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When Anthony Johnson flattened out Ryan Bader and pounded him into a violent slumber in the UFC on Fox 18 main event on Saturday in Newark, New Jersey, all I could think about was the size of the chasm between light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier and the rest of the division. Sure, Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson had solid performances against Cormier, but in the end, he prevailed by solid margins. He submitted Johnson in the third round and outpointed Gustafsson by a wider spread than the split decision that was handed down after their match would indicate.
That has to be a scary thought for the rest of the division when the most dominant force in the sport -- inside the cage anyway -- is preparing to make his comeback in April. Jon Jones separated himself from Cormier by an even greater distance by shellacking him in their title showdown just over a year ago. Unless something mighty has changed, it seems like a foregone conclusion that Jones will reclaim his belt come UFC 197 in Las Vegas.
For the rest of the 205-pound weight class, there may be a sprig of hope. Jones stated his desire to fight Stipe Miocic for the “real” heavyweight title on less that two weeks notice in an attempt to save the previously named UFC 196 from being demoted to UFC Fight Night status. While his overtures were not accepted, his willingness to move up to heavyweight -- something many have speculated about for quite some time -- may open the door for some meaningful competition for the 205-pounf division.
As for Johnson and his performance, things really went according to the script most prognosticators expected. He avoided Bader’s early takedown attempt and didn’t let him slither off the hook once he gained the upper hand. It was impressive but not at all surprising. Johnson put everything he possibly could on “DC” in their title match in May, and while he had him wobbled, he couldn’t capitalize and it cost him. He looked to have improved his grappling significantly under the tutelage of Neil Melanson, but will it be enough?
I have my doubts Johnson could get past Cormier in a rematch, but that just isn’t the likely scenario. If he wants to wear Ultimate Fighting Championship gold, he will probably have the unenviable task of getting through Jones. Honestly, the best chance for all of these light heavyweight challengers is for “Bones” to make a permanent move to heavyweight.
Big Ben Comes Up Big
Speaking of heavyweights, how about Ben Rothwell rattling off four straight wins to cement his place in the top five of the division? With the champion Fabricio Werdum and his dance partner Cain Velasquez in the infirmary, it could be an interesting time for matchmaker Joe Silva, as he tries to set up the pecking order for a title shot. It seems like the previously mentioned Miocic would be next in line, but title shots are a tricky business in the UFC.
With Alistair Overeem staring at free agency, the top guys on the disabled list and Jones waiting in the wings, the title picture is as cloudy as ever. For a guy like Rothwell, the fact that he is even in the conversation is a minor miracle. People have been writing off this guy for years, and all he does is keep on moving forward. Well, that and he does the crazy maniacal laugh thing of his. Ben, please stop, OK?
I know it sounds crazy but with the way the heavyweight division has been going lately, I could see Rothwell getting a crack at the title before the end of 2016. Who would have predicted that even a year ago? Yep, nobody.
I have to say, I’m extremely happy for my old buddy. Not too many fighters can boast a 15-year career and 45 professional fights, much less still being at the top end of their division. No matter how it shakes out for Rothwell, it has been a great run. However, it would be pretty sweet to see him put the cherry on top and wrap that UFC strap around his waist before it’s all said and done, no matter how unlikely that may seem.
First, they came for Ronda Rousey, and no one really paid attention. Next, they came for Paige VanZant, and still, no one lifted a finger. Now that they’ve taken away Sage Northcutt from the ranks of the unbeaten, will anyone stand up and take notice?
Is poor Conor McGregor next? I kid, I kid.
Seriously, this is not the end of the world for the 19-year-old star who burst on the scene and grabbed the focus of the sport with his strange but adorable persona. It’s obvious the kid has some skills to go with some off-the-charts athleticism that, if harnessed, could propel him to big things in mixed martial arts. The only thing is, he’s a little baby child in a world of men who rely on fighting to provide for themselves and their families.
Nothing is going to come easy for Mr. Northcutt. He has, through no fault of his own, become a punchline for other fighters who see his salary and wonder why they aren’t making as much. They also ponder why they get a fraction of the press he does; and after his latest performance, they all feel vindicated in their criticism of him. For those of you who may have missed it, Northcutt tapped to a Bryan Barberena head-and-arm choke from half guard. There was no way to sugarcoat it: The decision to tap out was probably premature and not just by a little bit.
It showed his lack of experience has been camouflaged by his natural ability and determination and that he has a long way to go before anyone is going to consider him an elite fighter at either 155 or 170 pounds. This should not be news to anyone, but with the intense spotlight comes crazy expectations from some. With any luck, this will allow everyone to pump the brakes a bit and let young Northcutt continue along his “awesome” journey in the martial arts.
Sherdog.com Executive Editor Greg Savage can be reached by email at [email protected] or via Twitter @TheSavageTruth.