UFC's Current Crop of Contenders Could Make Light Heavyweight Great Again

Chad Dundas@@chaddundasMMA Lead WriterMarch 10, 2014

USA Today

For many of the UFC's formative years, light heavyweight was the company's undisputed glamor division.

The 205-pound class became comfortably ensconced as the UFC’s marquee attraction from roughly 2000-07, when stars like Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz carried the torch. In more recent years, light heavyweight lost a step; first as a series of lesser champions passed the belt around like a hot potato, then after Jon Jones turned the title picture into a one-man show.

Apr 21, 2012; Atlanta, GA, USA; Jon Jones (left) fights Rashad Evans in the main event and light heavyweight title bout during UFC 145 at Philips Arena. Mandatory Credit: Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports
Paul Abell-USA TODAY Sports

The 26-year-old champion’s ascendance has itself been a thing of unmistakable beauty, but to the extent there was much drama in it, Jones snuffed it out with one lopsided victory after another. 

In the wake last weekend’s UFC London event, however, it appears 205 pounds might be poised for a return to greatness, with a robust crop of contenders suddenly hot on Bones’ heels.

As Glover Teixeira, Alexander Gustafsson and Daniel Cormier all stand ready to give Jones their best shots during 2014, this could be the year light heavyweight finally reclaims its rightful place in the UFC’s vanguard.

Jeff Chiu/Associated Press

Thank Gustafsson for keeping things interesting, as he made fairly quick and easy work of Jimi Manuwa on Saturday in a classic just-don’t-screw-it-up matchup, if there ever was one. By trumping Manuwa in impressive fashion, Gustafsson simultaneously beat back Cormier’s bid to usurp him as the next title challenger and reaffirmed the likelihood of a rematch against Jones sometime this summer.

The champion already has an interesting title defense against Teixeira on the books for next month at UFC 172 and with Phil Davis meeting Anthony Johnson in another compelling contender bout at the same event, light heavyweight unexpectedly feels as fun as it has in years.

Isaac Brekken/Associated Press

We abruptly seem a world away from August 2012, when the division arguably hit rock bottom after an injury to Dan Henderson forced the cancellation of UFC 151. That calamity—a first in the organization’s history—cast the 205-pound landscape into a quagmire that eventually saw Jones reduced to defending the title against middleweights in consecutive appearances at UFCs 152 and 159.

Light heavyweight was still limping along in the shadow of that mess when he got an unexpected wake-up call from Gustafsson at UFC 165 last September. In pushing the champion to the brink in the best fight of 2013, Gustafsson effectively dashed Jones’ aura of invincibility and planted seeds for the 205-pound renaissance we see now.

Jones himself unwittingly stirred the pot of public intrigue in the wake of Gustafsson’s win over Manuwa. He took to Twitter to suggest (quite innocuously, really) that perhaps Cormier and Gustafsson ought to next fight each other in a title eliminator.

As with everything Jones does, the reaction from MMA fans was swift and ridiculous. This time Jones’ detractors even went as far as to suggest he was looking for a way to “duck” one or both of his next challengers.

Of course, that idea is ludicrous, but perhaps the fact it was floated at all is a positive commentary on the overall health of the division at present. Together, Gustafsson and Cormier represent the two most significant threats to the Jon Jones Era since he won the title three years ago.

Whether they can articulate it properly or not, fans appear to know that, which can only mean good things for the immediate future of 205 pounds. Guys like Cormier, Gustafsson, Teixeira, Davis and Johnson are exactly what this division needed—a fresh slate of foils to replace the ones Jones battered and dismissed during his first six UFC title fights.

To make matters even more interesting, there seems to be some legitimate heat between them. The typically mild-mannered Gustafsson cut off UFC post-fight interviewer Dan Hardy mid-sentence over the weekend in order to take the microphone and tell Jones he was coming for him.

For his part, Jones appears irked by the entire idea of Cormier as a light heavyweight title contender and even Davis has gotten in a few verbal barbs of late, saying he felt like Jones "wants more of the softer side of the division," via MMA Fighting’s Dave Doyle.

If 2014 manages to produce a trio of interesting title fights for Jones, each against a man seemingly more capable of dethroning him than the last, it will amount to a significant win for the 205-pound division at large.

As the greatest champion his weight class has ever seen, Jones has always had the potential to bring light heavyweight back to the mountaintop.

Now he might have the supporting cast to do it.

Hard to say anything too ridiculous about that.