May 25, 2017

UFC Fight Night 109: Cirkunov, Oezdemir In Great Situation In Light Heavyweight Division

By Adam Martin

It wasn’t long ago that the light heavyweight division was the UFC’s marquee weight class, but in recent years the division has fallen by the wayside. First, veterans like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Quinton Jackson, Chael Sonnen, and Rich Franklin either retired from the sport or left to greener pastures like Bellator. In addition, veterans like Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida dropped down to middleweight, further weakening the division. And then there are guys like Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, who used to rule the division, but are now on the downsides of their careers.

Oh, and there was this guy named Jon Jones who destroyed everyone in his path, further depleting the division. Yes, Jones was the best fighter in the world for many years, and might still be, but losing him for long stretches was terrible for the division. When Jones screwed up -- not just once, but many times -- and had his title stripped from him, that hurt the UFC badly, and it made the light heavyweight division kind of boring. He’s supposed to return at UFC 214, but at this point, it’s hard to fully trust him.

It also didn’t help that the UFC then let fighters like Ryan Bader and Phil Davis go to Bellator. They also let Nikita Krylov go to Russia. Both men are universally-ranked in the top 10 at 205, but the UFC felt it was the right decision to let them go. The division took another hit when Anthony “Rumble” Johnson, the most exciting fighter in the division with Jones out, retired.

The only guys who have been pulling their weight are the current champion Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira, and Jimi Manuwa. All four men have been destroyers for the most part, and have kept the light heavyweight division at least somewhat interesting with Jones out of the picture. But other than those four men (and Johnson, who only retired just recently), it’s been slim pickings for a while. And all of those fighters minus Gustafsson are in their late 30s, so it’s not like these guys can keep fighting forever.

With most of these fighters getting up there in age, it’s crucial for the UFC to develop prospects to contend for the belt as these other fighters approach the downsides of their careers. That’s where Misha Cirkunov and Volkan Oezdemir come in handy.

Cirkunov is 30, but that’s young by light heavyweight standards, and considering he’s still untested against elite fighters, it’s fair to still call him a prospect, though he could soon be a true contender. The Latvian-Canadian is 13-2 overall in MMA and 4-0 in the UFC with four straight finishes. With his chiseled, muscular look and brutal fighting style inside the cage, he’s a guy who could become a star for the UFC, especially in Canada, where stars are badly needed. Of course, the UFC almost lost him to free agency -- UFC President Dana White called him a “flake” -- but thankfully cooler heads prevailed and new UFC matchmaker Mick Maynard was able to ink Cirkunov to a new deal to keep him in the promotion. Imagine if he went to Bellator and joined that promotion’s light heavyweight division? The UFC must be thankful that didn’t happen, because he’s one half of this weekend’s co-main event at UFC Fight Night 109.

The other half of this weekend’s co-main event is Oezdemir, who won his UFC debut earlier this year in split decision style over Ovince Saint-Preux. It wasn’t the most exciting fight, but for Oezdemir to come in on short notice and defeat a top-10 light heavyweight is impressive any way you look at it. At only 27, Oezdemir is definitely a prospect at 205, and with a 13-1 record in MMA, he’s clearly a talented guy. Ironically, Bellator had him and let him go, so good for the UFC for signing him at a time when the promotion was letting a lot of fighters go. So far, it’s looking like the matchmakers made a nice signing with Oezdemir, as he’s a top-10 light heavyweight, and those don’t grow on trees.

In a division where there are barely any fighters 30 years or younger, both Misha Cirkunov and Volkan Oezdemir have the potential to be title contenders for a very long time. Although they will fight each other in Stockholm this weekend, and only the winning fighter will move on to a top-five opponent his next time out (possibly even the winner of the main event between Gustafsson and Teixeira), the losing fighter won’t be in bad shape in a division where new blood is badly needed. In fact, it’s realistic to imagine both men fighting for the title in the UFC’s shallowest weight class at some point in the next few years. For now, though, both men aren’t looking that far, only at each other. The fans are dying for a new contender at 205, and the UFC needs to build both of them up for promotional purposes. The UFC has put both men in the position to succeed, now it’s up to both of them to do their thing. Whoever wins will emerge as the new big thing at 205, so don’t forget their names.

UFC Fight Night 109: Gustafsson vs. Teixeira takes place May 28, 2017 at Ericsson Globe in Stockholm, Sweden.

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