BOSTON - AUGUST 28: Gray Maynard (L) fights against Kenny Florian during their UFC lightweight bout at the TD Garden on August 28 2010 in Boston Massachusetts. (Photo by Josh Hedges/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
The popularity of Mixed Martial Arts has undergone a meteoric rise throughout the last five years. Not surprisingly, Arizona has been right in the middle of it all.
Arizona has always been a hotbed for combat sports.
ASU has continually pumped out All-American wrestler after All-American wrestler while Rage in the Cage (RitC) has become an institution in the Mixed Martial Arts community. Throughout its history, RitC has amassed 1631 fights, a figure so large that it currently stands as the fifth most matches to ever take place in an organization.
Thus, it is a relatively easy jump to say that we are one of the most consistent states in producing quality MMA athletes, perhaps because of the sweltering desert heat or the stillness of the dry, dusty air. Whatever it is, something about this state compels individuals to punch each other in the face for a living, and I, for one, am all for it.
Though, apparently I'm not the only similarly-minded person.
The World Extreme Cagefighting (WEC) is a MMA organization owned and operated by Zuffa LLC. For those who are not aware, Zuffa also happens to own a rather obscure company called the UFC. Basically, the WEC serves as the UFC's lighter weight divisions. With weight classes ranging from Lightweight (155 lbs.), Featherweight (145 lbs.), and Bantamweight (135 lbs.), the WEC consistently features explosive and exciting fights from the little guys.
In August, the WEC held a fan-vote contest to determine the location of their December card. Lo and behold, the rabid Arizona fanbase rallied together and beat out thirty other cities throughout the U.S. to claim the proverbial blue ribbon. For our efforts, WEC 53 will now be held in Phoenix, AZ on December 16.
The card is spectacular so far, and features two highly-anticipated title fights. Hometown hero Benson Henderson will defend his Lightweight Belt against Anthony Pettis, and Bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz will defend his title against Scott Jorgensen.
I urge everyone to go out and support this event. A successful show will, without question, lead to the recognition of Phoenix as a viable market for large MMA events.
But I digress. As a non-team sport with such a massive following, people always want to know one thing: Which fighter should be considered the best of the best? Enter the concept of pound-for-pound rankings.
We here at SB Nation Arizona just love to inject our two cents into these types of issues. As a primer for the December show, we have compiled a list of strictly Arizona-based fighters, regardless of weight class or organization, and ranked them based on a specific set of performance guidelines such as an individual's recent record, quality of opposition, and general finishing ability.
On that note, we present you our inaugural pound-for-pound rankings of homebrewed MMA fighters.
1. Gray Maynard (10-0)
Despite going into the fight as a heavy underdog, Phoenix-born Gray Maynard proved his claim as the number one contender in the UFC's lightweight division by thoroughly dominating Kenny Florian at UFC 118. Thus far, the Xtreme Couture product has defeated every man the UFC has put in front of him. Now the opportunity "The Bully" has been calling for has finally been awarded to him. For his triumph, Maynard has been granted the next shot at champion Frankie Edgar, a man he convincingly beat two years ago.
2. Ryan Bader (12-0)
Two years removed from winning season eight of "The Ultimate Fighter", the young light heavyweight had started to hear whispers regarding the mediocre quality of his opponents. However, after "Darth's" victory over former PRIDE fighter Antonio Rogerio Nogueira at UFC 119, it is clear that his road will no longer be filled with rainbows and cupcakes. Fighting out of Lion's Den Arizona, the unbeaten Bader is now surely in the mix in a very crowded division. Rumors are circulating that his next opponent may be fellow uber-prospect Jon "Bones" Jones.
3. Benson Henderson (12-1)
"Smooth" was victorious in his first defense of the newly unified WEC lightweight title, catching Donald Cerrone in an airtight guillotine choke just minutes into the first round. Fighting out of the MMA Lab, Henderson has proven himself a competent finisher, defeating four out of his last five opponents via either TKO or submission. Next up for the talented champion is a return home to Arizona, as his bout with the explosive Anthony Pettis will be the headliner of December's WEC 53 card.
4. C.B. Dollaway (11-2)
Since being derailed by Tom Lawlor at UFC 100, Dollaway has racked up three consecutive victories inside the Octagon, the most recent of which came against grizzled veteran Joe Doerksen via guillotine choke at UFC 119, earning the middleweight his second Submission of the Night honor. The former ASU All-American wrestler -- and current Lion's Den product -- is looking to stake his claim as a contender in the UFC's suddenly packed 185 lbs. division.
5. Ben Askren (6-0)
After defeating Dan Hornbuckle in June, Askren was declared the winner of Bellator's Second Welterweight Tournament. Next in line for the undefeated Lion's Den prospect is last year's tourney winner, Lyman Good. The two will face off in late October to unify the Bellator Welterweight Belt.
