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* * *

The state of the lightweight division would make a permanent pivot
10 years ago, from one snakebitten era to the next. Fittingly, it
happened via robbery.

When Frankie
defeated B.J. Penn the
first time at UFC 112 in the United Arab Emirates, it wasn’t just a
big-time upset, though it was also that by any measure. Edgar was a
+725 underdog and Penn a -1100 favorite. Penn was a three-time
defending champion who hadn’t lost at lightweight in eight years,
while Edgar had never been in a title fight and wasn’t even the
clear top contender. Coming into the fight, Edgar was 6-1 in the

Ultimate Fighting Championship
—a very good record in an elite
division—but in that same timeframe Gray
was 7-0-1, including a win over Edgar. After losing to
Maynard, Edgar won three straight bouts over former title
challenger Hermes
, former champion Sean Sherk and
in his second UFC appearance. In the same timeframe,
Maynard beat Rich
, Jim Miller,
and Nate Diaz.
Likely because of his two straight split decisions against Huerta
and Diaz, Maynard was passed up for the title shot, a small snub
that changed the course of the division.

You don’t have to check the stats to know Penn deserved the win,
but it’s certainly quicker than watching the fight. Penn stood in
the center of the cage while Edgar darted in and out with
combinations that, more often than not, were countered with
cleaner, harder shots from “The Prodigy.” After three rounds, Penn
outlanded Edgar in each round independently for a total
differential of 46-26. Even if Edgar won the fourth round—which is
debatable, unlike the fifth round, which he clearly won—it’s hard
to justify how he won any of the first three. Yet somehow, the
judges awarded “The Answer” 12 of the available 15 rounds on their
combined scorecards, including a clean sweep on one of them.

Though Edgar would more than prove his superiority over Penn in
rematches at lightweight and featherweight, his first win was
poetic injustice. Penn was also robbed of the lightweight title
against Caol
at UFC 41 seven years prior, when a dominant and
controlling performance was judged a draw. The UFC unceremoniously
shuttered the division for good afterward and wouldn’t bring it
back until UFC 58 in 2006.

After the Uno fight, Penn choked out
Pride Fighting Championships
titleholder Takanori
and was the uncrowned lightweight king until he became the
crowned lightweight king, cementing his status with his first title
defense over Sean Sherk in
2008. From 2003-10, Penn ruled the division, at least whenever he
was there and not gallivanting across heavier weight classes. With
Edgar’s win came the end of an era. Penn fell off precipitously,
losing fights in septuplets: by submission, by knockout and by some
dude at the bar. As if the weight class itself congealed in the
grooves “The Prodigy” impressed upon it, the post-Penn division has
been just as mercurial as he was.

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Edgar’s reign clarified the difference between “title defense” and
“title retention.” Benson
became the undisputed king of split decisions.
looked like the chosen one until Rafael dos
chose otherwise. Eddie
lost the title so badly so quickly it’s easy to forget
he ever won it. Conor
got stupid rich making a fool of himself as a boxer
and opted to live his best life instead of leave a legacy. Tony
became interim champ and then was stripped. Khabib
has taken over, most recently with a win against
interim champion Dustin Poirer—in Abu Dhabi, because of course.

Now, 10 years after Edgar switched the division’s tracks, the
biggest and most important lightweight title fight ever has been
booked and cancelled for a fifth time,
this time under even more insane circumstances than the last
Shutting down UFC 249 was unquestionably the right thing to do, but
it certainly doesn’t feel like a good thing. Who didn’t want to
watch those fights? However, no cage fight, not even the best
possible matchup in the best overall division, is worth the spread
of infection and, possibly, death. This may seem alarmist; these
are professional prizefighters, after all. Yet traveling around
amid a pandemic is less analogous to a regular MMA fight and more
like if fighters’ bodies were voodoo doll-connected with everyone
with whom they ever come into close proximity, whether they know
each other or not. If every strike, takedown and submission had the
distinct possibility of invisibly landing with the same force on
unwitting loved ones and random passersby, you might feel a little
differently watching fights.

Still, it stings to have the Nurmagomedov-Ferguson fight canceled
again. Their combined accomplishments—27-1 in the UFC, currently
riding the two longest winning streaks in division history— are
unprecedented in any weight class, let alone the most perennially
stacked division in the sport. They have to fight, more than any
two fighters ever have. Freak injuries and plain bad luck have
interfered for years, and when the seas finally parted and cleared
a path to the Violent Promised Land, pestilence descended upon the
Earth. Time passes and little changes. A decade ago, the rightful
lightweight champ was robbed, sending the once-greatest lightweight
spiraling into oblivion while the division fumbled its search for
the next-greatest. Now, the rightful lightweight champ—whether
that’s Nurmagomedov or Ferguson—has been robbed again, this time of
the opportunity to definitively assert his greatness. If only we
could go back to the good ol’ days of three judges screwing up
everything, instead of a global pandemic.

Eric Stinton is a writer from Kailua, Hawaii. His fiction,
nonfiction and journalism have appeared in Bamboo Ridge, The
Classical, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat, Medium and
Vice Sports, among others. He has been writing for Sherdog since
2014. You can reach him on Twitter at @TombstoneStint, or find
his work at

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