Lost amid all the angst and anger surrounding the cancellation of UFC 151 is the fact that the light heavyweight -- or light heavyweight/middleweight -- pecking order has grown increasingly muddled.
The man at the top, Jon Jones, has already been established by oddsmakers as a heavy betting favorite (as high as -1200) in his UFC 152 showdown with former promotional 205-pound king Vitor Belfort. No surprise there. Whether the opponent is Belfort, Dan Henderson, Chael Sonnen, Lyoto Machida, Mauricio Rua, Alexander Gustafsson, Christian M’Pumbu , CM Punk or Ron Artest, Jonny Bones will be expected to win -- and win handily -- in all bouts for the foreseeable future. No amount of ill will toward the champion is going to change that fact.
What is not as clear is who is next in line should Jones take care of business and dispatch “The Phenom” come Sept. 22. Several men have a legitimate claim, and, at first glance, none seems to be more convincing than the other. Here is a look at the Top 5 candidates for the No. 1 contender status following UFC 152.
Dan Henderson: Coach speak tells us that no player should lose his starting job as a result of an injury. Wally Pipp and countless other professional athletes would beg to differ. It seems unfair to deny “Hendo” a title shot simply because he hurt his knee during training camp, but the increasingly demanding UFC calendar waits for no man. While Henderson’s camp has already made it clear it believes the former two-division Pride Fighting Championships titleholder should reclaim his place upon returning to the Octagon, much depends upon how quickly his knee heals. Any type of significant setback means that the Team Quest product could get leapfrogged.
Chael Sonnen: If you listened to the now-infamous audio from the UFC 151 conference call, you would think that UFC President Dana White was all but ready to erect a statue in Sonnen’s honor outside the Ultimate Fighting Championship offices in Las Vegas. It might not be fair, but no one emerged from the cancellation debacle smelling sweeter than the self-proclaimed “Gangster from West Linn.” Without a viable 205-pound win of which to speak, Sonnen has used a crafty promotional campaign to launch himself to the forefront of the championship discussion -- something that simply beating Forrest Griffin in December would not have done. It does not hurt to be one of the White’s favorites, and Sonnen’s ability to sell fights makes a potential matchup with Jones all the more lucrative, regardless of how lopsided the actual result might be.
Lyoto Machida: Following his impressive knockout of Ryan Bader at UFC on Fox 4, Machida was named No. 1 contender by White. “His management has been all over me, terrorizing me to get him back to the title,” White said after the Aug. 4 event. “What I can tell you is he wants it bad. That’s very important to me -- how bad a guy actually wants that fight -- and Machida wants it bad.” Apparently he does not want it bad enough to rematch Jones with only a month of camp under his belt, which is understandable considering the results of their first meeting, when the Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts product submitted “The Dragon” with a guillotine choke in the second round at UFC 140. While Machida has not received nearly as much heat for refusing a UFC 152 bout with Jones as the champ did for refusing a UFC 151 pairing with Sonnen, it now appears that the karateka will have to add a quality win to his resume before he gets another chance at UFC gold.
Mauricio Rua: Though he was outdone by Machida in the UFC on Fox 4 free-for-all, Rua makes this list instead of Rashad Evans because “Shogun” was supposedly offered the Jones fight after Machida declined. Like Machida, Rua did not feel that a month would be adequate time to prepare for Jones. Considering the lopsided nature of their first meeting -- which earned Sherdog.com’s “Beatdown of the Year” honors for 2011 -- it is hard to fault Rua here. While his scrap against Brandon Vera was highly entertaining and he ultimately emerged with a victory, it was not the type of performance to inspire confidence that Rua would fare any better in a second meeting with Jones. If the Brazilian makes a statement against Alexander Gustafsson in December, then he will find himself right back in the title mix.
Alexander Gustafsson: The lanky Swede rounds out the contenders list based on his considerable potential. Gustafsson has remained quietly in the background since his three-round verdict over Thiago Silva on his home soil in April. Thus far, the promotion has been content to take its time with the 25-year-old, but that will change when he locks horns with Rua at UFC on Fox 5 in the biggest test of his career to date. The overall skill set of “The Mauler” makes him the most interesting potential adversary for Jones down the road, but do not expect to see that fight until 2013 at best.
As we so painfully learned last week, nothing in the MMA world is set in stone. The five men listed above are far from alone -- as the likes of Rashad Evans and Phil Davis also figure to have a say in the molding of the division; or perhaps someone such as Glover Teixeira emerges as the next hot 205-pound commodity. At the moment, there is no clear-cut favorite for No. 1 contender status at light heavyweight. The most fair and just choice: a healthy Henderson, although a little less than a month ago both Machida and Rua thought they were competing for a crack at the belt. The most potential to beat Jones: Gustafsson. The biggest payday: Sonnen.
Although Jones made the right choice by not accepting a bout with the former middleweight title challenger at UFC 151, the fight with Sonnen needs to be made at some point. He has emerged as White’s champion without possessing a title. He has talked, tweeted and taunted his way to this point, and Jones has to be at least a little bit irked by the whole routine. He would not be human if he did not want some kind of redemption for the UFC 151 fallout. Sonnen is neither the most logical nor the most competitive matchup for the champion. However, Internet traffic suggests he is the most bankable and buzzworthy opponent out there.
Does that mean Sonnen-Jones is destined to happen? If you have been watching events unfold for the past few days, you already know the answer.