UFC 128: Sorting Out Who Gets The Next Title Shot After Rashad Evans Vs. Rua
The two men who will determine the #1 LHW in March
Anyone who follows MMA rankings knows all weight divisions sort easily into two categories. The first category is “static/boring/paper thing”. This usually happens when a champion manages to string together a few title wins. All the most dominant champions in MMA reign over “shallow“ or “boring“ divisions. Middleweight (shallow!). Welterweight (nothing but wrestlers!). Featherweight (now that Mike Brown lost again the whole division was always secretly crap).
The second category is “chaotic/out of control/blown wide open”. These usually happen once a dominant champion loses, or if there is a revolving door of champions winning and then losing the belt. As everyone knows, all it takes is one fight for a weight division to move from column A to column B, or vice versa. Weight classes currently in this category include Lightweight (enough #1 contenders to start a baseball team), Heavyweight (Brocklesnar lost), and biggest of all, Light-Heavyweight.
Strange as it seems, the UFC’s marquee division has been in a state of flux, arguably since Chuck Liddell lost his title to “Rampage” Jackson in 2007. Six different men have held the title since then. That’s six champions in a little under 4 years. I don’t think any other division of MMA can lay claim to that much craziness in the division’s top slot.
What’s worse, “Shogun” kicked off his title reign by injuring his knee and going once again under the knife. This unfortunate injury kept the champ on the sidelines for almost a year. In that time, the landscape of the LHW division has shifted dramatically, to say nothing of the veritable sea of former title holders looking to regain that top spot. With “Shogun” Rua and #1 contender Rashad Evans set to meet at UFC 128, here’s a look at the biggest, most relevant upcoming fights in the LHW division to see where the winners (and losers) stand in the UFC’s most chaotic weight class.
Quinton Jackson/Thiago Silva – UFC 130:
There was a time where Jackson’s future in the sport was in serious doubt. A public fallout with Dana White combined with a plum role in the big-budget “A-Team” remake led many to speculate that Jackson’s fighting career was over. Even after White and Jackson mended fences, Jackson’s disappointing defeat to Rashad Evans in his big return match led many to question his dedication, heart, and training methods. It seemed his days as a championship level contender were over.
What a difference a fight makes. Jackson returned to the cage in November of last year to face another top LHW in Lyoto Machida. The story coming off that fight – a close decision win for “Rampage – was the controversial judges decision that some felt should have gone Machida’s way. What has been mostly overlooked is just how good Quinton looked against Machida that night. He showed up in shape, with a good gameplan and looking nothing like the lethargic version of himself that faced Evans. It was in every respect a heartening performance for Jackson and his fans.
Long known as one of the most exciting and inconsistent performers in the LHW division, ATT prospect Thiago Silva has gone a long way towards erasing the latter statement from his reputation. Most recently, he absolutely overran Brandon Vera en route to a trash talking, donkey punching, ear-boxing decision win over the experienced veteran. Combining brutal punching power and a legit Ricardo Liborio BJJ black belt with a pitbull-like aggression (see what I did there?) in the finest tradition of Brazilian fighters, Silva has all the tools to reassert himself in the LHW division.
Now “Rampage” has been booked against Thiago Silva at UFC 130, and a victory for either man could conceivably earn them a title shot. I don’t think the UFC will go this route, however. Both men still have recent losses to Lyoto Machida and Rashad Evans in their rear-views. Besides, there’s too many fun fights for them to be booked in in the meantime. The winner of Forrest Griffin/Rich Franklin would be a fun scrap.
Lyoto Machida/Randy Couture – UFC 129
Poor Lyoto. Two years ago, he was one of the hottest fighters in all of MMA, riding a crest of hype and attention known as the “Machida Era“. He was the undefeated champion at LHW, with a style and personality that was undeniably magnetic. He was a living video game character, a Liu Kang or Ryu come to life. Then reality hit Machida square in the face. The first fight with “Shogun” left the unstoppable champion looking suddenly, horribly vulnerable. The second fight left him unconscious.
