Jon Jones, Alexander Gustafsson Usher in New Era for Light Heavyweight Division

Steven RondinaFeatured ColumnistSeptember 22, 2013

Sep 21, 2013; Toronto, Ontario, CAN; Jon Jones connects on a kick against Alexander Gustafsson (left) during their Light Heavyweight Championship bout at UFC 165 at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

The light heavyweight title fight between Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson was many, many things. It was an amazing display of heart, a clinic for every aspect of MMA and a show of both pinpoint accuracy and a backyard-style brawl.

More than anything else, though, it was the clear-cut end of an era for the light heavyweight division.

This notion may confuse some, after all, Jones' victory, however hard-fought, should mean a return to business as usual. The long-time champ, obviously, should be right back to destroying former greats and padding his numbers en route to shattering any and all records set by Tito Ortiz, Anderson Silva or any other legend you can think of.

The reality, though, is that the UFC's relentless, seemingly shallow marketing pitch for this fight was completely true. Size really, really does matter. What's worse is that there just isn't a substitute.

"Well, obviously!" might be the immediate reaction to that statement. In reality, though, it's not as obvious as one might think. 

Jun 15, 2013; Winnipeg, MB, Canada; Rashad Evans (right) fights Dan Henderson during their light heavyweight bout at UFC 161 at MTS Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sport

The UFC's light heavyweight division, ever since the end of Chuck Liddell's championship reign, has been dominated by two types of fighters—big fighters and skilled fighters. While that sounds like it may be oversimplifying things, it truly isn't.

Forrest Griffin, Houston Alexander, Stephan Bonnar and Thiago Silva fell into one category. Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, Dan Henderson and Mauricio "Shogun" Rua fell into another. Not listed are the fighters like Michael Bisping, Alessio Sakara, Alan Belcher and the many other fighters who initially made a splash at 205 pounds but ultimately cut down to 185 in time.

Obviously, getting by strictly on a size advantage is not a long-term winning formula, and it showed as most of the former group fell out of the winning column with time, while the other thrived.

Then came Jones.

The prodigy who demonstrated himself to be skill-for-skill as good as anyone in the division, while proudly owning a long, lean, 6'4" frame. As all MMA fans know, he effortlessly stomped almost every former light heavyweight champion that was still active, and according to many, he cemented himself as the pound-for-pound best fighter in MMA today.

That did not spell doom for the relevance of Evans, Rua and company, though. Jones was an outlier, an anomaly—special.

September 22, 2012; Toronto, ON, CANADA; Jon Jones kicks Vitor Belfort in the light heavyweight championship during UFC 152 at the Air Canada Centre. Mandatory Credit: Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports
Tom Szczerbowski-USA TODAY Sports

Surely, there was nobody else that was a comparable blend of size and skill. Jones would dominate light heavyweight for as long as he was physically able before moving on to the heavyweight division where he would have a slew of new challenges to face, opening the door back up for smaller, finesse-focused light heavyweights to retake the belt.

Saturday night, though, Gustafsson threw a wrench into all of that. Jones is still special and is still a truly remarkable fighter. He just isn't alone anymore. Gustafsson showed himself to be every bit Jones' equal, and that spells doom for the current crop of light heavyweights. 

Jones is still champion for the foreseeable future, but he, in all likelihood, was just the first of many fearsome light heavyweights to come. 

This phenomenon isn't new.

In 2010, the side-by-side rise of Cain Velasquez and Junior Dos Santos ushered in a new look for the heavyweight division; one that favored athleticism as much as it did technique. Fans saw that a new day had dawned as they watched the two future champions annihilate old favorites like Gilbert Yvel, Cheick Kongo, Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira, Mirko Cro Cop and Gabriel Gonzaga. 

Apr 26, 2013; Newark, NJ, USA;  Phil Davis weighs in for his light heavyweight bout against Vinicius Magalhaes (pictured right) at the Prudential Center. Mandatory Credit: Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports
Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

Jones running unchecked through the light heavyweight division, and the likelihood of Gustafsson doing so in the coming months parallels that perfectly. The only question is who will follow them into this new era.

Phil Davis is a veteran in the light heavyweight division at this point, and Gustafsson's wrestling success was in no small part due to the time they put in together at the Alliance gym.

Glover Teixeira is no slouch either and has racked up some emphatic wins over some solid competition.

James Te Huna and Anthony Perosh both have the size but are looking for a breakout win to truly set themselves on the title path.

The biggest name, though, is Daniel Cormier, who has been a force at heavyweight with wins over the likes of Frank Mir, Josh Barnett and Antonio Silva. If he drops to light heavyweight and does not lose much making the weight cut, he could be a legitimate threat to the title.

Outside the UFC, the biggest name at light heavyweight is Tyrone Spong. However, the fearsome kickboxer is just the tip of the iceberg when it comes to European prospects, and even more will cut down from heavyweight with time.

In short order, those fighters will be the ones who will own the light heavyweight division. While Evans, Chael Sonnen and the like have had excellent careers, they are now a part of the past. Gustafsson and Jones gave us a glimpse into the future Saturday night.