This is Part II of my five part series looking at the lineal world titles in the five major MMA weight classes. Theses “mythical” lineal titles ignore promotional lines and politics, and are won and lost in the cage (or the ring,) whether a tangible promotional title is at stake or not. For a more detailed explanation of what lineal titles are and how they are interpreted, please read Part I, the breakdown of the lineal heavyweight title, which currently resides with Fabricio Werdum: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/593826-the-lineal-mma-world-heavyweight-title-runs-through-the-strikeforce-grand-prix
When looking at lineal world titles, you first must establish a starting point. Once a starting point is established, following the path of “who beat who” is generally (but not always, as you will soon see) the easiest part of the task of determining the lineal champion. And although the light heavyweight title lineage takes a few twisting paths, there can be very little dispute that all of these paths lead to Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
For the light heavyweight division, it would be hard to dispute the fairest starting point as the Frank Shamrock vs. Kevin Jackson fight at UFC Ultimate Japan on December 21, 1997.
In the early days of organized MMA, weight classes did not exist, even in the major promotions like the UFC and Pancrase. By the late 90’s, the UFC had not only evolved with the introduction of weight classes, but had also established champions in the 155, 170, 205 and heavyweight divisions (the first 185 pound UFC champion would not be crowned until 2002, and PRIDE FC champions would not be crowned until the early part of the next decade).
The first UFC light heavyweight title fight (which at the time was called “middleweight”) featured former King of Pancrase Frank Shamrock, a fighter entering the peak of his hall of fame career, riding a three fight winning streak. His opponent was the heavily favored and undefeated Kevin Jackson, the former Olympic gold medalist and undefeated wrestling prodigy.
Depending on the source, it took Shamrock either 0:14 or 0:16 to stun Jackson via arm bar to become the first UFC 205 pound champion, and in addition, start the lineal line of the modern light heavyweight division due to what was generally regarded as the first MMA fight to determine the best 205 pound fighter in the world.
Shamrock went on to dominate the UFC as its biggest star during the “dark days”, successfully defending the title four times, culminating with a victory over Tito Ortiz at UFC 22, a fight considered one of the greatest fights in company history (despite being “erased” from history by Dana White, who’s long standing feud with Shamrock has also resulted in the immature stance of not recognizing the Shamrock title reign at all. Shamrock simply does not exist in the eyes of UFC revisionist history).
At this point there was no doubt who the best 205 pound fighter on the planet was, and in fact, Shamrock was also considered by many to be the best pound for pound fighter in the world as well.
Shamrock also had one fight outside of the UFC during his run as the world’s best light heavyweight, a draw with Kiyoshi Tamura on a Rings show in 1999.
Following the victory over Ortiz, at the peak of his career, Shamrock abruptly retired and eventually left the UFC. This is where the light heavyweight title lineage gets murky and is up for dispute.
With Shamrock out of the picture, the vacant UFC light heavyweight title was put up for grabs at UFC Ultimate Japan 3 in April 2000, where Tito Ortiz defeated Wanderlei Silva to claim the title.
Shamrock would eventually return to fighting, but only fought twice between 1999 and 2006, and would never lose at light heavyweight again (he defeated Elvis Sinosic in 2000 in Japan, and then defeated journeyman Bryan Pardoe to become the first ever WEC light heavyweight champion in 2003).
When Shamrock, an undersized light heavyweight even by early day standards, returned to full time fighting in 2006, the sport had evolved and he spent the rest of his career fighting at 185 or lower.
In terms of the lineal title, it is reasonable to say it was vacated the day Shamrock retired.
Ortiz and Silva were widely considered two of the top five 205 pound fighters in the world at that time (many would argue they were No. 1 and No. 2, with Silva in the midst of his 20 fight PRIDE unbeaten streak, and Ortiz the unquestioned best of the UFC with Shamrock retired), so it is entirely reasonable to view that fight as the crowing of the lineal champion.
From that point forward, the UFC light heavyweight title follows a clean line, with no breaks, interim champions, retirements or other assorted anomalies that would deviate the line. As such, the lineal title would reside with Shogun Rua, the current UFC champion.
There is a belief by some that when Shamrock retired, the best of the 205 pounders now resided in Japan, and that the light heavyweight lineage at this point should go through PRIDE. Even if you fall on this side of the argument, it all ends with Shogun as the lineal champ anyway.
Wanderlei Silva defeated Kazushi Sakuraba to become the first PRIDE middleweight (205 pound) champion in 2001. He then did not lose for eleven straight fights, including winning the 2003 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix, before dropping a split decision to heavyweight Mark Hunt on New Year’s Eve 2004. This was an open weight fight, thus the lineal title stays with Silva.
Silva would finally lose to Ricardo Arona, in 2005 during the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix.
Arona lost his next fight, in the finals, to Shogun Rua.
Shogun would lose his next fight to Mark Coleman (the famous fight where Rua broke his arm, and the wild brawl followed), but like the Hunt victory over Silva, this was an open weight fight so the lineal title would not have changed hands.
Rua’s next loss at 205 would come in his UFC debut several years later against Forrest Griffin. Griffin would go on to win the UFC title from Rampage Jackson, once again merging the UFC title with the lineal line, which leads us back to Shogun, the current UFC champion.
This gives us four legitimate restarting points following the Shamrock retirement (Ortiz vs. Silva, Silva vs. Sakuraba and the 2003 and 2005 PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix), and all four lead us to Shogun Rua.
Since two of those lines begin with Wanderlei Silva, I believe it is reasonable to begin the true line with Tito Ortiz, since he defeated Silva in 2000. Recognizing the fourth path, the 2005 Grand Prix, as the restart would be ignoring five years of fights, and would eventually end with Shogun regardless.
No matter what way you choose to go, each path leads to the man who can reasonably be considered the undisputed lineal light heavyweight champion, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.
For the heavyweight line, click here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/593826-the-lineal-mma-world-heavyweight-title-runs-through-the-strikeforce-grand-prix
To read the latest edition of “Around The Cage”, click here: http://bleacherreport.com/articles/612230-mmaaround-the-cage-vol3-fedors-camp-goes-nuts-ufc-bellator-notes-ratings
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