With UFC 84 about a week and a half away, we could conceivably see the mess that is the Light Heavyweight division all tidied up, for the near future anyway. I’ll give you a quick recap of how the division got to where it is, before I get into how UFC 84 could hopefully clear things up.
For about the last 8 months the Light Heavyweight division, which is arguably the deepest on the UFC’s roster, has been in shambles in terms of deserving title contenders. Standing at the top of the division is the current champion, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, who after his victory over PRIDE Middleweight (Middleweight in PRIDE was the same weight limit as Light Heavyweight in the UFC) champion Dan Henderson at UFC 75, seemed destined to defend his title next against the man who handed him his last loss, the Brazilian fighter Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. Rua defeated Rampage at PRIDE Total Elimination 2005, in what was arguably the most lopsided defeat of Jackson’s career. Rua was set to make his UFC debut at the next pay per view event, UFC 76, and this is where things start to get messy. At UFC 76, Rua came into his fight with Forrest Griffin, having suffered a ruptured ACL in training, and thus was woefully under prepared for a fight that would last until the last few seconds of round 3, where Forrest was able to sink in a rear naked choke on a completely exhausted Rua. The general consensus was that if Rua lost to Forrest, the next man in line for a title shot would be former champion Chuck Liddell, the man Rampage defeated in order to become the champion at UFC 71, despite the fact that Liddell was currently 0-2 versus Rampage, and not often do you see a fighter get another crack at a fighter that holds 2 victories over him already. This plan however, also fell apart at UFC 76 as in the main event, Chuck Liddell was defeated by Keith Jardine, who himself was coming off a brutal KO loss against the relatively unknown Houston Alexander.
Not long after UFC 76 it was announced that Quinton Jackson and Forrest Griffin would be featured as the coaches on the next season of the reality show The Ultimate Fighter, and afterwards would fight for the title. This seemed a bit ridiculous as while Griffin’s victory over Rua, on paper, looked impressive, it’s already been noted that Rua was no where near 100% for that fight, also, 2 fights before the showdown against Rua at UFC 76, Griffin had been knocked out by Keith Jardine in the 1st round at UFC 66, and also 2 fights before that, had suffered a split decision loss to Tito Ortiz at UFC 59. Griffin getting a title shot seemed a bit absurd at the time, but in hindsight it has given the division some more time to sort itself out, as UFC 79 would prove that it needed.
The general consensus among fight fans was that after Griffin was defeated by Jackson following the finale of The Ultimate Fighter 7(Which in all likelihood will be the result), Wanderlei Silva, the man who held the PRIDE Middleweight Title for nearly 6 years and holds 2 brutal KO victories over Jackson, would be the next in line for a shot. Silva was set to make his UFC debut at UFC 79 against former champion Chuck Liddell, who was now on a 2 fight losing streak and was generally considered to be washed up at this point. What happened though was Liddell clearly came prepared for this fight, and delivered his best performance in years as he defeated Silva via decision.
Since UFC 79, Chuck Liddell signed on to fight Mauricio Rua at UFC 85, only to have Rua withdraw due to another knee injury. Rua was replaced with Rashad Evans who was originally scheduled to fight Thiago Silva at UFC 84, but pulled out of that fight to get a crack at Liddell. Not long after Evans was announced as Rua’s replacement though, Liddell suffered a serious hamstring injury and was also forced to withdraw from the card. Liddell was then replaced with James Irvin, who will fight Rashad Evans at UFC 85.
All of this essentially brings us up to today, or to be more exact, UFC 84 on May 24th. While the main event on the UFC 84 card is a Lightweight Championship showdown between BJ Penn and Sean Sherk, the Light Heavyweight division is featured most prominently on the card with the 4 other fights on the main card being Light Heavyweight fights(Keith Jardine vs. Wanderlei Silva, Lyoto Machida vs. Tito Ortiz, Thiago Silva vs. Antonio Mendes and Wilson Gouveia vs. Goran Reljic) , and the best fight on the preliminary card also being a Light Heavyweight fight(Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou vs. Kazuhiro Nakamura). This all sets up nicely for the Light Heavyweight division hopefully, finally working itself out.
