The Ultimate Fighting Championship’s light heavyweight division has become a disjointed mess over the last few years. The reasons behind the swoon are numerous, from the out-of-Octagon antics of Jon Jones to the injuries of Daniel Cormier. Their issues left the division in a state of limbo, as the consensus top two fighters at 205 pounds have not competed against each other since they first met nearly three years ago.
However, things are finally starting to change.
While Jones and Cormier are set to square off again at UFC 214 in July, the rest of the division has had the chance to reset. Despite the fact that 205 pounds remains one of the promotion’s weakest divisions, a few leaders have begun to emerge from the pack; some old contenders have rebuilt themselves, and a few new entrants have made the move toward title contention.
Four of those men will have a chance to improve their position in the light heavyweight pecking order at UFC Fight Night 109 this Sunday at the Ericsson Globe in Stockholm. Of those competing, Misha Cirkunov could be the most exciting. The Canada-based Latvian has been a shining light in a dim division over the past two years. His wins against Daniel Jolly and Alex Nicholson were fast and impressive, but the manner with which he dismissed fellow rising stars Ion Cutelaba and Nikita Krylov made him impossible to ignore. Cirkunov’s heavy hitting, smart wrestling and effective grappling affords him a style that is easy on the eye; and with new six-fight contract squelching talk of a possible move to Bellator MMA, he touches down in Sweden with the world seemingly at his feet.
In Cirkunov’s way stands Volkan Oezdemir. On the surface, he may not have as much hype behind him, but he nevertheless sits to spots above Cirkunov in the UFC’s official rankings. Oezdemir can thank his Feb. 4 split decision over Ovince St. Preux, who had gone five hard rounds with Jones less than a year earlier. To win a fight of such magnitude in his UFC debut revealed his mental and physical toughness.
Meanwhile, the main event features two former title challengers who find themselves on the brink of contention once again: Alexander Gustafsson and Glover Teixeira.
Gustafsson gets a chance to perform on familiar turf, as he headlines a UFC event on home soil for the third time. Of all the fighters on the card, he has the most extensive history in terms of competing against the light heavyweight division’s upper echelon. Gustafsson has lost to the two men scheduled to vie for the title but gave Cormier and Jones arguably the toughest tests of their careers. Beating Teixeira will put him on track for a rematch with the Jones-Cormier winner, a fact that should provide added motivation for the Swede. However, the match with Teixeira also gives Gustafsson an opportunity to banish the memories of an embarrassing loss to the recently retired Anthony Johnson in January 2015 -- the last time “The Mauler” headlined an event in Sweden.
It makes for a rather ominous task for Teixeira, who enters the lion’s den as something of a forgotten man in the division. Now in his fifth year in the UFC, he has posted a 9-3 record inside the Octagon and cemented himself as one of the promotion’s most consistent performers at 205 pounds. His three losses have come to Jones, Johnson and Phil Davis; in an interesting twist, all three of those men have also defeated Gustafsson. Teixeira’s recent wins over former champion Rashad Evans and prospect Jared Cannonier, along with the fact that he poses a fresh matchup for Cormier, has him clinging to the hope of securing another title shot if he can get past Gustafsson.
The results at UFC Fight Night 109 should prove pivotal for Cirkunov, Oezdemir, Gustafsson and Teixeira in their pursuit of Cormier and Jones. It also figures to provide some clarity in a division that has struggled to keep up with its colorful history in recent times. Over the last two years, the undisputed light heavyweight championship has been defended only once; however, in the space of an hour at the Ericsson Globe, the puzzle of future contenders at 205 pounds will be pieced together. The co-main event will produce a new name in terms of title talk and breathe new life into the division, while the main event will raise an old contender from the ashes. That in itself brings huge interest and piles on the pressure for the fighters involved. Win and you are right in the mix; lose and you head to the back of an ever expanding line.
Whatever happens in Sweden, the event has the potential to rouse the slumbering UFC light heavyweight division with a bang.