By Adam Martin
The light heavyweight division is one of the most shallow weight classes in the UFC, and it’s not often that a new fighter emerges as a possible contender in the division. So when it does happen, it’s quite exciting. Part of that has to do with former champ Jon Jones’ dominance over 205 lbs for the last five years, up until the last year or so when he ran into a number of legal issues. That has partially opened the door to new fighters getting to wear the gold and fight for it, like Daniel Cormier and Anthony Johnson, but overall it’s the same contenders at the top of the heap fighting each other, a list that includes DC and “Rumble” plus Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira.
With Jones out of the picture now, and the division in need of fresh contenders more than ever to draw eyeballs back to a division that historically was one of the UFC’s “money-weight” classes, the door is open for new fighters to take that next big step in their careers and get closer to jumping into title contention. One of the fighters who can take advantage of these newfound opportunities at 205 lbs is Ilir Latifi, who fights Ryan Bader this weekend at UFC Fight Night 93 in Hamburg, Germany, in what is the biggest fight of Latifi’s career to date.
With a full camp in tow, Latifi returned to the cage nearly a year later in March 2014 in London, England when he took on veteran kickboxer Cyrille Diabate. Latifi showed up in much better shape for that fight, displaying the strength and physique that we now know he is capable of having, and tapped Diabate with a ninja choke in the first round, retiring Diabate in the process.
A few months later, Latifi knocked out Chris Dempsey in the first round in Dublin, Ireland, and all of a sudden there was some hype behind the big Swede. Unfortunately for Latifi, the hype died down when he was kicked in the body and TKO’d by Jan Blachowicz in his hometown of Stockholm, Sweden, and like what happens to anyone in the UFC when they lose, he had to get back on the wagon and right the ship.
Hans Stringer, Sean O’Connell, and Gian Villante, and becoming a fan favorite for both his in-cage exploits and his humorous social media presence. He knocked out Stringer and O’Connell in the first round, and while the decision win over Villante was somewhat disappointing, it was a win, and it was that victory that earned him a ranking in the UFC’s official Top 15 and a date against one of the top 10 light heavyweights in the world in Bader.
Latifi vs. Bader is a very interesting style matchup, as both men are explosive wrestlers with knockout power, but Latifi has proven to have an iron chin, while Bader has been finished on more than one occasion. (Bader has fought a much higher level of competition, though.) Surprisingly, both men are 33 years of age, although you wouldn’t know it, as it seems like Bader is nearing the end of his prime while
Latifi seems to be right smack-dab in it. In a division that is dying for new contenders for Cormier, Latifi has a golden opportunity to pick up a big win over Bader and emerge as a serious title threat.
The oddsmakers have set Bader as the betting favorite in the bout, and the line has been holding steady, but shrewd observers of the sport are already eyeing Latifi as an underdog with a good chance of pulling off the upset. If he does, he’ll likely earn himself a fight against a top contender on his way down like Teixeira, and if he can win that sort of fight, Latifi could be getting a title shot in a year’s time. That’s not bad for a guy who is only in the UFC because he was a short-notice replacement three years ago. Not bad at all.
UFC Fight Night 93: Arlovski vs. Barnett takes place on September 3, 2016 at Barclaycard Arena in Hamburg, Germany.