First up is the showdown between Jardine and Silva. A win here by Jardine should all but assure that The Dean of Mean(Arguably one of the worst nicknames in the sport) will be granted the next title shot at the winner of Jackson vs. Griffin(Almost certainly Jackson), as Jardine in his last 4 fights will have defeated the man currently fighting for the title(Griffin), the man who held the title for 2 years(Liddell) and the man who twice knocked out the man currently with the title(Silva), and while his brutal KO at the hands of Alexander deserves mention, after Alexander’s last 2 performances in the octagon, combined with how well Jardine has fought recently, that loss can be caulked up in the “fluke” category. Now if Silva wins, it potentially creates a couple of problems: First off, it’s been widely rumoured that this will be Silva’s last fight in the UFC at 205lbs. After this bout against Jardine Silva will be dropping to 185lbs, and potentially setting up a Super Fight against the current Middleweight champion, Anderson Silva. Then again, while this as been widely rumoured, it has not been confirmed to my knowledge. Secondly, if Silva does win, how can you justify giving a man who’s lost 3 of his last 4 fights(To Mirko “Cro Cop” Filipovic, Dan Henderson and Chuck Liddell, respectively) a title shot, even if he does hold 2 victories over the current champ? This is why if Silva wins, the results from the other fights on the card are crucial.
Next up is Lyoto Machida vs. Tito Ortiz. This is Tito’s last fight on his UFC contract and he’s already stated that he will never resign with the UFC as long as Dana White is the president, which will likely be the case for the foreseeable future, so I won’t waste any time on any Tito related championship implications if he were to win. Instead I’ll focus on Machida, who along with Thiago Silva are the only 2 fighters near the top of the heap who have completely unblemished records (Both fighters are currently 12-0). Problem with Machida is, while he holds some impressive victories in his career, arguably his 2 biggest victories, at least in the eyes of the casual UFC fan, have come over fighters in lower weight classes then himself (A decision victory over current Lightweight champ BJ Penn and a KO victory over former Middleweight champ Rich Franklin). He holds 2 impressive victories to the hardcore fans(A decision victory of Nakamura at UFC 76, and a submission victory over Sokoudjou at UFC 79), but while these victories make Machida arguably the most deserving candidate in the eyes of the hardcore fans, the UFC isn’t in the business of catering to the hardcore fans, they’re in the business of catering to the casual fans, the fans who make up the large majority of the fan base, and among those fans, Lyoto is still a relatively unknown fighter). This is where things get really interesting for Machida, as this will be his first fight in the UFC against a big mainstream star, Tito Ortiz. If Machida can defeat Ortiz (Especially if he can defeat him in dominant fashion), it will greatly help with his name recognition among the casual fans. Unfortunately though, Lyoto is not an overly marketable fighter, due to the fact that he doesn’t speak English(He’s Brazilian, and thus speaks Portuguese), and the large majority of his fights go to a decision, meaning he’s generally not viewed as being overly “exciting”, which is why I don’t think a victory over Ortiz will be enough to land him a title shot, BUT, a win over Ortiz, and a win over a Wanderlei Silva(This is what I was talking about when I mentioned the outcome of the other fights on the card being crucial) who’s coming off a win over Keith Jardine, could probably be enough to land him a title shot. And of course if Silva were to win the match up with Machida, then consecutive wins over Jardine and Machida, along with already possessing 2 wins over Jackson should be enough to justify a title shot for Silva.
The nightmare scenario that could play out here would be for Silva to beat Jardine, Machida to lose to Ortiz, and for Silva to then drop to 185lbs, if all that were to happen, we could very well be right back where we started from, and given the way this division has played out lately, I wouldn’t bet against it.