Since the dawning of the Zuffa era in mixed martial arts, the UFC light heavyweight division has always been the promotion's crown jewel.
From the days of brick-handed Chuck Liddell handing out brutal knockouts at every turn to the current reign of dominance displayed by pound-for-pound phenom Jon Jones, the 205-pound division has consistently held the highest profile of all the divisions under the UFC banner.
While a dominant champion sitting atop a weight class has the tendency to thin out the competitive picture from time to time, the current situation in the light heavyweight mix is anything but. A batch of ready-made contenders are battling to earn the next shot at the 205-pound strap and the current environment makes every fight in the divisional upper-tier a "must win" situation for the fighters involved.
With that being the case, one of the biggest fights in the light heavyweight title picture will go down this Saturday night when former champion Lyoto Machida squares-off with prospect turned contender Phil Davis at UFC 163.
"The Dragon" has won back-to-back showings since being defeated by Jones at UFC 140 back in December of 2011 and is making solid strides to earn another title opportunity. A victory over Davis this weekend in Rio de Janeiro would put Machida in a class by himself as the only potential contender with a substantial winning streak under his belt.
As for Davis, the former NCAA Div. I National Champion wrestler has made steady ground since joining the UFC back in September of 2010. "Mr. Wonderful" has amassed an impressive record over that stretch going 7-1-1 with his only setback coming against former champion Rashad Evans at UFC on Fox 2 in January of 2012. Since his loss to Evans, the Team Alliance fighter has collected back-to-back victories over solid competition and picking up a third consecutive win over Machida would serve to put his prospect label to rest and solidify Davis a legitimate title contender.
That being said, both men face additional issues beyond their upcoming bout inside of the cage, and let's take a look at a few of those challenges.
Machida Looking to Rebound from the Impact of Past Decisions
There are few things UFC President Dana White frowns upon more than a fighter turning down a potential challenge inside the Octagon. Now amplify White's normal discourse for that particular situation with the amount of ear smoke produced from a former champion turning down the opportunity to compete for the title once again and that begins to paint the picture Lyoto Machida currently finds himself in.
In classic White fashion, the UFC head honcho has had zero issues and has pulled no punches when voicing his feelings on the matter to the MMA media.
Following his brutal knockout over Ryan Bader at UFC on Fox 4 last August, the 35-year-old Brazilian put himself back on the title contention radar. Where it initially seemed he would be at least one more win away from earning another chance to fight for gold, when former Pride and Strikeforce champion Dan Henderson was forced to withdraw from his bout with Jon Jones at UFC 151, and the card was eventually cancelled, the UFC attempted to tap Machida to step in to face Jones in the next scheduled pay-per-view at UFC 152
But as things would play out, Machida refused to take the fight and put himself on the wrong side of things with the UFC President. When you factor Machida turning down Jones with White's previous anger with his "Anderson Silva money" request, the picture comes clearly into focus.
Those decisions have obviously had an impact on his standing with the promotion, and with that being the case, Machida can ill-afford another back step in his career if he hopes to see title contention again.
There is no doubting the former champion's status as one of the elite light heavyweights on the roster, but if Machida is going to get another shot at the 205-pound strap, he has to win and do so impressively. His most recent victory came via split-decision over Henderson at UFC 157 and the bout was largely panned by fight fans and MMA critics for its lack of action.
If Machida comes out and has a similar showing against Davis at UFC 163, it is very likely a victory will not be enough to get Machida over the hump with the promotion. Then again, if Machida finds a way to stop the surging contender in a similar fashion to the way he did Evans and Bader, a title opportunity could be his for the taking.
Davis Fighting More Than Just Machida at UFC 163
Phil Davis started out his run in the UFC on an absolute tear. The 28-year-old California transplant picked up victories in his first five showings inside the Octagon and did so in impressive fashion. Unfortunately Davis' winning ways were brought to a halt when he came out on the business end of a lopsided unanimous decision to Evans in Chicago and has been trying to regain his footing in the division ever since.
That situation only becomes more difficult thanks to being stuck in limbo for two fights with Wagner Prado. The Brazilian is relatively unknown in the MMA universe and the time Davis spent being wrapped up in back-to-back bouts with Prado left him in divisional limbo. As the title picture continued to heat up in the light heavyweight division, Davis was locked in a pair of irrelevant fights with an opponent who failed to make a blip on the radar.
After Davis finally bested Prado once and for all at UFC 153 last October, the road became clear once again for him to make a charge toward the top of the division. He had a solid opportunity to make ground in his next outing against submission ace Vinny Magalhaes at UFC 159, but despite earning the victory in the matchup, the bout was largely panned as a lackluster showing from both competitors.
In the bout with Machida, Davis will have perhaps his largest opportunity to date to prove he belongs in the title picture. As a former champion and one of the hardest puzzles to solve in mixed martial arts, Machida presents a slew of interesting challenges where Davis is concerned. A victory over Machida would not only prove Davis has the ability to defeat a top 5 ranked opponent, but will also serve to show he can defuse one of the most versatile striking attacks the sport has ever seen in the process.
Should Davis find victory over Machida this weekend at UFC 163, he will solidify himself in the divisional hierarchy and leave the prospect label behind.