There are more championship-quality fighters in the UFC's lightweight division than there are in any of its five weight classes.
Joe Stevenson and B.J. Penn will meet Saturday in the main event of UFC 80 in Newcastle Upon Tyne, England, for the vacant lightweight belt. The winner will face former champion Sean Sherk in the spring.
Penn may be the most gifted fighter in the sport and is one of the game's top 10 pound-for-pound best. Stevenson has won 13 of his last 14 and is good enough that many around the UFC believe his fight with Penn is a toss-up.
Sherk has never lost at lightweight and his only losses at welterweight came to future Hall of Famers Georges St. Pierre and Matt Hughes.
Competing in a division with just those three at the top would be tough, Sam Stout concedes.
But the UFC's lightweight division goes far deeper than that, with men like Kenny Florian, Roger Huerta, Tyson Griffin and Frankie Edgar, among many others, who have championship aspirations of their own.
The soft-spoken Stout, 23, knows he has a long way to go to get past that group to make it to the top of the heap at 155 pounds.
But he can take solace from the fact that no less an authority than UFC president Dana White is thrilled with what he's done.
White is particularly enamored with Stout's last outing in the UFC, a unanimous decision loss to Spencer Fisher in Hollywood, Fla., that was a knockdown, drag-out type brawl seen more often in old Spaghetti Western movies.
"He keeps fighting like he did against Spencer and he's going to get a lot of chances," White said of Stout.
Stout, who is 12-3-1, wasn't particularly thrilled to lose in his June 12 rematch with Fisher, which was a rematch of an equally exciting decision win over Fisher at UFC 58. But he recognized that he had made a name for himself by the way he competed.
Stout stood in the pocket and threw bombs with Fisher for most of the 15 minutes, with action that had the crowd standing and roaring its approval.
The one-time kick boxer knew he'd lost the bout as soon as the final horn sounded, but realizes he came out a winner in at least one aspect.
"People really liked the fight," said Stout, who meets Per Eklund on the non-televised portion of the UFC 80 card on Saturday. "I've had so many people come up to me and talk about that fight and they never even mention the fact I lost. They're just like, 'Hey, man, that was a great, great fight.' So, I guess if you have to lose one, that's the way you want to do it. Give 'em something they remember."
The bout was memorable for many because of the sheer number of punches to the chin that each man landed.
That's always been one of Stout's strengths. But he's struggled when the fights have gone to the mat, which is why he's spent his training camp in Las Vegas working out at Xtreme Couture.
He's trained with some of the most complete fighters in the world and said he's been stunned by the improvement in his takedown defense and his grappling.
"And the good thing about it, there probably aren't too many better camps I can be in than Xtreme Couture, so if I can handle myself all right there, then I know I have a pretty good shot of handling myself OK in a fight," said Stout, a native of London, Ontario.
White concedes that Stout's ground game needs plenty of work, but said he shows progress every time out.
And as you as he is, he already has experience against some of the game's best and has plenty of time to make the next step toward title contention.
"This is a sport where it takes a long time to really become a true mixed martial artist," White said. "There is so much to it. But Sam is so young and he's already a really good fighter as it is and he's only going to get better.
"I get excited when I think of that division because not only do we have a lot of talent, we have a lot of young talent. Those guys are going to be going crazy against each other for a long time."
At 34, Sherk is the only elite fighter over 30. Penn is still just 29. Stevenson is only 25. Huerta is 24. Griffin is 23. Edgar is 26.
Stout knows he has a lot of room to improve, but admits he's not the only one. "Guys work so hard because it's so competitive, so if you don't improve and just stay the same, guys are just going right by you," Stout said. "I think I'm a lot better overall fighter today than I was when I fought Spencer. That's my goal (on Saturday), to show I'm more complete than I was before."
- Sean Sherk