Following former PRIDE fighter Mauricio "Shogun" Rua's impressive knockout victory over Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida on Saturday night at UFC 113, much of the discussion within the MMA community has focused heavily on the outlook of the UFC's light heavyweight division. As expected, Dana White confirmed with Carmichael Dave on 1140 KHTK AM in Sacramento that Quinton "Rampage" Jackson vs. Rashad Evans at UFC 114 will determine the next challenger to the light heavyweight crown. The news sets up a potential rematch between Jackson and Rua under UFC rules with a focal point on their battle in the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix.
With the top of the division already set in stone for the next few months, how will the division pan out in the tier just below the champion's pedestal? Lyoto Machida sits without a clear cut opponent currently with Forrest Griffin being one of the only top-tier UFC light heavyweights without a fight due to an injury that pulled him out of his match-up with Antonio "Minotoro" Rogerio Nogueira. Assuming Griffin's injury will shelve him for quite some time and the desire of the UFC to set Machida up against a legitimate threat to the crown, who will more than likely battle the elusive "Dragon" in the future?
My bet still lies on Rogerio as the leading candidate for a shot at Machida. While I thought a win over Forrest Griffin would easily solidify him as the next in line to gain a contention match-up, it's hard to ignore the fact that he's the most skilled and proven fighter in the mix behind the four fighters waging war at the top of the mountain. With Machida awaiting his next endeavor and Rogerio battling at UFC 114 against Jason Brilz, it makes perfect sense to create this fight.
The only problem is that both men are managed by Ed Soares and teammates at Black House. In the past, Soares has stated that both fighters would battle each other if the UFC title was on the line, but would Rogerio and Machida be open to fight in a battle that would have major implications as to where each sits in the division? Rogerio would easily be in line for a title shot after a Rua vs. Evans/Jackson title match while Machida would more than likely secure one more fight against the loser to secure his own shot.
The rest of the division is rather insignificant right now. Luis Arthur Cane battles Cyril Diabate at UFC 114, but his knockout loss to Rogerio surely keeps him down the ladder for now. Both Chuck Liddell and Rich Franklin have stated they want to attain a shot at the title, and they'll begin their journey against each other at UFC 115. While Liddell and Franklin are fan favorites and two of the most recognizable stars, I highly doubt they'll be brought in immediately with an exciting finish. I think Liddell's legitimacy as a top flight light heavyweight has diminished considerably whereas Franklin has still been able to compete against the very best at age 35.
The fight to keep an eye on is Jon Jones vs. Vladimir Matyushenko at UFC on Versus II in August. Jones is obviously being groomed to be a future champion as he's slowly and steadily gaining better and better fights to test his skills. He absolutely destroyed the once-feared Brandon Vera and demolished Matt Hamill before being disqualified. At the young age of only 22, the UFC is in no rush, but he may find himself in the mix at the top on the outside looking in with a finish of the always-tough Matyushenko.
Randy Couture is always a possibility as well, although I think he's truly getting in over his head if he tries to make a splash into the upper echelon of the UFC light heavyweight division at this point in his career. Rua has stated he wants to fight him, but I think it's mostly because Rua knows he can devastate a UFC legend who fans are drawn to seeing. Ultimately, I think Rua is going to create his own drawing power without a battle with Couture.
The unpredictability on the future has once again led to some very interesting shake-ups in the division. Many fans, including myself, felt that Machida would be on top of the division for a very long time, but Rua has a real opportunity to solidify a legacy for himself at the top of the weight class. At only 28 years of age, he has the youth, experience, and ability to be a long standing champion. We've been down the same path before... the question is whether Rua can truly stand the test of time.