As it turns out, a difficult weight cut was the only thing holding Anthony "Rumble" Johnson from making his way to the front of the line.
Just two victories—albeit really, really impressive ones—since his return to the Octagon and Johnson is already giving Jon Jones one more reason to stick around at light heavyweight before the pound-for-pound king makes the trek to heavyweight waters. Johnson is back and better than ever.
As it stands, the light heavyweight title picture is in complete disarray—all thanks to the division's top two fighters. Daniel Cormier's already been promised his title shot in January. Alexander Gustafsson's been told he needs to fight once more before securing the title shot he was already promised. Rashad Evans is hurt but sits comfortably as the division's third-ranked fighter.
A fight against Gustafsson makes all the sense in the world for Johnson. It makes zero sense for the Swede. Sure, it's a fight that most of us would love to see, but there's no way the UFC should risk pitting its next title challenger—and Jones' greatest opponent—against a solid fighter. Make him fight again if you have to, but don't force the guy to fight anybody he isn't supposed to beat. At this point, Johnson isn't somebody that anybody is supposed to beat.
There's really only one guy who makes much sense for Johnson at this point, and Rumble knows exactly who it is.
He told Matt Parrino of UFC.com this month:
Hopefully I'll be able to fight in late October or something like that if there are any fights open. I was hoping I could fight Ryan Bader in late October and fight [Gustafsson] on the Jon Jones card. That's my idea. People finally want me to start calling people out, you know what I mean? I never did that before. But I've always wanted to fight Ryan Bader because I've always thought he was a tough fighter.
Winner of three straight unanimous decisions against Anthony Perosh, Rafael Cavalcante and Ovince Saint Preux, Bader's given fans reason to believe in the Ultimate Fighter again. At 18-4, Bader's one of the more dangerous fighters the UFC's light heavyweight division has to offer.
He was seemingly unstoppable until he ran into the actual unstoppable—overmatched and outwrestled against the current champion, Bader tasted defeat for the first time in his professional fighting career. He's since collected a few more bad losses against experienced opponents, but he seems to have learned what was holding him back: thinking he could strike with better strikers.
He told reporters at the UFC Fight Night 47 post-fight press conference:
For a while there, I kind of got away from (wrestling) a little bit. If you look at all my losses, they're when I tried to go out there and kickbox with guys. Like, Glover (Teixeira), (Lyoto) Machida, Jon Jones, those kind of fights. I need to mix everything up. That's my strength: wrestling. I need to mix that up with my boxing and everything else.
Now that he gets it and we know he gets it, it's time to set him up against other up-and-coming fighters.
A win for either man likely wouldn't qualify either of them for an immediate title shot, especially with Jones and Cormier set to tango in January, while Gustafsson either fights or waits in the wings for his turn to dance around April or May at the earliest. And that's all assuming Jones walks right through both of them injury-free.
All extreme complications aside, Johnson or Bader would need to sit around until August before they could step into the ring with whoever's destined to hold the title at that time.
Just when we all thought the reigning champion was out of challengers, the UFC managed to find two more. It's just a matter of keeping them busy enough to remain relevant while simultaneously unscathed that poses concern.
Kristian Ibarra is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. He also serves as the sports editor at San Diego State University's student-run newspaper, The Daily Aztec. Follow him on Twitter at @Kristian_Ibarra for all things MMA.
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