Occupy The Throne – Edition #24

In this edition of Occupy The Throne, Samer Kadi and I take a look at the state of the UFC Light Heavyweight division.

Jeremy Lambert: The light heavyweight division has long been the marquee division for the UFC. Thanks to Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Chuck Liddell, the division helped skyrocket the UFC to success. Following those three men stabilizing the division and Liddell’s reign of dominance, the 205 lb title was passed around more often than Rihanna at the BET Awards. Quinton Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, and Mauricio Rua either failed to defend the title or dropped the strap after just one defense.

Then Jon Jones burst onto the scene like a speeding Bentley. “Bones” destroyed Rua to capture the title and has since gone on to defeat former champions Jackson, Machida, and Evans and looking unstoppable in the process.

This past Saturday night at UFC on FOX 4, the light heavyweight division was on display as the four men in the two main events had a chance to earn a title shot with an impressive victory. At the end of the night, Machida punched Ryan Bader unconscious and then Dana White punched Lyoto’s ticket for a future date with the champion.

Samer Kadi: UFC on FOX 4 was a showcase for some of the light heavyweight division’s finest (and Brandon Vera). The action delivered, but only one man truly came out looking genuinely impressive. As such, it came as no surprise when UFC president Dana White declared Lyoto Machida to be the top contender in the light heavyweight division.

Machida’s title shot however, highlights the current problem at 205. As good as the division is, it is an extremely top-heavy division, and there is a significant discrepancy in talent between the top 6-7 fighters and the rest of its roster. That problem is all the more magnified when considering the fact that the current champion has soundly beaten almost all of the top contenders. A division containing Rashad Evans, Mauricio Rua, Lyoto Machida, Quinton Jackson, and Dan Henderson is naturally one of the most star-studded in the sport. And yet, with a victory over Henderson in three weeks’ time, Jones would have defeated all those men.

It is a problem once suffered by the welterweight division, where champion Georges St-Pierre dominated all of the top contenders – some of them more than once. However, the rise of the likes of Carlos Condit, Jake Ellenberger, Johny Hendricks, and Martin Kampmann provided the division with some much needed fresh blood. Unfortunately, with the exception of the brilliant Alexander Gustafson – and it’s only a matter of time before he gets his shot – the light heavyweight division has yet to witness a strong impact by anyone other than the usual suspects.

Jeremy Lambert: There seemed to be hope for Phil Davis to rise above the pack given his wrestling background and athleticism, but he was brought along a little too quickly, got dominated by Rashad Evans, and then lost a ton of fans and respect on Saturday night when he blatantly poked newcomer Wagner Prado in the eye. It would be silly to go ahead and write off Davis because, in terms of raw talent, he’s about the only guy that can match Jones, but his stock has taken a major hit since the start of this year.

Outside of Davis and Gustafson though, the division lacks an up and coming star. Now that could change in a year, but we must not forget that Jon Jones is only 25, already at the top of the division, and is improving with every fight. The guy that eventually dethrones “Bones” is likely preparing for his first year of pre-school right now.

The middleweight division is having a similar problem with Anderson Silva’s current run, but we’ve at least seen a weakness in Silva’s game and he’s getting up there in age. Sooner or later his reflexes are going to fail him or he’s going to retire on top, and then the division will have a whole new life. That’s not the case with the Jones and the light heavyweight division.

Samer Kadi: It is important not to let the current state of the division overshadow a bigger and more significant picture: we are in the presence of greatness. In Jon Jones, we have a fighter writing history at an unusually young age, and providing fans with some jaw dropping moments along the way. The division didn’t look this bleak when some of the aforementioned men were trading the title with the sort of frequency that would make professional wrestling fans jealous.

The other “problem” is that unlike Georges St-Pierre and Anderson Silva, Jon Jones is a very active fighter. While the dominant duo competes no more than two times per year, thus allowing contenders to develop, Jones has competed four times in 2011 alone. That is an astounding rate, and while Jones is unlikely to maintain it, contenders have already been eliminated with such pace that Lyoto Machida, who nine months ago got choked unconscious by the champion, is already in line for a rematch.

The issue is not with Machida himself, or his attributes as a fighter. After all, he has a strong case of being the second most talented fighter in the division, and at this point, is likely to topple anyone that isn’t nicknamed “Bones.” However, another loss to Jones so soon after their first fight could prove to be a crucial blow to his career, at least as far as his title aspirations go. The consequences of a loss are that anything Machida subsequently does in the division will ultimately prove fruitless.

However, all is not gloomy as far as light heavyweight contenders are concerned. All it takes is a pair of fresh contenders to spice things up. As mentioned, Alexander Gustafson is currently our biggest hope, but Phil Davis – who has been mishandled by the UFC by getting thrown to the wolves too soon – must not be overlooked. 2012 hasn’t been a kind year to “Mr. Wonderful” but his talent is undeniable. His striking may not have come along as quickly as one would hope, and stylistically, he doesn’t match up well with Jones. However, at this point, it is not about who can beat the champion. Instead, it is about finding someone fresh to fight against him.

Of course, all these issues would magically evaporate if a well-placed H-bomb finds the champion’s chin in September.

Jeremy Lambert: A Dan Henderson victory at UFC 151 would certainly change the landscape of the division. It would set up an ultra intriguing bout between himself and Machida, which is a fight that fans were clamoring for as a #1 contender’s bout following Henderson’s victory over Rua. Henderson is obviously a very flawed fighter, but his right hand and chin keep him in any fight once the door closes. While a victory over Jones might be considered a fluke, it’ll breathe a new life into the division for the time being.

Once you get past Jones and his dominance, there is still a ton to like about the division thanks to a number of stars and talented fighters. Rua has rarely been in a boring fight, Machida is still as talented as they come, Henderson has always been a warrior that can produce a big highlight with one punch, Evans is underrated despite his success in the UFC and a solid draw, Jackson and Forrest Griffin are usable characters even if their best days are behind them, Thiago Silva and Antontio Rogerio Nogueira are talented and exciting competitors who are relatively well-known, and Gover Texeria has already been given “killer” status by Joe Rogan. Throw any of those guys against each other and chances are it’ll be an exciting fight that the majority of fans will want to see.

There’s also the possibility of a guy like Chael Sonnen moving up to 205 or a guy like Daniel Cormier (health permitting) moving down.

So while it’s easy to watch a lot of these fighters and say, “He did a good job, but Jon Jones would kill him,” it’s just as easy to simply enjoy the fights as they take place and let Jones destroy the victor when the time comes.

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