Let's break it down, who is the best challenger right now for Mauricio Rua?
1. Quinton "Rampage" Jackson. Jackson is the favorite going into his fight with Rashad Evans at the end of this month, and of course he has to beat Suga to get the title shot. The business would be phenomenal, both men are draws, and both have an exciting stand-up style that would make for a fan friendly brawl. They've fought before, which adds another layer to the interest. But that first fight makes me wonder how good a fight it will actually be. Whatever the reason, Shogun absolutely tore through Rampage in that fight. Is Jackson better now? Certainly, but he's also been through some wars. He finished Marvin Eastman, Chuck Liddell, and Wanderlei Silva quickly but has also added thirteen grueling rounds with animals like Dan Henderson, Forrest Griffin, and Keith Jardine - three of the straight-up toughest guys in the business, whatever their win-loss records are. There is a lot for wear and tear on those tires, and while Shogun vs. Rampage would be an amazing fight to hype, how good of an actual fight it will be remains to be seen.
2. "Suga" Rashad Evans. Everything I wrote about about Jackson, turn it 180 degrees for Evans. He's not the draw that Rampage is, and never has been. He doesn't have the dynamic personality that Jackson has, though he does come across very well with his media work on MMA Liva and TUF 10. He doesn't have the gift of the clever quip like Rampage. He's been very successful in his career, cresting with a vicious KO of Chuck Liddell and a come-from-behind beatdown of Forrest Griffin to win the title. In his last fight, Rashad seemed to remember that he is a wrestler and did a good job (for 2 3/4 rounds) of taking Thiago Silva for a ride around the cage. But while Evans isn't the star or draw that Rampage is, he might actually be the much tougher challenger for Shogun. No doubt with Rua's win, the happiest man in the LWH division was Evans, who was still probably at least two fights away from another shot even if he beat Rampage given what Machida did to him. But Shogun has shown a weakness for wrestlers and can be taken down. If the ref hadn't stepped in, you could make a case Mark Coleman beat Shogun in their rematch on the 10-point system. So if Evans gets the nod, he won't be as dynamic or provide as an exciting style as Jackson. BUT, he might actually be a much tougher match-up for Shogun.
3. Anderson Silva. Now THIS is the new superfight everyone wants. Including me. But Anderson Silva still has some work to do with Dana White, that's just the facts. I think Dana is going to make Anderson finish the year defending his title against Chael Sonnen and then Vitor Belfort. But if he does, there is literally nobody left for Silva to fight and to keep him relivant, I think the clamor for a Silva jump to light heavyweight will be too strong for Dana to ignore, especially if Shogun can real off two title defenses in the time Silva takes on Sonnen and Belfort. Stylistically, it would be a war. I think Anderson is took quick for Shogun, and he can throw his strikes as hard as Rua but faster. However, Silva has yet to face a serious Muay Thai fighter at middleweight, the closest thing to someone who could throw good kicks was Rich Franklin. This fight would be as close to the biggest super fight in MMA history since Fedor fought Cro Cop for the heavyweight title. Two destroyers at the top of their game. The problem is given how Dana White has structed the UFC, with no non-title fights like in Pride, both of these guys have to get there. Shogun needs to be Rampage/Rashad winner and probably one more while Anderson needs to take care of Sonnen and Belfort. But if they got there? I think it would be the biggest fight in MMA history.
4. Forrest Griffin. I'm not sure how good of a fight it will actually be, but I think we remember too much of Forrest's fight with Anderson and not enough of his other fights anymore. And he did choke out Shogun, something that I'm sure Shogun would love to avenger and probably would. But when they show clips of Forrest saying he's a dog, he's not lying. He's a smarter guy than his hill-billy persona lets you believe, showing it in the Shogun and Rampage fights. He even looked good in the Rashad fight before getting finished, he won the first two rounds. But he's beaten Shogun, and not the way Coleman "beat" him. While everyone talks about how hurt Shogun was, I wonder if that narrative is brought up too much to build Shogun back up. The fact is, Forrest looked OUTSTANDING against Shogun and if he can get back to that Forrest he is as tough to beat as anyone in the division.
5. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira. While the hype behind the Jackson rematch would be huge, THIS is the real rematch of perhaps the best fight I've ever seen. In Pride, it was the two warring factions of Brazilian MMA (Chute Boxe, Brazilian Top Team) that brought their brand of fighting against each other and absolutely tore the house down. Its one of those fights you show people who aren't fans you are trying to convert. Little Nog just needs one big win to get there. It was suppose to be a fight with Forrest Griffin, which would be a great war, but I suspect it may end up being either the Rampage/Evans loser or maybe Rich Franklin if Ace gets past Chuck Liddell. Rogerio presents interesting problems on the feet for Shogun as their first fight shows. Nog is a boxer-striker as opposed to a Muay Thai striker like Shogun. His head movement is good and with his boxing he can bob and weave and slip punches better than other MMA fighters. He might be better adept at standing tall in the pocket amid Rua's fury.
6. Randy "The Natural" Couture. This fight, if made, would be purely for business. Though Couture is a wrestler, he lacks the great striking that a wrestler like Evans has to keep Shogun guessing. He's crafty, gutsy, but he couldn't handle what Chuck Liddell threw at him 5 years ago; imagine what Shogun would do to him. Couture, however, is one non-Toney win away from a possible shot depending how things drop. Maybe Rich Franklin, maybe Machida, maybe Rashad? Couture is (amazingly) still a great fighter and proven he can slay giants. But not this giant. This fight, if made, would be made to sell pay per views - and just don't see how it could be competitive.
7. Lyoto "The Dragon" Machida. Its become chic now to dismiss Machida given how the fight ended. But for six total rounds, Machida has run right at the top of the pack with Shogun. He also has something that nobody else on this lists has: a win over Shogun. In fact, I can argue that on the cards Machida won that first round before being destroyed. An impressive run of wins would put Machida right back in the mix and help give us a trilogy that great fight rivalries are made for. But Machida needs to take the next year or so and figure out how to develop and add to his style to deal with Shogun. Whether its conventional boxing, a stronger top game, and maybe some added muscle and strength; Machida has some time to let this loss stew and motivate him. Other than Shogun, I think Machida beats every single one of these fighters on this list. He's still one of the very best fighters in the world, now he has to finally deal with a loss, and a loss to a foe who figured you out and then put you to sleep.
So let me rank who I think presents the toughest challenge to Shogun after breaking it down:
- Anderson Silva
- Lyoto Machida
- Rashad Evans
- Rogerio Nogueira
- Forrest Griffin
- Rampage Jackson
- Randy Couture.
P.S. - I left Jon Jones off because he is still maybe two years away and chances are the title will have changed hands three times by then.