When Zuffa – the parent company of the Ultimate Fighting Championship – purchased and subsequently dismantled Pride Fighting Championship in 2007, MMA fans worldwide expected that majority of the best fighters in the world will be consolidated under the UFC banner. So far, the results have been decidedly mixed. While three out of five UFC title belts are held by former Pride FC fighters, the heavyweight division is still as much in shambles as it was two years ago, and a number of middleweight (185 lbs) contenders are scattered throughout various organizations. In the lightweight division, Marcus Aurelio is the only Pride competitor who has stepped inside the UFC Octagon to date.
The only place where Zuffa had an undeniable success of consolidating the top talent is MMA’s marquee division – the light heavyweights (205 lbs). Not only is UFC the home to the undisputed champion of the world at 205, they also employ all of the Top 5, 9 of the Top 10, and 14 of the Top 20 LHW fighters, according to the latest Fightmatrix.com ranking.
This would be a great time for the UFC to hold a Gran Prix-style tournament. Alas, Zuffa brass are staunchly opposed to the tournament format. Fortunately for the fans, we get the next best thing to a tourney: except for Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua, all of the UFC’s top light heavyweights are slated to step into the Octagon over the course of the next few events.
Here is a closer look at what is coming up for the warriors of the light heavyweight division:
The Champion: [#1] Quinton ‘Rampage’ Jackson
MMA Record: 28-6 (3-0 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Dan Henderson by unanimous decision at UFC 75
Next bout: A title defense against Forrest Griffin at UFC 86.
Jackson was once a perennial contender in Pride FC’s 205 division. After suffering two devastating losses to Wanderlei Silva, and a no less devastating one to Mauricio Rua, ‘Rampage’ was forced to look towards other organizations. He signed with WFA, and lucked out when Zuffa purchased the organization, along with it’s fighter contracts. After stopping Marvin Eastman in his UFC debut, Jackson was on a fast track to a title shot, to give Chuck Liddell a chance to avenge his loss to Rampage. The rest is history. Jackson knocked out Liddell in the first round, then followed it up by outworking Dan Henderson for five rounds in what was the most watched MMA fight in North America to date, to become the first man to unify the UFC Light Heavyweight title with the now-defunct Pride FC Middleweight belt. Jackson took some time off to heal an injured hand and to be a coach on Season 7 of The Ultimate Fighter reality series, which is currently on air. At the conclusion of the series, he will put his belt on the line for the second time – this time going up against Forrest Griffin.
[#2] Ryoto Machida
MMA Record: 12-0 (4-0 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Rameu Thierry Sokoudjou by submission (arm triangle choke) at UFC 79
Next bout: Against Tito Ortiz at UFC 84
Under-hyped and undefeated, Machida proved he is a force to be reckoned with when he frustrated the dangerous Sokoudjou on the feet, then took him to the mat and made him tap. With no obvious gaps in his MMA game, the only thing he lacks is name recognition. He should get plenty of recognition if he stops Tito Ortiz in their upcoming bout. A victory may not guarantee him a title shot but will definitely put him within reach. A loss will set him back into the middle of the pack.
[#3] Chuck Liddell
MMA Record: 21-5 (16-4 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Wanderlei Silva by unanimous decision at UFC 79
Next bout: Against Rashad Evans at UFC 85
Chuck Liddell is the winningest fighter in the UFC history, and the first true mega-star of American MMA. After losing his title to Rampage, Liddell suffered another setback with a split-decision loss to Keith Jardine. He came back strong with a unanimous decision over Wanderlei Silva, and will look to return to his old form when he faces Rashad Evans in his next fight. Chuck will almost certainly ask for another title shot after a win, and is almost certain to be given one. His odds are good as Liddell made a career of dismantling wrestlers like Evans.
[#4] Keith Jardine
MMA Record: 13-3-1 (4-2 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Chuck Liddell by split decision at UFC 76
Next bout: Against Wanderlei Silva at UFC 84
Jardine came into the UFC as a heavyweight, riding on the trail of recognition from his stint on TUF. He dropped down to 205 soon thereafter, and seemed to be on the way up after his knockout of Forrest Griffin. The tables were turned on Jardine when he dropped a TKO loss to the hard-hitting newcomer Houston Alexander. After the loss, ‘The Dean of Mean’ came back better than ever, surviving the assault of Chuck Liddell in the first round, and picking him apart with leg and body kicks for the next two rounds to win a split decision. Should he defeat Wanderlei Silva, Jardine will hold back-to-back wins over the most prominent UFC & Pride champions of his weight class. In addition, should Forrest defeat Rampage, Jardine will also hold a KO win over the current champ. It would be hard to deny him a title shot at that point.
