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We perpetually lament the moribund state of heavyweight prizefighting, and this week, it’s a gripe that’s especially appropriate with the dissolution of Fabricio Werdum-Cain Velasquez 2. There’s supposedly a natural, organic magnetism in heavyweight prizefighting, but the fact of the matter is that despite a handful of greats and owing much to its lineage as an open-weight free-for-all, it has never been modern MMA’s glamour division.
Nope, that honor quite obviously goes to the light heavyweight division, the weight class that has been at the forefront of MMA for the better part of the last 15 years. It’s the division that houses the sport’s greatest fighter, Jon Jones, regardless of whether or not he has been stripped of the Ultimate Fighting Championship title. It’s the division headlining in primetime on network television this Saturday, as Ryan Bader and Anthony Johnson square off in a de facto 205-pound title eliminator. Unfortunately, it’s also a division that’s starting to stink.
Walk with me for a moment: This week, New York District Court Judge Kimba Wood denied the UFC’s preliminary injunction that would allow Zuffa to promote Jon Jones-Daniel Cormier at Madison Square Garden on April 23. Of course, this was all political posturing anyhow. The UFC’s entire pretense was that current law allowed it to operate under a third-party sanctioning body, a situation that would mean zero dollars going into the collective coffers of New York. Theoretically, this would spark legislative change fully regulating MMA in the state, which would inevitably delay the UFC’s New York debut by a few months.
Long story short, Jones-Cormier was never going to happen in New York and was used as a political tool to hopefully expedite the process of full regulation in the state. Therefore, barring any sudden scheduling changes or catastrophic injuries, expect Jones and Cormier to lock it up again April 23 in Las Vegas or Anaheim, Calif. Then comes the most important question: What comes next?
Light heavyweight might be MMA’s mainstay marquee division and it still has a handful of elite talent, but as we soldier deeper into 2016, the distress signals coming from 205 pounds become more apparent. With the Jones-Cormier rematch coming up in relatively short order and an imminent Bader-Johnson eliminator, we have a general sense of how the division will play out in the Octagon for the rest of the year. It’s not an especially enthusing picture. While Cormier was spirited in his first challenge against Jones a year ago, he’ll be a rightful underdog later this year; and while Bader has a chance to outlast and outgrapple Johnson, his penchant for running face first into heavy artillery in big fights can’t be overlooked, especially against one of the sport’s biggest hitters.
Most likely, we’re looking at Jones fighting Cormier in April, followed by Johnson in the late summer or early fall, health and schedule permitting. If Jones beats Johnson, he has essentially beaten every outstanding light heavyweight the UFC has to offer. If we end up with Bader besting Johnson -- an outcome that would warm my heart, since Bader is overdue for a day in championship court -- it becomes a rematch and one Jones would almost certainly dominate again.
On top of the weight class showing some of its cracks, this week’s dissolution and repurposing of the original UFC 196 card took the idea of Jones fighting at heavyweight and suddenly made it seem more immediately possible, tangible and real. With two more wins, Jones will have effectively cleaned out his weight class more profoundly than any champion in MMA prior. Short of someone being able to upset him, Jones is poised to leave the division not only without a king but with a bastardized, cheapened court.
Light heavyweight hasn’t always been the greatest MMA weight class, though it often has been. It’s real hallmark has been its star power. Frank Shamrock’s reign as the UFC’s 200-pound king was the sport’s first real modern title reign as such, and in his wake, we got Tito Ortiz, the last Semaphore Entertainment Group posterboy and the first Zuffa posterboy for the UFC. Ortiz’s rise allowed his rivalries with Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell, serving to make them legitimate stars in the process. During the UFC-Pride Fighting Championships era, 205 pounds was the one weight class that both companies promoted that was chock full of talent on both sides of the Pacific; and it was the one weight class around which Zuffa could base a moderately successful pay-per-view in the pre-“Ultimate Fighter” era. Then, the “The Ultimate Fighter” aftermath gave us future champs in Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans, while the Lyoto Machida-Mauricio Rua rivalry elevated both athletes. This is to say nothing about fighters like Wanderlei Silva, Quinton Jackson, or even Hidehiko Yoshida, who was at one time MMA’s best-paid fighter and the sport’s biggest star in its hottest promotion.
Then came Jones. While Shamrock, Ortiz and Liddell all enjoyed sustained title reigns, they never came close to “cleaning out” the competition. Ortiz and Liddell were defeated. Yes, of course, Jones may be thwarted at some point, as this is a sport where sensational upsets do occur, but his historical dominance has created an environment where these next two fights feel perfunctory, like a valedictorian just trying to power through final exams with grad school already locked up.
