With his eventually dominant performance over Vitor Belfort at UFC 152, Jon Jones became the third man to defend the light heavyweight title four times. Jones now has as many title defenses as Frank Shamrock and Chuck Liddell, and he's one defense away from tying Tito Ortiz for the most consecutive title defenses for a Light Heavyweight Champion. So what lies ahead for the champ and the rest of the division? Let's take a look.
Jon Jones (17-1): Okay, so the guy isn't all that popular among the hardcores. He tends to say the wrong things at the wrong times. He doesn't want to be the bad guy, but seems to be completely clueless as to how he can make himself more endearing. All that aside though, a Jones fight is must-watch. It's almost guaranteed that you're going to see some new wrinkle to Jones's game every time he enters the cage. And when you're a 25-year-old with four title defenses already under the belt, that's really saying something. It's been discussed with a straight face in several outlets that Jones may be the best we've ever seen by the time it's all said and done. If he continues doing what he's done thus far, that hyperbolic-sounding sentiment may not be off the mark at all.
Due to the weirdness of the situation at the top of the light heavyweight division with the cancellation of UFC 151 and all that other jazz, there's no one right now who holds the distinction of being the number one contender to the title. But if we look a little further, the picture begins to clear up a bit. It remains to be seen whether the next contender will come from Gustafsson-Rua or the yet-to-be-scheduled Machida-Henderson, but it stands to reason that one of the four will challenge for the belt next. It may be another "who can impress Dana White the most" tournament. Time will tell.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
Alexander Gustafsson (14-1): Since arriving in the UFC in November of 2009, Gustafsson has put together a 6-1 record with five wins coming by stoppage. He's won his last five fights, most recently (and most impressively) out-pointing Thiago Silva in the main event of the UFC's first visit to his home country of Sweden. "The Mauler" has been long bandied about as one of the young guns with a shot at taking the belt from Jon Jones, or at least giving him a run for his money. With a fight coming up against Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Gustafsson has a chance to prove that he is worthy of the hype and earn a potential title shot.
Mauricio Rua (21-6): The UFC doesn't always offer title shots to fighters who are 2-2 in their last four fights, but when they do, it's usually in the light heavyweight division. Commercial references aside, Rua's last four fights aren't exactly against bottom-feeders. Rua's losses have come to the current champion (in a fight where he lost the belt himself) and Dan Henderson, in what has been dubbed by many as the greatest fight in UFC history. If he can take out Gustafsson at the UFC's fifth Fox show, it would be hard not to consider him at least a potential number one contender, given the state of the light heavyweight division. For the record, I don't see it happening. I believe Gustafsson will announce his presence in a definitive way come December.
Dan Henderson (29-8): With the cancellation of UFC 151 due to Henderson's injury, he may have lost out on the last opportunity he would get to challenge for UFC gold. That would be a shame as "Hendo" has had quite a remarkable career. His only losses since coming to Zuffa after ending Wanderlei Silva's interminable reign as 205 lb champion in Pride's penultimate event (though can't we all just agree that Pride 34 never happened?) have been in title fights. He's lost to Anderson Silva and Rampage Jackson in the UFC, and to Jake Shields in Strikeforce. In order to earn back his title shot, Henderson apparently will have to best former champion Lyoto Machida in a fight that has not yet been announced. Even if he were to emerge victorious in that fight (an outcome that I don't see as likely,) one would imagine that Henderson stands very little chance against the younger champion. But this is MMA after all, a world where Matt Serra can upend Georges St. Pierre. Is anything impossible? If there's one guy who says "no," it's Dan Henderson.
Lyoto Machida (18-3): The infamous "Machida Era," as Joe Rogan coined it, lasted just short of a year and has been over for more than two. But Machida's 2-3 record in his last five fights aside, there are few in the light heavyweight division that present as large a threat as Machida. His diverse and unorthodox ways of attacking his opponents have befuddled many, and outside of three former UFC champions (including a razor-thin split decision over Rampage Jackson), no one has figured out a way to beat him. Machida was to be the next title contender after Dan Henderson had his shot, but of course among the cancellations and refusals to fight, Machida joined the ranks of those who were promised title fights only to have them un-promised due to this or that circumstance. Not that anyone is crying for the guy who had a title fight at the end of last year, but the promise remains reneged upon.
UP AND COMERS
Glover Teixeira (18-2): While some would hurry to put Teixeira in the top ten of the light heavyweight division, the coronation of the 32-year-old Brazilian would be a little premature. Yes, Teixeira shows a lot of promise. Yes, he has won 16 straight fights, and mostly in brutal fashion. And his ascent to the ranks of the top ten is probably just a matter of time. But in reality, you can't be a top ten fighter if you haven't beaten a top ten fighter, let alone fought one. So for now, Teixeira is an up and comer with a ton of potential for violence, as his fight with Kyle Kingsbury showed. But let us not forget the cautionary tale of Hector Lombard, who came in with a penchant for quick knockouts and left his first fight with a plodding decision loss on his record after having fought a top ten middleweight. Like Lombard, Teixeira likely would have debuted in the UFC a long time ago were it not for Visa issues, but unlike Lombard, he didn't have to toil in Bellator for a few years once that issue was figured out. And thank goodness for that, given how thin the division is outside the UFC. Teixeira faces Fabio Maldonado at UFC 153, and he will probably smash Maldonado in short order. Hopefully after that fight, we'll get to see what Teixeira brings to the table against competition that is approaching elite.
Jimi Manuwa (12-0): Speaking of fighters who crushed Kyle Kingsbury in their debut fights, my concern about Manuwa going into the Fuel event last weekend was that if he wasn't able to finish Kingsbury quickly, he might not be able to last over three rounds. While it appeared that his gas tank does need a bit of work, Manuwa showed a ferocity in dispatching Kingsbury that was positively scary. The fight could have (and perhaps should have) been stopped in the first round. I remember wincing in sympathy pain with each strike that Manuwa landed on the reeling Kingsbury. The beating continued in the second round, with the only respite coming when Kingsbury was able to get the fight to the ground briefly. Manuwa showed an ability to stand back up rather quickly, which bodes well for his future, but he will certainly need some work on his takedown defense and stamina before he's ready for the upper level. In the meantime, though, Manuwa could be feasting on some mid-level talent for a little while. And that's bad news for anyone outside the upper tier.
Vinny Magalhaes (10-5, 1 NC): When Magalhaes came out of the finals of the eighth season of The Ultimate Fighter, he was a jiu jitsu specialist who looked completely clueless when it came to any kind of striking. Three-and-a-half years after his last UFC fight (in which he lost a decision to Elliot Marshall), Magalhaes looks worlds better. He's still not going to be a world-class striker, and his gas tank needs work, but he's much more capable of getting the fight to the ground and surviving the fight when it's on the feet, and the ability to get himself into a position to use his jiu jitsu makes him exponentially more dangerous than he was during his first UFC tenure. Magalhaes is the poster child for the good that it does to fight on smaller shows (or shows with less depth) before trying to tie up with the big boys in the UFC.
Next week, we'll talk about the rest of the light heavyweight division and match up those who are waiting for something to do.
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