Now coming off that razor close loss to “Rampage”, Machida has lost two straight fights – three if you count the first “Shogun” decision against him. In less then a year he has gone from “best of the best” to “fighting to keep his spot”. Ironically, his 48 year old, twice “retired” opponent is in the exact opposite position. Say what you will of his level of competition, but Randy Couture is 3-0 in his last fights and is undeniably a serious factor – once again – in the LHW rankings. Not bad for an old man, right Randy?
If Machida wins this fight, he gets to keep his lofty position (and salary, for that matter) in the LHW rankings but he will still be several fights removed from a title shot. The same is not true of Randy Couture. Hate me all you want, deride me and disagree with me though you will. If Randy Couture pulls off the shocking upset (again) and beats Lyoto Machida in Toronto, I bet my firstborn on him getting a title shot. Couture vs. Rua/Evans in a ballyhooed “retirement” fight. I can hear the cash registers ringing already – and so can Dana.
Jon Jones/Ryan Bader – UFC 126
Jon Jones is undoubtedly the more hyped of the two men, at least among hardcore fans. To many, the Greg Jackson product is akin to the second coming of Christ in MMA. Inflated as that may sound, what Jones has accomplished in his short career is nothing short of phenomenal. He’s faced tough, experienced guys with world class experience and long resumes in MMA, and absolutely destroyed them. His thrashings of Stephan Bonnar, Jake O’Brien, Matt Hamill, and Brandon Vera were less “fights” then a man beating up on children.
But let’s give Bader his due props as well. More workmanlike and less flashy then Jones, the TUF winner has amassed his impressive collection of scalps in the LHW division. Also to his credit, he still has that “0” in the Lose column, something Jones can no longer attest to (rightly or not). Between them, these two men have entirely cleaned out the bottom two thirds of the UFC LHW division. Their meeting on February 5th will determine who moves into the top 5 and who goes back to the drawing board.
In my opinion, the winner of this fight could be given a title shot without complaint, though my feeling is the UFC will continue to build the winner up through one more fight. Fights with Jackson or Machida would be great litmus tests to determine their top-5 worthiness. If more of a “build up” fight is still needed, the Ortiz/Nogueria winner would provide a solid springboard to a world title shot.
Forrest Griffin/Rich Franklin – UFC 126
Do we have to have this fight? Don’t get me wrong, I’m a huge fan of both Franklin and Griffin, and this fight will be guaranteed fireworks from the moment it begins to the moment it ends, one way or the other. So I guess I have no problem with the fight itself. Just the ending of the fight, where one guy loses and the other guy wins. Can’t we just see them beat the crap out of each other for 14 minutes, 55 seconds before one guy “Friendships!” the other guy Mortal Kombat 3 style? Yeah, that would be nice.
Yes, sad as it may be, one of these fan favourites is going to take the next step (back) into serious contendership, and one of them will be exiled into the wilderness of the UFC “Seniors Circuit” forever more. For Franklin, this fight is the culmination of a long, strange journey since losing his MW title to Anderson Silva in 2006. Since then, Franklin has drifted between weight classes without purpose, taking whatever fights the UFC brass needed him to take. The consummate “company man”, Franklin has finally been given an opportunity to make a run at the LHW title with this fight.
For Griffin, this fight is part of the rebuilding process for the TUF season 1 winner and former LHW champion. Once one of the most popular fighters in MMA, crushing losses to Rashad Evans and MW champion Anderson Silva took a huge chunk out of Griffin’s once formidable reputation. He started his rebuilding process with a win over Tito Ortiz, then suffered a neck injury that kept him out of action for some time. A victory over Franklin propels Griffin back into title contention. Neither guy gets a title shot with a victory here, but a fight with the Rampage/Silva winner would pretty much be guaranteed to please.