Throughout the week, MMA For Real will take a look at each of the UFC's classic five divisions while discussing the hierarchy in each division in regards to fighters are championship contention or could one day be. Today, we continue with the UFC's most storied division: light-heavyweight. See things differently? Want to give your thoughts on which track the division should go? Express yourself in the comments section!
Mauricio Rua: With his first-round knockout of Lyoto Machida in May, "Shogun" captured the UFC 205-pound title. Rua has dealt with great expectations throughout his career, dating back to when he rolled through what was quite possibly the most talent-rich tournament in MMA history when he won the PRIDE 2005 Middleweight Grand Prix, besting Quinton Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona in the span of three months. Rua has rebounded from a disastrous start to his UFC career (loss to Forrest Griffin, lackluster performance against Mark Coleman) to beat Chuck Liddell and Machida. Many thought he beat Machida in their first fight at UFC 104, but the decision went to Machida. Rua is a handful for anybody in this division. He has solid, powerful standup, a very good ground game and the necessary endurance to battle with anybody. What is concerning about Rua is his constant knee problems, which currently have kept him out of action for a long period of time yet again. If he returns from this surgery looking like he did against Coleman, his title could be in jeopardy.
Rashad Evans: Evans will face Rua for the championship, likely in March. Evans earned this spot with a win against Jackson in their long-awaited grudge match in May. A former champion, Evans is 15-1-1 in his career, having knocked off Griffin for the title at UFC 92 before suffering his first career loss in his first title defense to Machida. He has since rebounded with wins against Thiago Silva and Jackson. Evans has gone back to his wrestling roots and used that skill to beat both Silva and Jackson after engaging in primarily standup affairs with Liddell, Griffin and Machida. He has power in his hands but has certainly fought more conservatively of late, but it's led to wins. When he meets Rua, it will be interesting to see how he handles Rua's aggressiveness, which always has been one of his biggest assets.
In the mix:
Quinton Jackson/Lyoto Machida: The fight between these two at UFC 123 really didn't do much for either fighter in terms of separating either of them for a title shot. Jackson won, yes, but many thought Machida won. It was so close that I can't see Jackson getting the next title shot after Evans. Plus, Jackson fighting either Rua or Evans would be a rematch (albeit he fought Rua in 2005 in PRIDE, so it's not quite the same as fighting Evans again). Machida is probably now two wins away from getting another shot, but will remain at the top level of the division. It's tough to say where Jackson currently fits in because of the fights taking place in our next section. ...
Stay with us after the jump for "The next level" and "Prospect watch."
The next level:
Forrest Griffin/Rich Franklin/Jon Jones/Ryan Bader: As I wrote about prior to UFC 123, these four men (who will face off at UFC 126: Griffin vs. Franklin and Jones vs. Bader) are all right there in terms of getting a title shot. If one of these fighters looks real good against their opposition, the case could be made for them to fight for the title. Griffin is a former champion at light-heavyweight, Franklin is a former middleweight champion and Jones and Bader are rising prospects. To me, if Griffin looks good against Franklin, I'd like to see him rematch Rua. Their first fight was so epic and this is a rematch that can easily be sold.
Matt Hamill: As we stand right now, Hamill has to be considered here. He's 10-2-0 in his career and has won his last five fights. UFC president Dana White said following Hamill's UFC 121 win over Tito Ortiz that Hamill would be getting a top-10 opponent in his next fight. Right now, it wouldn't surprise me if a fight between Hamill and Machida was made. I don't see Hamill ever getting into the upper-echeleon of the division but as it stands right now, he has to be considered.
Phil Davis: At 8-0, Davis is rolling and has fought four times inside the UFC this year, winning two of those fights by submission and the other two by runaway unanimous decisions. Davis is interesting because he has already developed a submission game. A lot of times you see wrestlers come in with only their takedowns and ground-and-pound. Davis, a 2008 national champion at Penn State, has developed at a solid pace, but it will be important for the UFC to nurture his development and not rush him. He has the chance to be special, especially if he can get another four fights next year.
Alexander Gustafsson: For more on Gustafsson, I give the floor to MMA For Real contributor Forrest Lynn:
The most unique prospect the UFC is currently featuring, in my opinion, is Alexander Gustafsson. Unlike virtually all of his contemporaries, Gustafsson does not come from a wrestling base. He has a nice kickboxing game to his credit, with notably accurate hands that seem to have a good amount of pop behind them. Gustafsson faced Davis in April in Abu Dhabi, and to his credit, did a tremendous job early in the fight of stuffing Davis' takedowns before succumbing to an inside cradle (which was Davis speciality in the realm of competitive wrestling) and an anaconda choke. Yes, the ground game is an area of concern for Gustafsson, but he has taken to steps to patch the holes in his game already, striking out with several other teammates to California to train with Brandon Vera and his aforementioned former foe Davis. If Gustafsson continues on the track he is on now, he may well snatch the title of best European light-heavyweight from Gegard Mousasi (who apparently has little interest in changing his incredible natural gifts into real, tangible success) and become a top-10 competitor in short order.