The UFC Light Heavyweight division was born crowning one of the great champions in MMA history, but ironically has proven to be one of the most difficult belts to hold in recent years. In 1997, Frank Shamrock became the first UFC Light Heavyweight champion, a title he would hold for three years and defend four times. Then, in 1999 Shamrock would vacate the title as he left the sport, citing a lack of competition.
Into that breach would step the last man Shamrock had defeated, Tito Ortiz. Less than a year after Shamrock had outlasted Ortiz, the Huntington Beach Bad Boy returned to the cage to face a young Wanderlei Silva for the vacant belt. Ortiz would defeat Silva in a contentious fight and become the second Light Heavyweight Champion in the promotion's history.
What would follow would be a four year reign and a record five title defenses, much of it during what is often refereed to as the UFC's "Dark Ages" when the sport was not available on PPV at all and fans either had to attend an event live or wait for a VHS release to see an event.
After Ortiz's reign ended, chaos briefly took hold as Randy Couture and Vitor Belfort passed the belt back and forth, and Chuck Liddell restored order for a short two year, four defense reign. When Liddell lost the title in mid-2007, what followed was a nearly five year, five champion period were no champion held the belt for more than one title defense.
Then, the arrival of Jon Jones to the title picture put an end to the chaos, as he has secured what is now the longest title reign in the history of the division. How does Jones' reign compare to that of Ortiz's, which he just eclipsed?
Well that depends on how you look at it. In terms of pure competition, there is no comparison. Jones' title reign featured him defeating Mauricio "Shogun" Rua to win the belt and then in his next three fights, Jones defeated three of the four UFC Light Heavyweight champions to reign between Liddell and Rua.
Jones' least impressive victories are composed of Vitor Belfort, who, despite being a former Light Heavyweight champion, hadn't fought at 205-pounds in years and Chael Sonnen, who also was returning to the division after a long time away. And then, of course, he had that excellent bout with Gustafsson.
When that is compared to Ortiz's wins over Yuki Kondo, Evan Tanner, Elvis Sinosic, Vladimir Matyushenko, and Ken Shamrock, it is very clear that Jones has walked a much tougher path in terms of competition. But where they are comparable is in impact.
Ortiz's reign started in a time when the UFC was banned from cable and not carried by any Pay-Per-View provider, and Ortiz became one of the UFC's only stars. The sport very nearly died in the late 90's, but in September of 2001, in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks, the UFC was sanctioned for the first time.
Ortiz was selected to headline UFC 33, the promotion's return to PPV and the first show after the 9/11 attacks, originally supposed to face Vitor Belfort, but Matyushenko was slotted in when Belfort hurt his arm while training. Then, in Ortiz's final defense he would beat Ken Shamrock in an event that would be the first time the UFC broke 100,000 PPV buys since UFC 12 in 1997.
While Jones has not broken PPV records, he has helped expand the sport in other ways. Jones has been one of MMA's real crossover success stories, helping bring large name sponsors like Nike and Gatorade into the fight game. Jones also demonstrated the growing power of the individual athlete when he was a key part of a chain of events that led to the cancellation of UFC 151. In the past, such actions by a fighter would have been unthinkable, and would have surely resulted in the fighter's release from UFC. But Jones survived the scandal simply because he was too big for the UFC to cut.
So, while in terms of a sporting legacy it is indisputable that Jones' still running title reign is vastly superior to Ortiz's, even Jones' worst win as champion would he a quality victory if but on Ortiz's resume. But when looking at them through the lens of impact on the sport and historical importance and Ortiz is much more comparable. Jones has helped MMA a great deal in bringing in general sports fans in cross over appeal, but Ortiz literally helped keep the sport breathing in North America in its darkest hours. So while it is easy to discredit TIto's dark age run, don't underestimate how it stacks up in terms of importance.