccording to Nate Diaz, MMA's premiere lightweight is Strikeforce champ Gilbert Melendez.

Considering that what we typically do when we fill out MMA top 10 lists is just insert “Whoever has UFC Title” at No. 1, Henderson is the conventional pick as top lightweight of the moment. In the former WEC titlist’s case, however, his meteoric rise is undermined a tad by the razor-close decision in his championship victory over Edgar at UFC 144.

At least some observers think Edgar rightly should have gotten the nod in that bout and people who subscribe to the old adage that it's necessary to “take” the title off a standing champion might be able to make a convincing case that Edgar is still the best lightweight on the planet. That matchmakers granted him an immediate rematch against Henderson at UFC 150 only adds fuel to that argument.

Michael Chandler is the undefeated 155-pound champion of Bellator and the 26-year-old Xtreme Couture product has spent the last couple of years laying waste to most of the competition in MMA’s highest profile mid-major organization. His title victory over Eddie Alvarez was a fight of the year candidate for 2011, but the back-and-forth nature of that affair’s three-plus rounds might lead some to wonder if Chandler is truly even the best lightweight in his own promotion right now. As long as Bellator doesn’t move to set up a Chandler-Alvarez rematch, instead appearing content to book its champ in quizzical, non-title fights against guys like Akihiro Gono, we might never know how good Chandler actually is.

Since that loss in November, Alvarez might have the least compelling case as a legitimate world No. 1, but nonetheless still deserves to be in the discussion. Prior to that defeat, he’d won seven fights in a row dating back to 2008 and last month followed up the loss of his Bellator title by dispatching erstwhile top-10 lightweight Shinya Aoki (also the last guy to beat Alvarez prior to Chandler) in just two minutes, 14 seconds. Alvarez is just barely hanging onto his own top 10 spot in the latest ESPN.com rankings, but remains the sort of guy who could beat any other lightweight on the list on any given night.

You can’t have a conversation about who's the best without at least mentioning his name.

Then there’s Melendez, who can likely make the best case for the top spot of any non-UFC fighter. At 20-2, he too is undefeated since 2008 and has avenged both his career losses during that current stretch. In his last four fights, Melendez has looked every bit the part of the world’s best lightweight but, similar to Chandler in Bellator, Strikeforce just doesn’t have the clout to offer him many new an interesting tests, especially with Zuffa still opting not to lessen its own glut of lightweights by sending them Melendez’s way.

At this point, it seems the most Strikeforce can do is book him into an endless series of rematches against Josh Tompson. They’ll fight for a third time on May 19 and if Melendez wins, his tenure in Strikeforce will seem more pointless and maddening than ever.

Should Melendez lose? Well, that seems like an even worse outcome.

Lightweight remains the most vibrant and hotly-contested weight class in our sport, but it’s also the most maddening, considering the wealth of high-level talent spread out over numerous promotions. There are enough contenders jockeying for position in the UFC alone to keep us busy for the next few months, but the question of who can lay legitimate claim to the 155-pound throne will be too-close-to-call until all the top fighters congregate under the same banner.

Until then, at least we know who has Nate Diaz’s vote.

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