If Jones wins his next two bouts, there is simply nothing for him competitively or financially at 205 pounds, and a move to heavyweight becomes practically essential. Prizefighting’s heavyweight divisions are always maligned for their lack of depth, and with the UFC’s constant heavyweight logjam, Jones would be the biggest shot of box-office adrenaline the division has had since Brock Lesnar. The irony is that despite the heavyweight division’s deserved bad rap, once you dip below the championship echelon, it’s still a healthier division than 205 pounds.
The UFC staged 28 heavyweight fights in 2015, a paltry amount compared to the 100 lightweight fights that took place last year. How many light heavyweight bouts do you think there were? A whopping 26, two less than the beleaguered heavyweight division and barely more than the still-embryonic women’s strawweight (24) and bantamweight (20) divisions. This year’s scant light heavyweight bouts so far featured bookings like Tim Boetsch-Ed Herman, two faded, inflated middleweights. After Johnson-Bader, the only four light heavyweight bouts the UFC has on the docket deep into April are Ovince St. Preux-Rafael Cavalcante, Rashad Evans-Mauricio Rua, Misha Cirkunov-Alex Nicholson and Jan Blachowicz-Igor Pokrajac.
Yes, Pokrajac, with his 4-7 Octagon record. Cut last year after going winless in five straight UFC appearances, he gets a call back to the big show after three rote wins over regional journeymen. This is an indicator of where we’re at. It’s not just the UFC, either. Undefeated Bellator MMA champion Liam McGeary is 33 years old and sitting on the sidelines with a future date against Phil Davis still unscheduled. Beyond Davis, who plateaued in the UFC before emerging as a title challenger for Jones, McGeary’s only viable options are a marauding Muhammed Lawal and a rematch with Emanuel Newton. World Series of Fighting got a thrilling promotional debut out of 10-0 Shamil Gamzatov on Jan. 23, but the outfit’s 205-pound champion is still David Branch -- a UFC middleweight castoff, albeit an improved, overachieving one.
Rizin Fighting Federation’s light-heavyweight-masquerading-as-a-heavyweight tournament in December showed off young, talented prospects like Czech Jiri Prochazka and Russian Vadim Nemkov and proved that there are still good, unmined gems out there. At the end of the day, though, Lawal still beasted through the Rizin grand prix with relative ease; and for all their obvious upside, it was clear Prochazka and Nemkov are a good two years or so away from challenging the best 205-pounders on the global stage. The Russian’s older brother, Viktor Nemkov, and his chief rival Stephan Puetz both have M-1 Global deals. The vast majority of other good unsigned light heavyweights, like Mikhail Mokhnatkin and Ion Cutelaba, are the same 24 months give-or-take from serious UFC contention, and that’s assuming the best-case scenario for their rapid development. Beyond that, the UFC is working with Cirkunov and Corey Anderson, fighters on that same timeframe at best, assuming the stars line up and all that jazz.
It’s fair to criticize the UFC, Bellator and the World Series of Fighting for neglecting to unearth intriguing prospects from central and Eastern Europe. Still, the vast majority of these fighters are quite green, hence the caveats about their development. That is to say, it’s not like these promotions, the UFC or otherwise, have been striking out on a ton of great 205-pound talent for several years running. The UFC has not acquired the talent necessary to stock the shelves in a typically star-laden division, but it’s still been a brutal market with no explicit can’t-miss prospects insight.
We’re too tantalized by the idea of Jones chasing heavyweight greatness now to simply block it out of our minds and out of our discussions. Jones is cocksure and ambitious, and the heavyweight division could so desperately use the enthusiasm he would infuse into it. If “Bones” could win his next two fights, or maybe even just the Cormier rematch, it could all be a reality. However, authoring that heavyweight reality also impacts the 205-pound throne Jones sits on now. Jones challenging for a UFC heavyweight title is a win for the athlete, the company and fans but certainly not for MMA’s glitziest division.
The best-case scenario is that somehow Jones could rely on his freakish genetics and physiology, bounce between 235- and 205-pound frames and actively compete in both weight classes. However, that’s contingent on whether a) Zuffa would allow it and b) whether it would even be physically and competitively responsible for Jones. Barring that mythical potential upset, the only other scenario -- the most likely scenario – is that Jones simply leaves the light heavyweight division in his destructive wake, off to find a new division to potentially subjugate and lord over. If that happens, what then? Cormier-Johnson 2 for a vacant title? Alexander Gustafsson angling for a rematch with either man? A dilapidated “Shogun” getting another kick at the can if he can handle a faded Evans?
In modern MMA history, light heavyweight has never had to wait long for a new king, and it has always been replete with candidates to be the latest torchbearer. He’s still a fight or two and several months away, but Jones isn’t far from dispensing with MMA history entirely. Unless Bader, Cormier or Johnson figure out a regal plot to kill the king, Jones may soon burn down the castle entirely, leaving behind a pile of smoking rubble and a dare to any man to rebuild the kingdom, lest “Bones” ever return.