The light heavyweight division in the UFC has, over the 20-year history of the organization, been one of the key factors of their success. The light heavyweight division was the stomping ground of many of the biggest stars in MMA history. Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Forrest Griffin, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans – some of the most popular and marketable stars have held the UFC light heavyweight championship at one point or another, making it consistently competitive and exciting. The popularity of the light heavyweight division may be somewhat attributed to the fact that – with the exception of the reigns of Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz – the belt has jumped around a lot. The light heavyweight division is traditionally unpredictable and lacks the stability the middleweight and welterweight divisions experienced under the long championship reigns of Anderson Silva and GSP.
In 2014, the man who’s seated on the throne at the top of of the light heavyweight mountain is Jon ‘Bones’ Jones. Since winning the championship in 2011 from ‘Shogun’ Rua – which, at 23 years old, made him the youngest person to ever win UFC gold – Jones has dominated and controlled almost every opponent he’s faced. The light heavyweight championship has remained firmly in ‘Bones’ grip for 3 years now, and with the way he’s fighting, it looks like it could be 3 more. Recently, at UFC 172, Jones destroyed Glover Teixeira to defend his championship for a 7th time, setting the record for most consecutive light heavyweight championship defences. During the bout, Jones displayed an improved version of his already scary style, picking apart Teixeira with elbows and kicks and even feeling comfortable enough to clown around in Anderson Silva-esque fashion.
After all was said and done that night in Baltimore, there was only one question on everyone’s mind; who in this division can possibly derail this train? If the other fighters in the murderer’s row at light heavyweight have their say, one of them will be holding the belt this time next year. These are the threats to Jones, the top 10 fighters in the UFC light heavyweight division (based on the official UFC rankings).
10. Ryan Bader
The American wrestler from Reno, Nevada first made his debut with the UFC as a participant and the eventual winner of The Ultimate Fighter: Team Nogueira vs. Team Mir. He has a professional record of 16-4, and his losses have all come to high quality fighters such as Lyoto Machida, Glover Teixeira, Tito Ortiz, and Jon Jones. Bader is coming off a win against Anthony Perosh, and will try to climb back up the ladder when he faces Rafael Cavalcante at UFC 174.
9. Chael Sonnen
Chael P. Sonnen is best known for his time spent in the middleweight division, when he came seconds from dethroning Anderson Silva in 2010. Since then the ‘Gangster from West Lynn’ has split his time between the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions. In 2012 he made headlines by offering to step in against Jon Jones on about a week’s notice to replace the injured Dan Henderson. Jones refused to accept the replacement and the entire event was scrapped, the only time a UFC pay-per-view has been cancelled. Sonnen eventually got his fight against Jones at UFC 159, but lost in the 1st round. In his current stint at light heavyweight (including the Jones fight) he’s 1-2, and is getting ready to face Wanderlei Silva at UFC 175. If he has any desire to compete for the light heavyweight championship again in the future, he needs to pull out the win against his rival Wanderlei.
8. Mauricio Rua
Mauricio ‘Shogun’ Rua is a former UFC light heavyweight champion who now finds himself sitting at 8 in the rankings. Rua was the man Jones defeated to become the champ back in 2011, and since then Shogun has experienced somewhat of a decline. Gone are the days of Mauricio Rua tearing through PRIDE with his exquisite muay thai. The Shogun of today is noticeably slower and less effective than he used to be. Rua is the personification of the old adage “It’s not the years, it’s the miles.” Although only 32, Rua has been through 31 fights, and most of them have been brutal wars. Every human body has physical limitations, and it appears ‘Shogun’ may have reached his. He looked good against Dan Henderson, but then left himself open for one punch that knocked him out cold. When you start getting dropped that easy, it might be time to walk away. On the other hand, maybe Rua has one last run left in him.
7. Phil Davis
Phil Davis fought recently at UFC 172, and some of the holes in his game got exposed for the very first time. Coming into his fight against Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson, Davis had a professional record of 12-1 and victories over Lyoto Machida and Alexander Gustaffson. He lost, and subsequently dropped from #4 in the rankings to #7. Davis generally relies on his wrestling, but against Johnson he found all of his takedown attempts stuffed, which kept him on his feet. Spending 3 rounds going blow for blow with an accomplished striker demonstrated to everyone in the division that Davis needs to work on his striking. If he can improve that aspect of his game, he’ll be making another run up the rankings quite soon.
