Look, light heavyweight kind of sucks. It kind of really sucks. If you have at all followed the UFC in the last half-decade, it likely will not surprise you to hear the division referred to as “largely devoid of talent”, “utterly terrible”, or perhaps even “a dumpster fire.” During the division’s prime years, it was ruled by fighters like Mauricio Rua, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson who were trading wins, losses, and pound-for-pound spots in an utterly compelling time for mixed martial arts. These men were all very different personalities with wildly different styles of fighting, each an all-time great in his own right.
Prior to that era, light heavyweight was the weight class, with Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Randy Couture carrying the UFC’s pay-per-view business on their backs. All three of those men were convincingly displaced from their lofty perches by the combined efforts of their successors: Rua, Machida, Jackson, and Evans. That is a necessary part of a healthy division’s life cycle. Unfortunately, those four men were not replaced by a group of up-and-coming contemporaries. They were instead systematically dismantled by Jon Jones over a mere 13-month span.
From that point forward, Jones has stood largely uncontested, with Daniel Cormier being perhaps his only contemporary to truly earn respect as a pound-for-pound sort of talent. Alexander Gustafsson and Anthony Johnson excelled in this period, but neither really put together a compelling resume. Gustafsson especially, while always passing the eye test as a gifted fighter, has always been better represented by his losses than his wins. It is difficult to reconcile the high esteem in which I admittedly hold Gustafsson with the fact that his best and most important win may be over a past-prime Glover Teixeira.
While obviously not ideal, it is no death knell for a division to have a generation of talent which, outside of a very select few, is decidedly mediocre. The bigger problem is that mediocrity compounds itself with each subsequent generation, an issue that has plagued the heavyweight division and led to a scenario in which the lack of talent has allowed fighters to hang around with startling success well past the end of their prime fighting years. In light heavyweight’s case, just four of the UFC’s top 15 ranked fighters are under 30 – of those, three turn 30 this year – and a whopping eight of them are 35 or older.
Normally, competing in a shallow division leads to poorly-crafted resumes, ripe for both contemporary and retrospective criticism — as is the case with Gustafsson, and as has been the case for champions in historically weak divisions, such as Cain Velasquez and Cris “Cyborg” Justino. If legacy is a concern for a fighter, and it often is, then this presents a major problem.
To this point, it is a problem that Jon Jones has largely avoided, due in no small part to his extended absences from the division amid his absolute clusterf*ck of a personal life.
It’s baffling to look at the landscape of the 205lb division in the last few years, and then browse through Jones’ resume to realize exactly how iron-clad it is. Outside of a tune-up fight with Ovince St-Preux and a profitable-yet-unnecessary mauling of Chael Sonnen, there really wasn’t much to criticize, until now.
I don’t want to be particularly critical of Anthony Smith, Jones’ most recent opponent. He is a fine fighter, who went 4-2 against the middle rungs of the 185lb division, before staging a resurgence in the light heavyweight division. It could be argued that he looked significantly improved after eliminating a perhaps-impeding weight cut from his life. But, the fact that he received a title opportunity riding a three-fight win streak, with two of those coming over fighters who were at least five years past their primes, is indicative of the division’s issues.
Smith had been TKO’d by Thiago Santos just 13 months prior to the Jones bout. Santos, himself, decided to try his hand as a light heavyweight and – 11 months removed from a knockout loss to David Branch – stands as the next likely contender for the 205lb belt. He is currently ranked #4, and is 35 years old.
Age is not a disqualifying factor in the measure of a fighter; Daniel Cormier remains a top pound-for-pound mainstay despite mere weeks separating him from his 40th birthday. It is, however, a useful indicator of a division’s need for turnover, and light heavyweight is clearly a division in need of drastic turnover.
Some of the pre-UFC 235 chatter on social media concerned whether or not a Smith victory would be the biggest upset in the history of the sport, and the betting odds – while not the most prohibitive we’ve seen – supported that general sentiment.
Would Thiago Santos be given a significantly greater chance? Who would come next? Johnny Walker has looked electrifying in three UFC appearances, but handing Misha Cirkunov his third knockout loss in four fights is perhaps not the best indicator of a young fighter’s preparedness to face Jon Jones. Regardless, he’s likely just one more highlight reel performance away from that opportunity, no matter who that win comes against.
When then-light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier famously quipped during Jones’ suspension, “Jon Jones, get your shit together, I’m waiting for you,” fans may have forgiven Jones or anyone else for wrongly assuming that there was more than Cormier waiting for him.
11 years into his career, Jones is likely in the final years of his peak. For a man with such a spectacular history, it would be no great sin to spend those years on a victory lap, tearing through the shambles of the division which he has so insurmountably placed himself atop. However, for a man who has spoken so consistently of fighting for his legacy – and if he is to be remembered as the greatest fighter of all time – the light heavyweight division has absolutely nothing to offer Jon Jones.
Short of moving up to heavyweight – an idea he has so far not entertained – the greatest fighter alive will continue to stride through a desolate wasteland, fending off a series of ill-fated challengers each buoyed only by the potential glory of pulling off the most unlikely upset in MMA history.