The light heavyweight division, for years, was MMA’s marquee division. It’s where stars stacked up, where the biggest fights happened as we tacitly admitted as fans that the heavyweight division just wasn’t that good. After UFC Stockholm, part of your MMA brain wants to say “Hey, things are looking up!”. At the same time, you have to wonder if that’s the case at all.
Really, it’s bigger than just a Saturday in Stockholm. For the last eight years, we’ve been dealing with an otherworldly skilled, certifiable sociopath named Jon Jones ruling this division. Now, watching Jones’ dominance has been a revelation; he is quite possibly the best fighter we’ve ever seen. However, the nature of his dominance, combined with his recalcitrant personality, has stalled the division. This has a bigger importance than I think many realize. Especially given the UFC’s turn towards “money fights” and trying to engender high-level entertainment, I think the promotion would have loved to have Jones move up to heavyweight by now. However, due to his own issues, his seeming unwillingness to step up, we get stuck on this carousel where we’re witnessing MMA’s ultimate enfant terrible suppressing an entire weight class. By all means, any fighter is within their rights to fight in the weight class they belong, but with the light heavyweight division, it stands out as particularly grim, especially in the wake of UFC Stockholm.
Everything about the major outcomes of this card runs contra to how things are allegedly supposed to work. We’re in Sweden, we have the major ticket seller, the fighter who took Jon Jones closer to the brink thank anyone in one of the best MMA bouts ever, end up giving his back, giving up the choke and then throwing his gloves down. The man who beats him is a fighter that was just beat relentlessly by the ever-lurking Jones. On the one hand, you want to feel good for Anthony Smith, a fighter who not too long ago was just a random journeyman and upped his game in a surprising fashion. But how does this help anything? Like, are we really going to run back this fight where Jones almost laughed like a comic book villain while hacking him to pieces? This says much about the nature of UFC matchmaking, but also, just how stagnant the 205-pound division is, even when it gets a new infusion of talent.
Gustafsson’s initial title challenge against Jones at UFC 165 in Toronto was thrilling. On the surface, it seemed like a walkover. The UFC had to promote the fight based on the fact Gustafsson was tall and “Greatness is Within Reach,” because they had no other angle. But Gustafsson capitalized on Jones being a lazy ne’er-do-well, and put him down 29-28 early. It took a spellbinding spinning back elbow in the fourth to shift the entire fight. In a way, it is brilliant because it shows how truly, naturally skilled Jones is. But, at the same time, it’s defeating. As fans, we want to see serious competition, and even if it is realized in that particular fight, if we could look forward into the future, we’d see how that process would be defeating.
Aleksandar Rakic needed only 42 seconds to put Jimi Manuwa in a body bag. He is easily one of the best light heavyweight prospects in the world. He’s 4-0 in the UFC now. He’s still a fight or so away from a title crack, but so long as Jones hangs out, smirking and trash talking, does he really have any chance at ascending to the throne? Johnny Walker has thrilled audiences with a rash of insane, sub-two minute stoppages in his first three UFC outings, but does anyone think he’s going to beat Jon Jones?
This is the awkwardness of the light heavyweight division right now. We watch things transpire that should motivate and inspire us as fans, but we remember Jon Jones’ looming presence, grinning and laughing at all of it. While we should be able to celebrate Anthony Smith persevering and overcoming Alexander Gustafsson, it’s hard to do when we have such a recent memory of Jones toying with him and brutally assaulting him. Rakic is a thrilling prospect, who in yesteryear, would’ve been a shoo-in as a title contender and incredibly exciting. Instead, we have to consider the caveat of whether they can beat this derelict all-time great? If anything, Jones’ presence and insistence on fighting at 205 pounds has reinforced the value and thrill of 155 and 170 pounds. We’re 15 years removed now from arguing if UFC or Pride has the better light heavyweight (middleweight, in Pride’s case) division.
And, keep in mind, Jones’ next contender is a middleweight in Thiago Santos, who opted to move up in weight, and his signature win in the division is the same guy Rakic just laid out in 42 seconds. We ought to appreciate fighters who are getting in where they fit in, but at the same time, Jones’ insistence on lording over this division is actually a huge sink. Sure, his name value helps the UFC sell, but at the same time, it makes things infinitely less interesting when it comes to watching title fights. More than that, it actually minimizes the intrigue of fights as time goes by, as we consistently wonder how Jones would fare as a heavyweight. The UFC is diehard to make things sell, yet, one of their biggest stars has taken a career path that actually makes their product actively less interesting and prevents the promotion from growing future stars.
No doubt, it’s a great thing that we’ve finally got new talent bubbling up in the light heavyweight division. But, so long as Jon Jones looms and cackles over the division without taking the logical challenge of moving up to heavyweight, we’re just stuck on a brutal merry-go-round which is insidious, because it only serves to inform Jones’ ego, and at the same time, stops actual promoter from doing anything meaningful or proactive with the up and coming talent that it has. It is low-key a selfish maneuver that is totally in-step with Jones’ personality, which even if it’s unwitting, makes complete sense with his personality. I suppose the only question is whether or not we are comfortable with superstar fighters shaping the sport in their own gruesome portrait.