[#5] Forrest Griffin
MMA Record: 15-4 (6-2 UFC)
Last bout:Defeated Mauricio Rua by submission (rear naked choke) at UFC 76
Next bout: A title shot against Quinton Jackson at UFC 86
The original Ultimate Fighter winner was seen by most fans as a tough ‘jack of all trades but master of none’ fighter who would probably never become a champion. After a few disappointing performances, Griffin finally came in with the right preparation and game plan against Mauricio Rua, who was at the time considered by many to be the top light heavyweight in the world. Forrest outlasted Rua, and “stole” Rua’s promised title shot with a well-timed choke. Griffin thrives on being the underdog, though after his last performance it’s questionable as to who should really be favored in his matchup with Rampage.
On The Fringe:
MMA Record: 16-3 (0-1 UFC)
Last bout: Lost to Forrest Griffin by submission (rear naked choke) at UFC 76
Next bout: Unknown
Prior to Pride’s demise, Rua was considered by many fans to be the top fighter in his weight class. After losing his UFC debut to Forrest Griffin, Rua was sidelined with a knee injury. Slated to face Chuck Liddell at UFC 85, Rua re-injured his knee and had to undergo another round of surgery. It’s not clear at this point when he will return to action, and how much the injury and the long layoff will affect his game. One thing is certain: ‘Shogun’ has a score to settle with both the UFC champion Quinton Jackson, and the top contender Griffin. Due to Rua’s small frame, a run at 185-lbs is also a viable option.
MMA Record: 4-2 (0-1 UFC)
Last bout: Lost to Ryoto Machida by submission (arm triangle choke) at UFC 79
Next bout: Against Kazuhiro Nakamura at UFC 84
Sokoudjou burst on the major league MMA scene with back-to-back KO victories over Pride FC superstars, Ricardo Arona and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. In his UFC debut, Rameu was outworked, frustrated, and eventually submitted by Ryoto Machida. He needs a big win in his next fight to reestablish himself as a top contender.
[#9] Tito Ortiz
MMA Record: 15-5-1 (14-5-1 UFC)
Last bout: A draw with Rashad Evans at UFC 73
Next bout: Against Ryoto Machida at UFC 84
The original ‘poster boy’ of the UFC, Tito Ortiz struggled against top competition in the recent years. Tito’s problems with the UFC President Dana White are well publicized, and he claims that his bout with Machida is the last time we will see Ortiz in the Octagon – win or lose. A loss is certain to send Ortiz packing, but stopping Machida’s streak will launch him back into contender status. I believe that Tito’s love of money and fame is greater than his hatred of Dana White, and a title shot combined with a big payday might just convince him to stay with the UFC.
[#10] Rashad Evans
MMA Record: 11-0-1 (6-0-1 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Michael Bisping by split decision at UFC 78
Next bout: Against Chuck Liddell at UFC 85
Rashad Evans entered the UFC after becoming the winner of the heavyweight bracket in the Season 2 of TUF, where he earned a reputation for being a cautious and somewhat boring fighter with little ability to finish an opponent. He dropped down to 205 immediately after defeating the much bigger Brad Imes in the season finale. Rashad showed flashes of brilliance in stopping Jason Lambert and Sean Salmon, but seems to have reverted back to his old cautious, dancing, and lay-and-praying self in his last two fights. He was originally scheduled to face another undefeated prospect in Thiago Silva, but instead Evans received an opportunity to step up to the highest level of competition, taking the place of injured Shogun in the UFC 85 bout against Chuck Liddell. Should he defeat Liddell, Rashad will become an instant contender; a tough task as Liddell presents some serious stylistic problems for Evans.
[#12] Wanderlei Silva
MMA Record: 31-8-1 (1-3 UFC)
Last bout: Lost to Chuck Liddell by unanimous decision at UFC 79
Next bout: Against Keith Jardine at UFC 84
The long-standing Pride FC middleweight(205 lbs by Pride’s denomination) champion Wanderlei Silva was once one of the most fearsome fighters on the planet. He has had tough luck as of late, losing three straight bouts including his UFC debut against Chuck Liddell. However, the Liddell fight was a war, and Silva now has a perfect opportunity to rebound when he slugs it out with Jardine. If he succeeds, he will have a good chance of facing Quinton Jackson in his next bout (Silva holds two brutal knockout victories over Rampage.) Anything less than a win would be devastating to his career.
[#13] Thiago Silva
MMA Record: 12-0 (3-0 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Houston Alexander at UFC 78
Next bout: Against Antonio Mendes at UFC 84
Thiago Silva has been fighting MMA professionally since only 2005. In less than three years, he amassed 12 straight wins, with 10 knockouts, 1 submission, and only 1 fight going to decision. Thiago is undoubtedly one of the hottest prospects in the division and is rising fast. He was scheduled to go against Rashad Evans next, but with Evans being called up to fight Chuck Liddell, Silva will instead face UFC newcomer Antonio Mendes.
