Breaking down the top ten fighters in the lightweight division…
1. Takanori Gomi
The final Pride Fighting Championships lightweight champion, Gomi has been ranked number one for a long time, but that is likely to come to an end soon. Despite a solid record with wins over fighters like Hayato Sakurai, Marcus Aurelio, Tatsuya Kawajiri, Luiz Azeredo (twice) and Jens Pulver; he hasn’t had a fight since losing to Nick Diaz in February of 2007, a fight that has since been ruled a “no contest” by the Nevada State Athletic Commission due to Diaz testing positive for marijuana. If he doesn’t fight soon, it will have been more than 12 months since his last bout and Gomi will fall out of consideration for the top ten until such time as he fights again.
2. Tatsuya Kawajiri
Like Gomi and many other former Pride fighters, Kawajiri was on the cusp of losing his eligibility due to inactivity. He returned, however, on Dec. 31 at the co-promoted Yarennoka show, which basically served as Japan’s farewell to Pride. There he manhandled Luiz Azeredo en route to an impressive unanimous decision that boosted his record to 13-2-1 in his last 16 bouts with his only losses during that time being to Gomi and the currently No. 6-ranked Gilbert Melendez.
3. Shinya Aoki
Known for his amazing flexibility and stunning submissions, Aoki has been on an amazing run since losing to Sakurai in late 2005. He has since gone 9-0. He had been scheduled to face No. 4-ranked Gesias Calvancante on New Year’s Eve, a fight that would have made a strong case for the winner to possibly move to the top of the rankings, but Calvancante had to withdraw due to injury. The two are now expected to fight on an as yet unannounced K-1 event in March.
4. Gesias “JZ” Calvancante
Calvancante established himself over the past year-and-a-half winning back-to-back K-1 154-Pound Grand Prix tournaments. But as mentioned, he suffered a knee injury and re-aggravated it during his winning performance in the 2007 Grand Prix. He is a very powerful and athletic lightweight that will be looking to the fight with Ayoki to possibly establish him as the best in the division.
5. Mitsuhiro Ishida
Ishida has long been considered a strong contender in the division, but established his position as one of the best in the world with his New Year’s Eve performance against Melendez. He won a unanimous decision over the Californian, but put on an amazing display of dominance with his superior wrestling skills. He is now 10-2 in his past 12 bouts with his only losses to Gomi and No. 8-ranked Vitor Ribeiro.
6. Gilbert Melendez
Despite the loss to Ishida, Melendez is still regarded as one of the best the division has to offer. The decision loss was the first misstep of his entire career. With a professional record of 13-1 and wins over Kawajiri, Ultimate Fighting Championship veteran Clay Guida and the legendary Rumina Sato, it won’t take much for Melendez to make another move back up the ranks. He is likely to return at the March 29 Strikeforce event in California.
7. B.J. Penn
Penn is an enigma in the rankings. He is regarded by most as one of the most talent-laden fighters in the history of the sport, but his long layoff in the lightweight category has him working his way back up. Prior to his victory of Jens Pulver in June 2007, he hadn’t fought at lightweight since dominating Gomi in late 2003. Penn recently followed up the win over Pulver by dominating Joe Stevenson, submitting him with a rear naked choke at UFC 80 to win the vacant lightweight championship.
8. Vitor “Shaolin” Ribeiro
Ribeiro hasn’t fought since losing to Calvancante in September of 2007, but that was only his second loss, his first being to Kawajiri. Despite his recent activity, he is still considered one of the best in the class and is regarded as one of the top submission experts in the sport with 12 of his 19 wins coming via submission.
9. Joe Stevenson
Despite his recent disappointment against Penn, Stevenson has proven to be one of the more well-rounded lightweights around. With wins over Yves Edwards, Dokonjonosuke Mishima, Melvin Guillard and Kurt Pellegrino in the UFC, he is a dominant force. And at 25 years of age, Stevenson has a lot of time left to earn more shots at the title.
10. Joachim Hansen
Hansen is a fighter that at one time seemed destined to make a run up the division. A strong striker with skilled ground abilities, he racked up wins over the likes of Calvancante, Edwards, and Caol Uno, before beginning a roller coast ride over his past few bouts defeating the likes of Luiz Azeredo and Jason Ireland, but losing to fighters like Kawajiri and Ayoki. He struggled through the dissolution of Pride, but may have found a home recently fighting for K-1.
NOTE: Hayato Sakurai, who was highly ranked in the lightweight division, recently made the move to welterweight, thus losing his eligibility. Former UFC lightweight champion Sean Sherk was suspended by the California State Athletic Commission and thus ineligible for consideration in the rankings until he has his first bout upon returning from the suspension.