Was it a bad decision for Rashad Evans to sit out and wait while Mauricio Rua recovered from knee surgery? From the ease in which the current light heavyweight champion Jon "Bones" Jones dispatched "Shogun," it would seem that the former champion Evans would have had a significant advantage in cardio and wrestling had he not injured his knee so close to the fight. This is one of those situations where hindsight has Elizabeth Vargas and Chris Cuomo as co-anchors, and pundits can only claim Evans made a bad decision to wait for the title fight because he is no longer in that position. On paper at least, Evans' style was a perfect foil to Rua- he possesses not only the elite wrestling that is the paramount basis for success in the Octagon, but also the ability to transition from the stand-up to several takedown techniques and the counter reflexes that would have (in my mind) produced a unanimous decision victory in his third bout for the title.
I'm aware that Mauricio Rua is considered by most to be the second-ranked 205 pound fighter in the world, but I think a majority of this consideration is based on his prolific Pride Fighting Championship career and not his accomplishments in the Octagon. Despite Rua possessing a win over the lone fighter to ever defeat Rashad in Lyoto Machida, he has looked far from his dominant youthful self and is only 3-3 in the last four years. I personally believe that Rua's best days are behind him, and the recurring knee injuries have put "Shogun" years behind in development of his wrestling. Evans, on the other hand, has that single blemish on his record: the infamous "stanky leg" knockout to Lyoto Machida to begin the brief "era" in which Machida's unorthodox style of karate and well-rounded grappling was supposed to reign over his weight class for years to come- or two fights.
Jon Jones is a proven commodity, but has yet to face a continuous stream of elite competition that Evans, Forrest Griffin, Quinton Jackson, Machida, and Rua have faced throughout the last few years. Jones is unquestionably the number one light heavyweight in the world- anyone trying to sell you something else at this point cannot be taken seriously where rankings are concerned. But there are many differing schools of thought about the rankings of those who are not the current champion, and the issue is magnified due to the shocking number of former champions still competing at an elite level within the division- Jackson, Griffin, Evans, Rua, Machida, and to a lesser extent Evans' opponent on Saturday, Tito Ortiz.
With the revolving door of a title which has been the light heavyweight championship since Chuck Liddell's May 2007 loss to Quinton Jackson, we have seen only two championship defenses in those four years- Jackson himself in his first title defense against Dan Henderson (a Pride/UFC unification bout), and Machida in his own controversial first defense against "Shogun" that led to an immediate rematch. Something has become clear in that four year span: the 205 pound weight class is by nature a matchup division in which a constant flux was created by not only the parity of overall skills, but also the lack of a dominant, well-rounded athlete akin to an Anderson Silva or Georges St-Pierre. Time will tell if Jon Jones will become the next reigning champion of light heavyweight, but beneath him sits a churning water filled with hungry sharks looking to feast on the chum of a pay-per-view percentage.
Is there any definitive way to rank the 205 pound division? Yes, but not in the same methods we ascribe to the other divisions simply because there is no perfect way to differentiate between win streaks and overall records when you have such a high amount of elite fighters competing. Sometimes it truly feels like the victor of any given bout could have easily been defeated, and sometimes we see perplexing results that throw any "knowledge" out the door of the moving car that is mixed martial arts. However, I think that I have found a justifiable ranking of the top of the division (unless Evans loses on Saturday).
(Note: I've limited the time frame for within four years and tried to include the names that have been part of the consistent elite of the division or were without question elite at the moment of the fight)#1- Jon Jones
I don't think anything further needs to be said on this. Jon will be given this ranking until he is defeated in the Octagon, and I don't see this happening anything soon.
#2- Rashad Evans
As I said, with only one loss on his record, and victories over Forrest Griffin, Chuck Liddell, and Quinton Jackson, Rashad sits directly under Jon Jones.
#3- Forrest Griffin
This is the ranking that I will catch the most flack for, but I stand by this decision because Forrest's record in the last four year includes six fighters against former champions and is an impressive 4-2. His two losses? To a pound for pound stalwart in Anderson Silva, and to the #2 Rashad Evans. His victories? Former middleweight champion Rich Franklin, and former light heavyweight champions Jackson, Rua, and Ortiz.
