Ever since Frank Shamrock slapped an armbar on Kevin Jackson to become the first champion, Light Heavyweight has stood as the unofficial flagship division of the UFC. On the backs of legendary Hall of Fame champions like Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Randy Couture, and Chuck Liddell, the division flourished. In recent years, it's been home to a ridiculously stacked list of superstar fighters - Rampage, Lyoto, Forrest, Rashad, Shogun, Jones, Franklin, Henderson... But all that history masks the reality of the state of the Light Heavyweight division in 2012, and that reality is this:
Light Heavyweight has become the UFC's most shallow division.
That sentiment may sound almost blasphemous, but it's true, and we saw the proof yesterday. This Saturday, the division once again takes center stage as a pair of fights at 205 headline UFC on Fox 4. In the build up to the show, Dana White announced that the main event - Shogun Rua vs. Brandon Vera - will determine the next title challenger.
The announcement was promptly and justifiably met with a great degree of skepticism. Both Shogun and Vera have been absolutely smashed by champion Jon Jones. Each man has just one win since that loss, and neither win was especially impressive. These are the best the division has to offer?
How did this happen? How did the formerly great division fall off so quickly? The answer is a combination of three factors, which we'll get to in the full entry.
1. The loss of the old guard. It was not long ago that the division was full of big names. Now, those names are either gone, or probably should be. Ortiz, Liddell, Couture? Retired. Rampage and Forrest? Unmotivated. Shogun? Badly damaged by injuries. Of the big names from only a few years ago, only Rashad Evans and Lyoto Machida remain, but that brings us to the second point...
2. A dominant and active champion. Within one year of winning the belt, Jon Jones had soundly defeated Shogun, Rampage, Lyoto, and Evans. If he defeats Dan Henderson at UFC 151, he will have effectively cleaned out the division. And he's defeated each opponent in such a way that a rematch seems pointless. He's an incredible talent, but sometimes, that's not the best thing for a division. Of course, the other reason he has been able to clean it out so quickly is the real issue facing the division...
3. A lack of new up and coming talent. This is the big one. Because those first two points happen to every division. Champions come in and dominate, the old guard leaves - it's the cycle we've seen many times. But for the cycle to work, a new guard has to step up and take the place, and with the exception of Jones, we're not seeing much of a new guard. Only Phil Davis and Alexander Gustafsson stand out as promising new talent (and Glover Teixeira is in position to add himself to this list soon). But that's not enough to keep the division going. And that's an issue not just in the UFC but everywhere - unlike other divisions, there are virtually no exciting Light Heavyweight prospects in Strikeforce, Bellator, or anywhere else.
As I said, this is a cycle that we've seen divisions go through. It wasn't long ago that the Middleweight division was seen as incredibly weak. But with Chris Weidman, Mark Munoz, and Tim Boetsch all coming up while Michael Bisping comes into his prime, it's suddenly become much more interesting. Light Heavyweight needs that jolt of new talent, and right now, it's just not there.
Will the division come back around again? Absolutely. But in the meantime, we're left with Shogun vs. Vera as a main event to build up what will be the least anticipated title fight in the history of the division. It's a far, far drop from the Couture/Liddell/Ortiz/Belfort days.
Saturday's fight may indeed have a lot on the line, but it will be hard not to watch and think of just how far this division has fallen.