The Bottom Line: A Mess at 205 Pounds

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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It takes a long time to build up the prestige of a division. It doesn’t take very long at all for those efforts to go to waste.

On a night when two longtime stars of the division and former champions retired in Mauricio Rua and Glover Teixeira, it only accentuated what a chaotic and unresolved state the Ultimate Fighting Championship light heavyweight division is currently in. There’s a champion again at least, and Jamahal Hill turned in a terrific performance on his way to a wide unanimous decision over Teixeira in the UFC 283 main event on Saturday in Rio de Janeiro. Unfortunately, the UFC light heavyweight championship means the least it has in years, if not ever, due to the lack of clarity as to the best fighter in the division and the lack of star power in what was once upon a time the sport’s marquee division.

The light heavyweight division was once inhabited by some of the sport’s best fighters and biggest stars: Rua, Wanderlei Silva, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz and Quinton Jackson. Rua’s career somehow feels even longer than it was because he burst onto the scene in Pride Fighting Championships at only 21 years old. His performance in the 2005 Pride middleweight grand prix remains one of the most impressive feats in the history of the sport, as he beat four elite fighters consecutively: Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona.

That was the peak of Rua’s career, but he had the second big run when he knocked out Liddell and Lyoto Machida to capture UFC gold. What made “Shogun” a beloved figure to this day, though, was less about his accomplishments and more about the way he fought. Like Silva, his friend and mentor, he fought with persistent aggression and effort to finish. His persona was less than that of a marauder because of his warm smile, but he still fought like one. He was also the last bridge from Pride to the UFC.

Teixeira took a very different path, removed from the limelight for much of his prime due to visa issues. Yet like “Shogun,” his career was defined by prolonged excellence; he was able to sustain at the top level for longer. His late career run to the title will be remembered alongside Randy Couture as one of the best such surges in the history of the sport.

The relative parity defined by the light heavyweight division of the 2000s gave way to a different era when “Shogun” lost the UFC title to Jon Jones. “Bones” dominated the division for nearly a decade afterwards, with his stiffest competition coming from Daniel Cormier. The division still hasn’t recovered from Jones vacating the title.

It’s difficult enough to escape the shadow of a fighter who was as dominant as Jones, but the UFC was at least working towards that goal until Jiri Prochazka was forced to relinquish the championship in November. Now, there were two former champions who vacated without losing their titles. In the case of Prochazka, he wasn’t even given time to see how his shoulder would recover following surgery. That of course led to the debacle of Magomed Ankalaev-Jan Blachowicz—a dull fight resulting in a heavily disputed draw—and the UFC basically pretending it didn’t happen and going to yet another title fight with two different fighters.

We’re left with the current champion, the former champion as of two months ago who never lost the belt, two championship challengers who fought to a draw for the title and didn’t get another opportunity, plus the lingering shadow of the greatest fighter in the history of the division who’s now fighting in a different weight class. It’s a mess. Worse, there’s no clear way to ameliorate the situation anytime soon absent Jones returning, which is not going to happen given all the muscle mass he has added going up to heavyweight.

The ideal progression is probably to have Hill fight Ankalaev and then hope Prochazka is ready to fight the winner. Even if that can be pulled off, it’s still going to be a while before there’s a light heavyweight fight that feels like a big deal. None of those three have been a major part of a big pay-per-view yet, which is the easiest way to raise one’s profile. It’s difficult to become a star without beating a star. It usually takes sustained excellence otherwise, absent a particularly big personality. Hill and Prochazka have engaging styles, particularly Prochazka, and that helps. Still, it’s going to be an uphill climb, and that’s if Prochazka or Hill emerges as the best. Ankalaev lingers and seems the least likely to take off with fans.

The most realistic aspiration for UFC is to use 2023 as a rebuilding year and to hope that by 2024 there are some light heavyweight fights that can start to move the needle a little. That would at least be a step up from where things stand now, but for the once mighty light heavyweight division, it’s a disappointing state of affairs.
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