The UFC's Light Heavyweight division has historically been one filled with marquee names and memorable rivalries. Over the past 10 years or so, we've seen Tito Ortiz's incredible reign atop the division, Randy Couture literally spanking Tito, the trilogy between Chuck Liddell and Couture, the PRIDE invasion, "The Machida Era", and of course the lightning quick rise to supremacy from Jon Jones. The very first UFC PPV to reach a million buys was Liddell's rematch with Ortiz in December 2006, and the third one was Rashad Evans KOing Forrest Griffin to end 2008. Before the UFC inked a deal with Fox, the promotion's two most watched cable TV events were UFC Fight Night: Ortiz vs. Shamrock 3 and UFC 75: Rampage vs. Henderson. It was a division annually stocked with top flight talent, television and PPV draws, and the centerpiece for several of the biggest stars in the UFC both past and present.
Jon Jones is the division's supreme overlord, although his standing as the champion was greatly threatened by Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 165. Nevertheless, he's defended his title successfully six times in over two years, making him already one of the sport's greatest champions. One of the "criticisms" of Jones' reign has been the perceived weakness of a division that was hailed as a strong one in 2010. Two of his title defenses came against Vitor Belfort (on short notice) and Chael Sonnen (historically not effective at 205), and the likes of Rampage Jackson and Lyoto Machida fought Jones coming off wins over Matt Hamill and Randy Couture respectively. I'd save those arguments regarding Jones' title dominance for another day, but there is no doubt that right now, light heavyweight is a disaster zone, and it's not solely because Jones has destroyed virtually all of his opponents.
These are the latest top 10 rankings from the UFC's official website:
CHAMPION: Jon Jones
Ignoring that Jones has defeated 5 of the current top 10, Sonnen, Mousasi, and Machida will all be fighting at Middleweight come 2014. Shogun, who is 1-3 in his last 4, has also said that he might move to 185 following his fight with James Te Huna. "Lil' Nog" is incapable of staying healthy, and Dan Henderson has lost 3 in a row. Depending on how talks go, Henderson might not even be in the UFC (whether through joining another organization or retirement).
So that leaves you with Jones, Gustafsson, Teixeira, Evans (another possible 185 candidate who already lost a lopsided decision to Jones), and Phil Davis, whom the UFC seems completely content on not pushing as a legitimate title threat. The wild card obviously is Daniel Cormier, who has neither fought at 205 lbs before nor is he (obviously) ranked in the division, so we don't know if Cormier is a surefire contender until he gets booked and performs accordingly.
Getting past even the top 10, what does the rest of the roster look like? Here's the list with their corresponding ages in parentheses (which I'll explain a bit later):
Ryan Bader (30)
Thiago Silva (31)
Wanderlei Silva (37)
Igor Pokrajac (34)
Anthony Perosh (41)
James Te Huna (32)
Cyrille Diabate (40)
Fabio Maldonado (33)
Ovince St. Preux (30)
Gian Villante (28)
Ryan Jimmo (31)
Rafael Cavalcante (32)
Jimi Manuwa (33)
Cody Donovan (32)
Francimar Barroso (33)
Ilir Latifi (30)
Robert Drysdale (32)
Total: 17 fighters (Average age: 32.88)
If you include Cormier (aged 34) the average age would increase to 32.94.
Bader has lost more than enough fights to be removed from title contention for good. Wanderlei is likely going back to middleweight to fight Chael Sonnen. Pokrajac and Donovan are probably out of the UFC following their recent skids, and Robert Drysdale is suspended. Anthony Perosh and Cyrille Diabate are both 40 years old and have shown zero indication that they are going to make an improbable move to the top.
With almost half the division dropping to middleweight, in addition to the uninspiring depth at light heavyweight, the likely new entrants to the top 10 are fairly underwhelming. Daniel Cormier is a presumptive top 10 fighter at LHW, but as mentioned earlier, he needs to actually fight (and win) in the weight class soon. Ryan Bader would probably be in the top 10 by default with a win over Anthony Perosh. Ditto for Te Huna if he can get by a clearly declined Shogun. Jimi Manuwa is 3-0 in the UFC, which probably is enough to get himself ranked by early next year. "Feijao" could sneak in as long as he puts in performances closer to that of his KO win over Igor Pokrajac. The last two candidates for a "ranked" position would be Ovince St. Preux and Thiago Silva, who fight each other in January.
There is no sugarcoating it: Light heavyweight is terrible, and arguably worse than the heavyweight division. What separates heavyweight from light heavyweight is that heavyweight has some "potential" young contenders in the division such as Travis Browne and Stipe Miocic, making the decline of Frank Mir and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira less "damaging". In other words, there is a little bit of roster turnover every few years. But at light heavyweight? Who are the best up-and-comers the UFC has to offer? Jimi Manuwa doesn't have many fights to his name, but he's 33 years old. Daniel Cormier is already an established top heavyweight, so I don't really put him on the list.
So when you look at the relative weakness of the UFC's division, you know by default it's not that much better in World Series of Fighting or Bellator. As poorly as he exited the promotion by failing to make weight repeatedly, Anthony Johnson might be one of the most viable options at LHW for the UFC to sign. He's 3-0 in the division and still only 29 years old. I note his age because (fun fact alert!) the only LHWs in the UFC under 30 (excluding Mousasi) are: Jones, Gustafsson, Davis, and Villante. Four out of nearly 30 LHWs are in their 20s, so not only is it a bad division, but it's significantly "older" than every other division except heavyweight.
Don't get me wrong, the top 4 of Jones/Gustafsson/Teixeira/Davis (plus Cormier should make it top 5) is strong, but the drop off after that is glaring. The mark of a strong division is the depth past the top 5-6 fighters, as is evident at featherweight, lightweight, and welterweight. LHW has none of it, and I don't see it strengthening any time soon.