Jon Jones got past Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, but is still a few opponents shy of clearing out the UFC's light heavyweight division. Though the champ has ripped through the bulk of top talent at 205 pounds, there remain a couple of non-recycled contenders on the precipice of earning a chance to compete for his strap.
At the forefront of the list of novel challengers stands Chael Sonnen and Alexander Gustafsson, two fighters who have taken exceedingly disparate paths to get to a similar place—knocking on Jones' door.
Both Sonnen and Gustafsson have December bouts lined up—Sonnen vs. Forrest Griffin, Gustafsson vs. Maurico Rua—and both could conceivably earn a title shot with a victory.
If one of Sonnen and Gustafsson wins and the other loses, the winner's path to the belt will become decidedly less obstructed and complicated. But, if both fighters win their upcoming bouts, it could spark an interesting debate over which man is given the right of way for a shot at the title.
The Case for Sonnen
Though it was Jones at the epicenter of the UFC 151 fiasco, it was Sonnen stirring the pot, first offering to fight Jones on a few days notice, then repeatedly chastising the champion for refusing to comply. The animosity spawned by that controversy would certainly add intrigue to a Sonnen vs. Jones title fight.
This is when a lot people will say, "Hold on, you can't talk your way into a title fight," and that's fair, but is that really what Sonnen will have done if he wins his light heavyweight debut?
Since May 2009, Sonnen has fought nothing but stellar competition (with the exception of Dan Miller who is more solid than stellar) and posted a 5-2 record. His two losses came against the greatest mixed martial artist of all time.
That's not a bad run in my book. And a win over Griffin later this year only makes it all the more impressive.
Granted, to this point the accolades Sonnen has compiled over the past three-and-a-half years came at 185, but using out-of-division accomplishments to justify a title shot is hardly unprecedented (see the attempted Frankie Edgar vs. Jose Aldo match for precedent).
Additionally, Sonnen may not be the most well-rounded mixed martial artist there is, but he does have a singular skill—his wrestling—that is sharp enough to make any fighter wary. There is no blueprint for defeating Jon Jones, but we already know how well aggressive strikers (like Gustafsson) have fared in the past.
Maybe its time for a new prototype to take the reigns and make a charge at the champ. If that's the case, who better than Mr. Sonnen?
The Case for Gustafsson
The UFC's light heavyweight division is abundant with talent and few fighters, even top contenders, are able to put together lengthy win streaks. This is something Gustafsson has done, which no other 205er, save Lyoto Machida, has replicated in the recent past.
When Machida ran his win streak to six, he was granted a title shot; and he cashed in on it. If Gustafsson defeats Rua this December, he'll have extended his run to six as well. Doesn't he deserve a chance to cash in on it?
Beyond the streak, Gustafsson has shown that he has the flare to complement his consistency, finishing four of the five bouts that make up his ongoing run.
But even the big knockouts and slick submissions are only a component of what makes the "Mauler" a viable contender, should he beat Shogun. The other angle at play here is that his December opponent, Rua, provides a nice measuring stick to gauge where the young Swede is at.
If Gustafsson plows through Shogun like Jones did, then it just might spark some intrigue for a Gustafsson vs. Jones match.
Even if the Mauler outpoints Rua, at least fans can acknowledge he has outpaced a fellow contender. That simply isn't something Sonnen can lay claim to, even with a win over Griffin.
In addition to all else, Gustafsson is the last tenured 205 pound contender that Jones has not fought yet. Should that right there not be enough to make him the default light heavyweight contender?
Both Sonnen and Gustafsson embody viable contender options for the UFC's 205 pound weight class, should both win their next contest. But unless the UFC wants to books its first ever triple-threat match, a choice between the two will become inevitable with a pair of winter victories.
What Sonnen has going for him is that he scored points with the UFC by offering to fight Jones on short notice. He is also a better fight promoter than Gustafsson, and would almost certainly score bigger ratings than the Swede could bring down.
On the other hand, the Mauler has quietly been wreaking havoc in a talent-laced division, methodically disposing opponents en route to the top of the divisional ladder. His nationality also adds an exotic flavor to the hypothetical title fight, which could be heavily marketed to a European audience to grow long term interest in the sport, rather than sate the immediate desires of fans.
Now, I'll readily admit that I'd like to see Sonnen vs. Jones more than I'd like to see Gustafsson vs. Jones; at least in the short term.
But throwing away preference and addressing the question from an objective angle leads only to the conclusion that Gustafsson is the more worthy candidate to receive the next light heavyweight title shot, if he beats Rua later this year.
Sonnen isn't far behind, but should need a win beyond his match with Griffin to secure a championship opportunity in 2013.
In this sense, the question is more concerned with order than with have and have-not. But anyway you frame it, the Mauler is the man of the hour.
Or at least he should be with a win. Not that "should" is always a decisive factor in these situations.