#4- Quinton Jackson/ Lyoto Machida
Looking through their records, and recognizing how mixed the reactions from their UFC 123 bout were, I cannot with any good faith differentiate between these two former champions. In the last four years, Jackson has proved to be among the elite at 205 pounds, but only holds significant wins over Dan Henderson, Wanderlei Silva, and Lyoto Machida- even though the Machida victory is heavily disputed. Machida, on the other hand, has a split record against Shogun, victories over Rashad and Ortiz, and a loss to Jackson. The head to head loss is the one thing that is keeping me from ranking Machida above "Rampage," but if I were pressed to make a decision I would certainly take Lyoto in the rematch and above Jackson in rankings.
#5- Mauricio Rua
I know Rua apologists will lambast me for this decision, and I will certainly eat crow if he takes the rematch against Griffin- but I personally don't see that happening. Once a phenom, Rua's injury-riddled career and lack of defensive wrestling puts him at a disadvantage against most of the other elite light heavyweights, and I expect Forrest to test "Shogun's" conditioning and wrestling through the entirety of their UFC 134 bout in Brazil. The split with Machida is a wash, and we are only left with two losses in significant fights since he's been in the UFC.
So there is the top six in a top five format, and I'm confident in these rankings as a portrait of the landscape at 205.
Other fights I've decided need to be made at 205:
Quinton Jackson vs. Tito Ortiz
Mauricio Rua vs. Rashad Evans
Lyoto Machida vs. Forrest Griffin
Dan Henderson vs. anyone who isn't locked up, but at least back in the UFC.
Where does Tito Ortiz fit into all of this? A little more than four years ago Tito fought Evans to a draw, and could have possibly taken the win had he not be penalized for holding on to a fence instead of getting taken down. His former streak of losses that framed the draw were to Matt Hamill, Lyoto Machida, Forrest Griffin, and a prime Chuck Liddell.
Tito brings some big assets into this fight- for the first time in a while, he's not the one coming off a long layoff. Ortiz brings veteran savvy, intelligence, gameplanning; most importantly, he brings fantastic conditioning. How will Rashad's endurance be effected coming off the longest layoff of his career and a significant injury?
I'm a fan of redemption stories, but there's little hope in the Tito Ortiz tale. I love that he changed his mind on fighting Rashad and seized a huge opportunity presented in the twilight of his career, but Evans is a much different beast than he was four years ago and had evolved significantly in the last time we saw him in action, against Quinton Jackson. Rashad had just begun to blend the lines dividing overall skillset, and utilized some beautiful changing of levels to outwrestle "Rampage." If the knee injury does not significantly impact Evans' abilities, he takes this fight 19/20 times.
With the exception of possibly conditioning, I'm not sure you could even find a single area in which Tito is superior to Rashad. Evans' possesses advantages in wrestling, striking, speed, power, athleticism- not to mention he's in the prime of his career, and has not had multiple back surgeries over the last few years. A knee injury might limit him, but I doubt it will be to a major extent.
But let's play devil's advocate now.
Say Tito wins. It's highly unlikely, but would immediately shift the complexion of 205, and (surprise!) Forrest Griffin's upcoming scrap with Mauricio Rua has immediate relevance to the title picture. Ortiz would be "in the mix" for the first time in 5 years, which was almost out of the question in the lead-up to his bout with Bader. In fact, if Ortiz beats Rashad, who would be the next immediate challenger to the title? If Forrest beats "Shogun," he would have a three fight win streak and be the most probable and palatable contender. If "Shogun" wins, he would be in the same position as Lyoto Machida is currently, with only a single win and no streak.
If Tito wins, would beating Rashad be enough to catapult him to a title shot after having gone 0-4-1 over 5 years? Is there any other credible name besides himself, Forrest (again, if he wins) and (holy crap) Dan Henderson? I'm not here to pick any bones over contracts and monetary demands, but wouldn't either Tito or Dan be the next most reasonable challengers after "Rampage?"
Rashad is almost definitely going to win tonight, and his victory would relatively cement the hierarchy of the division for the time being. I guess the next question begged by this fight is- if Evans wins, does he sit back and wait for the results of Jones vs. Jackson or does he risk the number one contender position yet again? It will be close to a half year or possibly even longer before he'll get his shot at whoever would hold the title- would it be worth wasting another half year or longer of his athletic prime?