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There is often a tendency in combat sports to romanticize the history of the heavyweight division. However, in mixed martial arts, more often than not the light heavyweight has been the sport’s marquee division. Heavyweight has had its moments and superstars have broken through in many other divisions, but light heavyweight has consistently been MMA’s centerpiece.
Just 10 years ago, as the Ultimate Fighting Championship was exploding and Pride Fighting Championships was still riding high, 205-pound fighters led the way. Chuck Liddell’s rivalry with Randy Couture was the driving force behind the first season of “The Ultimate Fighter,” and Tito Ortiz’s feuds with Liddell and Ken Shamrock set pay-per-view records. Meanwhile in Pride, Wanderlei Silva was the superstar foreigner at 205 pounds, chased by native heroes like Kazushi Sakuraba and Hidehiko Yoshida as well as foreign rivals like Ricardo Arona and Quinton Jackson. That time period might have been the high point for the 205-pound division, but it was plenty strong before and after, from Ortiz vs. Frank Shamrock to Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier.
Given that history, it’s sad to see the state of the light heavyweight division in 2016. There is definite talent at the top of the division in Jones, Cormier and Anthony Johnson, but Jones’ continuing screw-ups have made a mess of the situation. Cormier and Johnson are fighting at UFC 206 in what feels like their second number one contender fight for a shot at Jones. It isn’t fair to Cormier and Johnson, but it’s hard to feel like either can lay claim to being the best in the weight class until they beat Jones. There is an emptiness as we wait.
If there’s an unpleasant feeling at the top of the light heavyweight division thanks to Jones, things only get worse from there. The next group of contenders -- Glover Teixeira, Alexander Gustafsson, Ryan Bader and Phil Davis -- has proven definitely that it’s a step behind the top group. They’re a collective 0-8 against the top three, meaning there isn’t much in the way of intrigue when Johnson, Cormier and Jones settle their business. Faded former champions like Jackson, Mauricio Rua and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira don’t offer much hope either. The heavyweight division has received negative attention for the lack of young, rising stars, but at least the elite of the division hasn’t sorted itself out so clearly.
The hope is that some rising young light heavyweights can breathe life into the division, but the best hopes on that front are a flawed bunch: Jimi Manuwa, Nikita Krylov, Ovince St. Preux, Corey Anderson and Liam McGeary. One would expect new stars to rise up because they usually do, but there isn’t a lot of evidence backing up that feeling.
All in all, the halcyon days of the division are gone. There are a few fighters at the top, but the proper matchups can’t be made because of the tribulations of the longtime champion. There’s another group that has distinguished itself from the field, but those fighters don’t seem poised to break into the top group. Then there’s a group of unproven rising fighters who seem not altogether likely of breaking into the second group let alone the first.
It’s in this environment that Bader becomes a free agent, and his rather favorable situation illustrates the sad state of the division. Under other circumstances, Bader wouldn’t attract a huge amount of interest. He’s in his mid-30s, doesn’t typically deliver exciting fights, lacks an outsized personality and has been finished in most of the biggest fights of his career. Any MMA organization would be happy to have him because he’s a solid fighter and clearly one of the best in his division, but he would be highly unlikely to inspire a bidding war in another setting.
Fortunately for Bader, he becomes a free agent as a light heavyweight in 2016. That’s not a guarantee he’s going to get a big contract given the aforementioned factors working against him, but it’s certainly a possibility. The UFC needs enough high-level fighters to make the light heavyweight division feel important. Bader leaving after Davis and Chael Sonnen did the same would be a bad look. Meanwhile, Bellator MMA is looking to add former UFC names in every division and has a particular investment in light heavyweights. Just like a shortstop or catcher might get an outsized contract because they became a free agent in a year when few options were available at those positions, so too could Bader profit from the travails of his division.
It’s always encouraging to see fighters get paid well given the physical tolls they go through, but that doesn’t offer a lot of solace for fans who remember the glory days of the light heavyweight division and would like to see that legacy continue. During a period in MMA where there’s more talent and big fights than ever before, it’s disappointing to see any division move backwards. Eventually, things will pick up again. It just may not come as soon as we’d like.