By Reed Kuhn, @Fightnomics The long layoff in the UFC Lightweight Title Picture presents a bit of a problem… but also an opportunity. Last weekend we saw unranked Ross Pearson topple Gray Maynard, who used to be a core part of any UFC lightweight title conversation. And this week we’ve got top ranked contender Benson Henderson facing #5 ranked Rafael dos Anjos. But with Henderson already having two losses to Pettis, it seems as though most fans would be interested in seeing other contenders get a shot. Now Donald Cerrone and the newly-signed Alvarez have been paired up for UFC 178, making for another contender-building fight. With all these highly ranked guys getting paired up, the biggest problem is the time off that the Lightweight belt is taking on the set of the Ultimate Fighter. So let’s make it interesting. With a long wait for Pettis vs Melendez in December and so many talented fighters clogging up the ranks, a tournament could be a fun and effective use of the talent piling up in the UFC’s “center of mass” division. We could have a Final Four bracket with Henderson-Dos Anjos-Alvarez-Cerrone, but there could still be some time off, and a parallel bracket could help us identify another contender for the mix. Here’s one suggestion – the entire UFC Lightweight Title Picture (in one bracket).
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With Henderson already facing off with Dos Anjos, one of these fighters will have a sturdy claim on the next title shot, but arguably with too much downtime to wait. So why not shake things up and give others an opportunity to earn their shot? The winner of Cerrone-Alvarez makes a natural candidate for a title eliminator with the winner of this weekend’s main event. But what if it happens too soon? If there’s still room on the calendar to work with (and with so many fight cards unfilled towards the end of the year, there must be), there’s room to include one more leg in the tournament bracket. Pearson pole-vaulted Gray Maynard into the UFC rankings, and could step in for Cerrone against the fast-rising Bobby Green. Pearson’s resurgence shows why he’s a dangerous matchup just about anyone, and the winner of this fight is clearly a top 10 lightweight. The winner will have a solid enough win streak to be one fight away from contention, and would make a tough opponent for the winner of Myles Jury and Edson Barboza. I used Jury here since he already has a win over Michael Johnson, but he’s a candidate too for this bracket. There’s several fighters at the edge of the top ten that could earn their way up the ranks with one or two more wins, and whoever emerges the winner of this bracket leg will have earned themselves a top-ranked opponent. There’s also a few names in reserve should any winners injure themselves along the way. Nate Diaz notably needs to sign with the UFC again and get past his professional obstacles, but should he do so he makes an immediate plug-in fighter for the bracket. There’s also recent ranked fighters coming off a close loss, like Josh Thomson, or those needing time to heal up from a TKO or injury like Jim Miller and Khabib Nurmagomedov. Or the aforementioned Michael Johnson who could be plugged in nearly anywhere. Even a prescribed tournament such as this would certainly still have unexpected matchups; MMA is unpredictable if anything! Injuries happen, and substitutes could be made or switched. But the bracket approach gives fans clarity and foresight, and also adds relevance to fights where there are not immediate title implications. A rematch along the way may also be inevitable, especially with Donald Cerrone in the mix who has faced just about everyone in the division’s ranks. However, this isn’t necessarily a bad thing because a rematch still determines who should advance, and gives the fighter who lost a chance to show their growth. One thing is for sure: when a champion gets injured or is tied up with Ultimate Fighter coaching obligations (or both!), it makes a lot of sense to use tournament brackets to keep the rest of the division’s top ranked fighters busy – and to give fans a better grasp of the division’s future. Who do you think advances each round? Would Diaz or Johnson trump the others? Should Nurmagomedov skip to the end of the bracket to be the next-next contender after he heals? With so much talent in this deep division, there are a lot of options. “Fightnomics” the book is now available on Amazon! Follow along on Twitter for the latest UFC stats and MMA analysis.