6. Dan Henderson
Dan Henderson is the MMA version of ‘the thing that should not be.’ Now 43 years old, ‘Hendo’ is coming off a huge win against Mauricio Rua after losing 3 in a row to Vitor Belfort, Rashad Evans, and Lyoto Machida. Henderson is 17 years and 41 fights into his career but is still able to hang with the best in the world at light heavyweight, some of whom are nearly 20 years younger than him. He’s a former PRIDE middleweight champion and Strikeforce light heavyweight champion, and he’s part of a very small group of men who hold a victory over Fedor Emelianenko. His next fight is scheduled against the undefeated Daniel Cormier, and whoever wins walks away with a shot against Jon Jones for the UFC light heavyweight championship.
5. Anthony Johnson
Anthony ‘Rumble’ Johnson wasn’t even part of the top 10 rankings in the light heavyweight division a few weeks ago. He had been cut from the UFC after failing to make weight multiple times, then spent some time outside the organization and racked up 6 wins. He was given another shot in the UFC – this time at light heavyweight – but virtually everyone counted him out. At UFC 172, he shocked everyone by rolling through #4 ranked Phil Davis. Davis, an accomplished wrestler, couldn’t take Johnson down after 8 takedown attempts. ‘Rumble’ spent 15 minutes picking apart Davis on his feet with lightning quick punches and leg kicks that were backed by serious power. Within 15 minutes, Johnson went from being nobody important to a title contender at 205lbs. The future is bright for ‘Rumble’.
4. Daniel Cormier
Although he initially made his name tearing through the heavyweight division of both the UFC and Strikeforce, Daniel Cormier now calls the light heavyweight division home. He dropped down to 205lbs at the beginning of the year to pursue UFC championship gold while avoiding his good friend Cain Velasquez, the UFC heavyweight champion, who he didn’t want to fight. He finished Pat Cummins in the 1st round during his light heavyweight debut and has since been scheduled to fight a resurgent Dan Henderson at UFC 173.
3. Glover Teixeira
Dropping down to #3 from #2 after his defeat at the hands of Jon Jones at UFC 172 is the training partner of Chuck Liddell, Glover Teixeira. After being undefeated for nearly a decade and winning 5 straight fights in the UFC, Teixeira was given a title shot against Jon Jones. Teixeira spent the next 5 rounds getting dismantled by the champion. Still, he displayed incredible resilience. He’ll continue to be a force at light heavyweight, even if he won’t be getting another title opportunity against Jones anytime soon.
2. Rashad Evans
Rashad Evans has been inactive since November, but still sits comfortably at #2 in the official UFC light heavyweight rankings. The winner of The Ultimate Fighter 2 has a professional record of 22-3 and is a former UFC light heavyweight champion and former mentor to current champion Jon Jones. Evans and Jones had a falling out that culminated in a highly anticipated fight for the championship, in which Evans was defeated by his former protégée. He was scheduled to face Daniel Cormier at UFC 170, but had to withdraw from the bout after he severely injured his leg in training. He’s expected to return to the octagon in the fall of 2014.
1. Alexander Gustafsson
The #1 contender is the only man to ever take Jon Jones down or put him in any kind of danger. Prior to their championship fight at UFC 165, Alexander Gustafsson wasn’t considered a threat to Jones’ championship. Instead he ended up being the only person to ever put Jones in trouble. Gustafsson won the first two rounds, but Jones came back to win a decision victory against the Swede. Still, the damage had been done. Gustafsson put cracks in the armor of Jones, and opened up the floodgates to the possibility of someone defeating him and becoming the new champion of the light heavyweight division. Teixeira never appeared to be a threat against Jones, but now Alexander Gustafsson will get his rematch. If the rumours are to be believed, it could even be held in Sweden, which is as close to the plot of Rocky IV that we’ll ever get in real life. If anyone is going to ascend to the top at 205lbs as the new champion, it’ll be Alexander ‘The Mauler’ Gustafsson.