Opinion: Life on Manuwa Island

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Jimi Manuwa is in an interesting spot. After zapping Corey Anderson with a one-punch, walk-off sniper shot of a left hook in front of an audience of countrymen at UFC Fight Night 107 on Saturday in London, “Poster Boy” is now 6-2 in the Ultimate Fighting Championship. His only two losses came against the two top contenders in the light heavyweight division: Anthony Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson. He’s currently riding a two-fight, two-knockout winning streak, and he’s ranked No. 4 in the division, according to the UFC rankings -- which is really No. 5, since the promotion does not rank its champions. At any rate, it’s good to be Manuwa right now. The future, however, is anyone’s guess.

Let’s take a step back and survey the division. Once upon a time, light heavyweight was the marquee division in the sport. The original 205-pound king, Frank Shamrock, was a pioneer in mixed martial arts, blending kickboxing and shoot wrestling with deliberate cardio training en route to defending the title four times. When he vacated the title, Tito Ortiz picked up where he left off and became the biggest, most recognizable star in the sport while defending the title five times. The division continued to teem with top-tier talent like Randy Couture, Vitor Belfort and Chuck Liddell. These weren’t just the biggest names in the division; they were among the biggest names in the sport.

As that generation aged and phased out, light heavyweight saw another revival. Exactly nine years and 51 weeks ago, the UFC bought Pride Fighting Championships and enlisted a fresh crop of elite talent from across the pond, with names like Quinton Jackson, Mauricio Rua and Wanderlei Silva. At the same time, the original “Ultimate Fighter” casts were coming into their primes, as Forrest Griffin and Rashad Evans became two of the first three reality-show winners to become UFC champions. All this to say, it was a golden age for the sport, and it came on the back of the success of the light heavyweight division’s near 15 years as the most dynamic, exciting division in the game. Even when Jon Jones ascended to the throne, he had to fight four former champs in a row to defend it.

Yet here we are, only a few short years after the last period of light heavyweight greatness, and the division is far from the biggest, most exciting or most important. Jones, the greatest of all-time, has taken himself out of the picture and tainted his legacy in the eyes of many. The division is aging -- a sore spot to mention on current champion Daniel Cormier’s 38th birthday -- and there are very few prospects ready to snatch the crown from the old guard. The average age of the top five is 35; the average age of the top 10 is 33; and the average age of the top 15 is 34 and a half. The only fighters in that range below 30 are Anderson and Volkan Oezdemir, both of whom turn 28 in September and neither of whom looks to have legitimate title potential at this point.

That brings us back to Manuwa. On paper, this should be the ideal landscape for him to get a title shot: The real champ is AWOL, there aren’t many contenders ahead of him and the UFC has thinned out the herd even further by cutting ties to guys like Ryan Bader and Nikita Krylov. Plus, he’s an exciting knockout artist. Who wouldn’t want to watch him fight for a title? Yet in reality, he’s stranded on an island in the middle of the ranks, where he’s clearly a notch below the elite and a notch above the rest. It was perfectly reasonable for him to call for a title shot after his win in London. It’s just pretty unlikely that a title shot will actually materialize anytime soon.

Currently, everyone ranked ahead of him -- Cormier, Johnson, Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira -- is booked for a fight against each other. The only names left for him to fight are ranked below him, meaning he can only improve his position by hoping for strategic losses. As much as he’d like to face the winner of Cormier-Johnson, it would be a hard-sell to let him leapfrog the winner of Gustafsson-Teixeira.

Ranked below Manuwa are Rua, Anderson, Oezdemir, Ovince St. Preux and Ilir Latifi. He knocked out Anderson and St. Preux in his last two fights, and he trains with Latifi. That leaves Rua or Oezdemir as the best possible matchups for his next fight, and he’d be favored to beat both of them. Stranger things have happened matchmaking-wise, but to give a man a title shot after only three wins -- assuming he wins his next fight, that is -- against low top-10 fighters is far from a lock. More likely he’d have to fight the loser of either Cormier-Johnson or the winner of Gustafsson-Teixeira before he can truly vie for a title shot. Even though he has never looked better, he is, in fact, 37, and he has already lost definitively against half of the guys ranked above him. Plus, with Gustafsson in his corner for his last fight, it’s not entirely certain if he would be willing to fight the man who knocked him out three years ago.

If Johnson and Teixeira were to win, that would be Manuwa’s clearest path to a title shot: A rematch between two of the sport’s most vicious knockout artists is an easy sell, and nobody is trying to see Teixeira against Johnson again after he was decimated in 13 seconds. Even if that were to happen, and that would be unlikely, Manuwa would probably have to fight Teixeira in a No. 1 contender’s match, which is far from a gimme fight; and that’s not even considering Jones’ return, which would complicate the division even further. It’s unfortunate for Manuwa. He’s an exciting fighter and a fresh face in the division -- something 205 pounds sorely needs right now. He just so happens to be putting together a hot streak at a particularly inconvenient time.

They say it’s lonely at the top. Whoever “they” are, they were obviously not talking about the UFC light heavyweight division. The top is both thin and crowded. Really, it’s far lonelier in the upper-middle class of the division. That’s where Manuwa is now, and no one else.

Hailing from Kailua, Hawai’i, Eric Stinton has been contributing to Sherdog since 2014. He received his BFA in Creative Writing from Chapman University and graduate degree in Special Education from University of Hawai’i. He is an occasional columnist for Honolulu Civil Beat, and his work has also appeared in The Classical. You can find his writing at ericstinton.com. He currently lives in Seoul with his fiancé and dachshund.
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