March 22, 2017

UFC: What's Next For The Light Heavyweight Division?

By Adam Martin

The UFC light heavyweight division is in a state of transition, and it will be interesting to see how things play out for in the next few months.

What was once the UFC's marquee division is now arguably the weakest weight class in the promotion, as a suspension to the former champion, multiple fighters leaving the company via free agency, and just an overall lack of depth have hurt it to the point where it's difficult to name even 15 quality fighters in the division.

So, let's talk about 205.

The current UFC Light Heavyweight champion is Daniel Cormier, and he'll rematch #1 contender Anthony "Rumble" Johnson at UFC 210 in Buffalo in April. That's a great fight, and easily the best fight the division can produce at the moment. According to UFC President Dana White (so, take this with a grain of salt), the winner of Cormier-Johnson 2 will fight former UFC Light heavyweight Champion Jon Jones in July once Jones' suspension for banned substances is up. Jones is arguably the best MMA fighter of all time, but considering all of his legal and personal issues the last few years, it's hard to count on hm for anything at this point, though with a lack of stars in the UFC right now the promotion needs him more than ever.

After the "big three" of Cormier, Johnson, and Jones are Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira, two great fighters who fight at UFC Fight Night 109 this May in Stockholm, Sweden. You'd have to assume the winner of that fight will be throwing his hat into the title picture (particularly if Jones has another hiccup) for at the very least a #1 contender's fight. The thing is, though, while Gustafsson and Teixeira are both great fighters, both guys have had their chances at the belt before, and what the division is sorely lacking right now are fresh contenders for the belt.

Letting go of Phil Davis and Ryan Bader, two light heavyweights in their prime, to Bellator certainly hasn't helped things, but fortunately for the UFC the promotion was able to keep rising star Misha Cirkunov from leaving for greener pastures via free agency, and Cirkunov will take on another prospect in Volkan Oezdemir at UFC Sweden. Considering how bad the division is right now, as well as how few new faces the division features, the winner of Cirkunov vs. Oezdemir will put himself in a great position for a big fight in his next outing, perhaps against the winner of Gustafsson-Teixeira, or perhaps against Jimi Manuwa, who knocked out Corey Anderson (who was somehow a top-10 guy in the UFC's rankings) at UFC Fight Night 107 to keep his spot as one of the UFC's top five contenders at 205 pounds.

Next in the top 15 are veteran gatekeepers such as Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Ovince Saint-Preux, Antonio Rogerio Nogueria, and fighters such as Ilir Latifi, Patrick Cummins, Jan Blackowicz and Gian Villante. These are guys who are talented, but very flawed. Then there's prospect Tyson Pedro, who is only ranked by the UFC because it's nearly impossible to rank 15 guys. This is why losing fighters like Nikita Krylov to free agency hurts, because having depth in divisions is important, and it's why divisions like lightweight and welterweight thrive, because there are so many fighters competing for those 15 rankings spots.

So yeah, light heavyweight is in a really bad place right now. There are only about five or six fighters at best who could realistically challenge for the belt, there are only a few high-level gatekeepers to test prospects against, and there are only a few prospects that could be in the title picture in a few years. It's a sad division at the moment, and a far cry from where the weight class was not even a decade ago, when it featured guys like Jones, Rua, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Quinton Jackson, and even Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Rich Franklin and Forrest Griffin -- all big names -- in the top-10. Now, it's nothing back an afterthought.

It's hard to say what the solution is. Perhaps some heavyweights moving down would be helpful, or perhaps some middleweights could move up. It would also be nice if the sport paid more, so bigger athletes could take a run at MMA instead of pursuing traditional sports instead, because right now the prospect pool at 205 is pretty sad. Ultimately, having Jones back is going to be good for the division and good for the sport, but considering all his problems, that's no sure thing. What is a sure thing is that what was once the promotion's premier division is now one of the worst divisions in the UFC, and that doesn't look to change anytime soon.

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