Hopefully that task gets easier Friday, when Melvin Guillard meets Jim Miller in the main event of the first UFC card to air on FX.
It’s a fight that, had it happened six months ago, would have likely produced a No. 1 contender. Midway through 2011, Miller was riding one of the longest active win streaks in the UFC at seven. Guillard was right behind with five.
As it turns out now, though, this is no top contender fight. Both lightweights closed out the year with a loss. Guillard was submitted in 47 seconds by Joe Lauzon, which was only slightly more deflating than the one-sided decision loss Miller suffered at the hands of Henderson.
If one of these guys isn’t the next challenger to the lightweight belt, however, who is? Nate Diaz began the year as a welterweight. Gray Maynard just had a shot; two actually. Donald Cerrone, Clay Guida, Anthony Pettis -- all have recent losses.
For that reason, Guillard (29-9-2) says going strictly off talent and quality of wins, it’s not crazy to suggest Friday should still be a top contender fight.
“Being fair, I see myself beating Jim and then fighting immediately for the title,” Guillard told ESPN.com. “But other people’s opinion matters. To fans, a win over Jim Miller doesn’t solidify me as a top contender. If that did happen, I would have to deal with fans telling me it’s not fair and that I’m not ready.
“But I think it’s the No. 1 contender fight. You look at the talent pool in 155 and, hands down, me and Jim are the top two guys.”
Miller (20-3), who believes he was one win away from a title shot before the loss to Henderson, offered a slightly different picture. With Maynard having lost only to the champion and Diaz’s impressive showing against Cerrone, Miller admitted he had likely fallen behind those names.
“Gray’s only loss was to Frankie, so you probably have to have him still at No. 3,” Miller said. “Diaz put himself way up there. He just won and my last fight was a loss, so I’d put him ahead of me right now.
“It’s so dense at the top. I’m looking for tough fights. I’m trying to earn that spot again.”
The truth is there likely isn’t a wrong answer here. So little separates each of the top lightweights, the next title contender will be the one who finds a way to stand out. Diaz stood out at the end of 2011. Guillard and Miller have the opportunity to at the start of 2012.
Talking on his loss to Henderson, Miller described it as “a detour more than a setback.” Even though the winner of this fight is likely still one fight away from the belt, the detour doesn’t have to be a long one.
“Before Donald lost, I thought he’d be next,” Guillard said. “Now you’ve got Nate creeping back up. You just don’t know what’s going to happen.
“Maybe it will take one more fight; maybe another. I don’t know. But I want it to be in 2012, because that’s when I said I’d win the title.”
Miller would welcome Aldo, but not weight cut
With the UFC running out of viable options for featherweight champion Jose Aldo, we could see more lightweights make the jump in search of a quicker title path.
Miller, however, says he won’t be one of them.
As badly as the seven-year veteran wants to hold his first UFC title, Miller told ESPN.com that cutting to 145 pounds is not a realistic option. He’s done so just once in his career, for a fight in 2006.
“At that time, I only walked around at 162 pounds,” Miller said. “I’ll push 180 pounds now. I’d love the opportunity to fight Aldo. It’s out of respect. That’s the kind of challenge I like, but I have no plans on dropping the weight.
“Wait until he makes the move to lightweight, then I want a crack at him.”
Guillard says impatience, not overconfidence, led to loss
Following the quick loss to Lauzon at UFC 136, some accused Guillard of having zero respect for his opponent, illustrated by the way he danced his way to the Octagon.
Guillard told ESPN.com he actually asked to fight Lauzon because of his respect for him and downplayed any attention critics placed on his pre-fight behavior.
“I always walk out like that,” Guillard said. “Actually, I never know exactly how I’m going to walk out until that moment comes. That’s just walking out of a tunnel. I didn’t know walking out of a tunnel was such a big deal to a fight.”
What did cost him, Guillard said, was he tried to make things happen too early in the fight. To help him increase his patience, both in the cage and in personal matters, Guillard enlisted the help of a sports psychologist for the first time after the loss.
That doesn’t mean, however, he’s restraining the aggressive style that’s come to define him. Guillard says he’ll always be a high pace, knockout-style fighter. He’s just focusing more on the little things that facilitate the finish.
“Don’t worry,” Guillard said. “I’m not going to be a boring fighter. I would kick my own self in the back of the head if I ever became a boring fighter.”