[#16] Kazuhiro Nakamura
MMA Record: 11-7 (0-1 UFC)
Last bout: Lost to Ryoto Machida at UFC 76
Next bout: Against Rameau Sokoudjou at UFC 84
Kazuhiro Nakamura was a mainstay of Pride FC for most of his career, but never quite made it to the top contender status. He is not likely to reach that status in the UFC either, but a victory over fellow judoka Sokoudjou would greatly improve his chances.
[#18] Wilson Gouveia
MMA Record: 10-4-0 (4-1 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Jason Lambert by KO at UFC 80
Next bout:Against Goran Reljic at UFC 84
Gouveia is on a four fight winning streak, having sumbitted three of his opponents and knocking out Jason Lambert in the most recent outing. He shows a lot of promise but is somewhat undersized for his weight class. Wilson will look to extend his streak against the undefeated UFC newcomer Goran Reljic.
[#20] Jason Lambert
MMA Record: 23-7-0 (4-2 UFC)
Last bout:Lost to Wilson Gouveia by KO at UFC 80
Next bout: Against Luis Cane at UFC 85
Lambert’s UFC career has been a roller coaster. After stopping his first three opponents in the Octagon, his success was cut short with a TKO stoppage courtesy of Rashad Evans. Lambert rebounded nicely with a surprise knockout of Renato ‘Babalu’ Sobral, but was knocked out himself in a similar fashion by Wilson Gouveia in the very next bout. Lambert’s experience should get him back on the winning track when he faces Luis Cane.
[#21] Stephan Bonnar
MMA Record: 11-4-0 (5-3 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Eric Schafer by TKO at UFC 77
Next bout: Unknown
Bonnar’s claim to fame is losing a split decision to Forrest Griffin in the first Ultimate Fighter finale. The fight was so entertaining that Dana White decided to give Bonnar the winner’s contract along with Griffin. Bonnar struggled since then, losing to Evans and again to Griffin, then receiving an athletic commission mandated suspension when he tested positive for anabolic steroids. He looks to be on back on track after stopping his last two opponents, but was sidelined by an injury that forced him to withdraw from a scheduled bout with Matt Hamill.
[#25] James Irvin
MMA Record: 14-4-0 (4-3 UFC)
Last bout: Defeated Houston Alexander by KO at Ultimate Fight Night 13
Next bout: Unknown
When Irvin fights, expect the unexpected. From freak injuries to disqualifications to actually falling out of the cage in a StrikeForce bout with Bobby Southworth, controversy follows wherever James goes. Not to mention crazy knockouts that he dishes out to most opponents. After an eight second KO of Houston Alexander, Irvin’s next fight is sure to make the televised broadcast.
[#27] Matt Hamill
MMA Record: 4-1-0 (4-1-0 UFC)
Last bout:Defeated Tim Boetsch by TKO at Ultimate Fight Night 13
Next bout: Unknown
Hamill came a long way from being a one-dimensional wrestler that appeared on TUF. His striking seems to improve with every fight, he has an iron chin and is not afraid to take a shot, and he is coming off a very impressive stoppage of Tim Boetsch in his last fight. Future holds bright things for Matt Hamill in the UFC, if he continues his winning ways.
[#32] Houston Alexander
MMA Record: 8-3-0 (2-2 UFC)
Last bout: Lost to James Irvin by KO at Ultimate Fight Night 13
Next bout: Unknown
Houston Alexander blasted onto the UFC scene when he knocked out Keith Jardine with uppercuts so powerful, they literally lifted Jardine off his feet. He followed it up with another earth-shaking knockout of Alessio Sakara. Sadly in his last two fights, he ended up flat on his back, arms limp, taking unanswered shots as the referee stepped in to save him. Will he round out his skills to rise up the ranks, or will he be remembered as the modern version of Tank Abbott? Only time will tell, and at 37 years old time is not on Alexander’s side.
[#50] Tim Boetsch
MMA Record: 7-2-0 (1-1 UFC)
Last bout: Lost to Matt Hamill by TKO at Ultimate Fight Night 13
Next bout: Unknown
Boetsch first stepped into the Octagon on very short notice, and disposed of the UFC veteran David Heath with a brutal barrage of strikes and an unforgettable throw that landed Heath face first onto the canvas. His second fight, against Matt Hamill, also came as a short-notice replacement for the injured Stephan Bonnar. This one did not go in his favor – Boetsch simply ran out of gas in the second round, after a few solid knees failed to put away his opponent. He needs a win in his next fight to prove that he is more than just a quick flash in the light heavyweight pan.