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Once laughed at, the lightweights are taking over

Jens Pulver's Ultimate Fighting Championship lightweight title defense against B.J. Penn in January of 2002 should have been the last time anyone questioned the idea of having 155-pounders headline a pay-per-view event.

The belief that undersized fighters could deliver at the till was ludicrous to many. American mixed martial arts fans were so obsessed with heavier fighters and their presumptive knockout power, they argued, that there wasn't time to care about skinny lightweights.

Yet there they were, "L'il Evil" and "The Prodigy," overshadowing "The Iceman." And Murilo Bustamante's middleweight-title win over Dave Menne in the Octagon? Just a mere prelude to the evening's main event.

At the time, the bulk of the best lightweights fought in Japan, where holding the Shooto belt at 154 pounds garnered immediate respect. In a lot of ways, Pulver and Penn were attempting to do the same for the UFC belt and raise the profile of their division.

Both fighters offered skill and heart, but Pulver took the title in a five-round decision victory. When the champion had the title stripped two months later because of a contractual issue, fate seemed intent on disrupting the forward track of the division. Poor decisions, unfulfilled tournaments, and an extended hiatus for the weight class in the UFC didn't help. Four-and-a-half years after Pulver gave up the belt, Sean Sherk became the second man to hold a UFC lightweight title. Again, circumstances soon changed.

Following his first title defense against Hermes Franca, Sherk tested positive for steroids. Almost 14 months after he captured the title, the Minnesota native was suspended for six months and fined $2,500. Meanwhile, the UFC put up the vacant belt and matched Penn against Joe Stevenson. The Hawaiian won easily.

And on May 24 he'll meet Sherk in what could be the most important lightweight fight in years.

So why does any of this back story matter? Because it's led to plenty of confusion regarding which fighter in the division can make a real claim to being the best. While 155 stuck, mired in the UFC from 2004 to 2006, a lot of focus shifted overseas as lightweights flourished in a robust international scene.

That's the main reason Takanori Gomi sits atop most lightweight rankings today. I've been uneasy for some time about seeing Gomi at No. 1, and it's good to know we'll see results in coming months that should provide the sport a barometer on the best.

Not surprisingly, many believe that person to be Penn. A thin record at 155 has caused a vocal minority to lobby against Penn's placement at the top, but few deny his skill and natural ability. When he's ready to fight, it's difficult for mixed martial artists anywhere to match Penn's game piece for piece. While Gomi has loitered on the sidelines, Penn's never been better. He has a chance with an impressive victory over Sherk -- another UFC pay-per-view main event coming courtesy of the lightweights, the deepest division across all classes around the world -- to lay claim to being the best in the world in his class. Sherk, of course, could do the same if he puts away Penn.

Shinya Aoki's victory over Gesias "JZ" Calvancante in the Dream lightweight tournament has brought the Japanese submission master back into this discussion. He seemed overwhelmed in the short time spent with JZ, but regrouped after the first no-contest to score a decision thanks to his excellent attack and defensive game from the bottom.

And if not Aoki, then perhaps Tatsuya Kawajiri, who could also complete an impressive run in the Dream tournament, could win the whole thing. In the end, there's usually a difference between the most talented fighter(s) who deserve to be No. 1. If Penn manages to put Sherk away on May 24, that difference will be negligible at best.

Of the many names spread throughout Affliction's barrage of news-conference announcements to promote its July 19 event, two caught my eye.

First, "TBA." Or, as I read it, The Belarusian Arlovski.

May 19 is the day when Andrei Arlovski could sign with Affliction, SI.com has learned. That is, assuming the UFC declines to match what is believed to be a deal that pays the former UFC champion in the low-to-mid six figures for the first of three non-exclusive bouts.

A representative from Arlovski's camp explained there was "nothing to report," though continued on to say negotiations with the UFC were ongoing.

If the UFC lets Arlovski go, it will have seen "The Pitbull," Tim Sylvia and Randy Couture -- all UFC heavyweight champions a combined six years since November 2000 -- severe ties with Zuffa in the past eight months. Arlovski is the only fighter of the three to complete his contract and wait out an exclusive negotiating period before attempting to leave.

UFC President Dana White recently told Yahoo! Sports that, while he hoped to retain Arlovski, there was doubt as to whether that would actually happen.

Should Arlovski and Affliction complete their deal, the Belarusian is expected to appear at next Tuesday's press conference at the in Century City, Calif., to announce a fight against former International Fight League heavyweight champion Ben Rothwell.

The other name that jumped out was George Greenberg from Fox Sports. A longtime supporter of MMA, Greenberg had a hand in putting the UFC on Fox Sports Net's The Best Damn Sports Show Period, delivering UFC and Pride content, as well as IFL cards.

Greenberg's presence at the press conference suggests there is something to rumors that the undercard of the July 19 Affliction event would be broadcast live on FSN. Asked to confirm why Greenberg was attending the announcement, Affliction declined to comment.

On Monday, I mapped out a possible tournament championship route for four of the five remaining participants in the Dream lightweight grand prix (Katsuhiko Nagata, please prove me wrong).

It sounds like Eddie Alvarez-Aoki and Caol Uno- Kawajiri is unlikely. Speculation out of Japan has Fight Entertainment Group holding off on announcing anything until the Aoki-Nagata bout at Dream 4. Even if their names were picked from a hat, compelling matches would undoubtedly be found. If Aoki advances, the most plausible semifinal matches would feature him against Uno, and Alvarez against Kawajiri.

Fill in the brackets any way you like. I'm still picking "The Crusher."

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