6. Aaron Simpson (7-1)
The "A-Train's" fast-track to stardom was derailed in June after being dismantled by Chris Leben, earning his first loss in the process. Never one for sitting out too long, the Lion's Den wrestler was scheduled for a middleweight tilt with Dave Branch on September 15. However, the former Arizona State coach was forced to withdraw from the fight at the last moment due to a severe staph infection. A bout with the always tough Mark Munoz has now been tentatively scheduled for UFC 123 in late November.
7. Jamie Varner (16-3-1)
The much-maligned Arizona Combat Sports product hasn't had the best year thus far. After losing his WEC Lightweight title to Benson Henderson in January, a June contest with Kamal Shalorus was ruled a draw despite the general consensus that Varner should have been awarded the decision. In an effort to return to his winning ways, "C-4" is expected to meet Donald Cerrone in a hotly anticipated rematch at WEC 51 on September 30. The bout will likely serve as a title eliminator.
8. Joe Riggs (33-11)
Forever the journeyman, Joe Riggs recovered from his January loss to Jay Hieron by decisively defeating Louis Taylor in the main event of August's Strikeforce Challengers card. Fighting out of Elite Performance, the Phoenix-born Riggs has ratcheted up his performance as of late, winning five of his last six fights. The future is unclear for "Diesel", though a possible return to the Welterweight division could be in the near future. Either Strikeforce or Rage in the Cage appear to be viable organizations for Riggs' next contest.
9. Drew Fickett (40-13)
The owner of a once bright future, Drew Fickett found himself in the midst of a horrid losing streak, dropping eight out of ten fights, including five in a row to close out 2009. However, 2010 has brought new fortunes, as the "Night Rider" has railed off four straight submission victories, three of which came on a single night via his run to the top of Shine Fights Lightweight Grand Prix. Now that Fickett has rediscovered his winning ways, it's up to the Southwest MMA product to see if he can recapture a slice of his former glory.
10. Richard Hale (14-3-1)
After having his winning streak snapped by Antwain Britt, Richard Hale returned to his old Phoenix stomping grounds and soundly defeated Mike Zanski to retain the Rage in the Cage Heavyweight belt. As both the RitC Light Heavyweight and Heavyweight champion, Hale's name is quickly rising throughout the ranks of Arizona MMA. The 6'4" behemoth has signed on to fight the up-and-coming Wisconsin product, Justin Lemke, in Top Combat Championship's October card.
11. Efrain Escudero (13-2)
The other "Ultimate Fighter" season eight winner has not fared as well as his brethren thus far. Seemingly on the road to recovering from his first career defeat, Escudero suffered another set-back, weighing in four pounds heavy and losing to Charles Oliveira via rear-naked choke at UFC Fight Night 22. The lightweight has now been cut by the UFC for his poor performance, giving him the dire distinction of being only the second "TUF" winner to be released from the promotion. A Southwest MMA product, Escudero must now reapply himself to the sport with the dedication that made him so successful in the first place.
12. George Roop (10-6-1)
Despite receiving Fight of the Night honors, Roop's March contest with featherweight brawler Leonard Garcia ended in an unsatisfying draw. A Team Tompkins prospect, and current Rage in the Cage Featherweight champion, George Roop is no stranger to adversity. The Tuscon-native will look to make amends in his next fight, a September WEC duel against the granite-chinned (and adequately nicknamed) "Korean Zombie", Chan Sung Jung.
13. Jesse Forbes (14-5)
Jesse Forbes' second foray into the UFC did not pan out well, as the middleweight was cut after dropping consecutive fights to Nick Catone and Ryan Jensen. With his lifetime UFC record standing at 0-3, the Lion's Den fighter was left looking for a significant rebound to reload his morale. "Kid Hercules" found the perfect foil, defeating Anthony Smith via TKO in the main event of September's Crowbar MMA Fall Brawl card.
14. Chris Gruetzemacher (6-1)
A fast-rising prospect out of the MMA Lab, featherweight Chris Gruetzemacher finally made his mark on the national scene with a brutal TKO victory over Ryan Diaz at Strikeforce Challengers 10. "Gritz" is looking to ride his newfound momentum as he puts his five fight win streak on the line in his next bout.
15. Steve Steinbeiss (4-4)
"The Hooligan" is the unluckiest of fighters. After losing his first UFC contest to Ryan Jensen because a referee mistakenly believed his thumbs-up sign was a tapout, the middleweight was given a rare second chance and promptly lost a controversial decision to Rob Kimmons. Now, with the most tragic 0-2 record that the UFC has seen in recent memory, the Arizona Combat Sports prospect may need to replenish his confidence through some local shows before attempting a third shot at the big show.
On the Bubble: Eddie Arizmendi, Seth Baczynski, Charles Brown, Edwin Dewees, Danny Martinez, Jesse Moreng.
Note: These rankings were assembled by the team at SB Nation Arizona and include the input of several followers of the sport and include the input of Nate Wilcox, SB Nation's MMA League Manager and founder of Bloody Elbow.com.