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Land of the Light Heavies

Michael DiSanto, UFC - It’s the UFC’s glamour division. More combat superstars compete in the 205-lb division than any other, though the division is in the midst of a massive overhaul over the past 12 months.

At this time last year, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was the reigning champion and Forrest Griffin was next in line as the pair waited for the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter to air, hyping their eventual showdown at UFC 86 in July.
By Michael DiSanto

It’s the UFC’s glamour division. More combat superstars compete in the 205-lb division than any other, though the division is in the midst of a massive overhaul over the past 12 months.

At this time last year, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson was the reigning champion and Forrest Griffin was next in line as the pair waited for the seventh season of The Ultimate Fighter to air, hyping their eventual showdown at UFC 86 in July.

Lyoto Machida was flying under the radar, quietly dominating somewhat nondescript competition, while an announced bout against former champion Tito Ortiz—Machida’s first true marquee test—was but a few months away.

Some undefeated guy named Rashad Evans was in the midst of the longest layoff of his brief UFC career. And former middleweight ruler Rich Franklin was trying to figure out his place in a division 20 pounds to the south after suffering his second loss at the hands of the sport’s greatest warrior, pound for pound, Anderson Silva.

Fast-forward 12 months and each of those fighters now stand in very different positions. Let’s take a look at the land of the light heavies.

DIVISION KINGPIN

“Sugar” Rashad Evans: It took awhile before Evans truly believed in himself. That is obvious from the split decision, split decision, majority decision start to his UFC career. In those early days, Evans fought not to lose. He hesitated inside the Octagon. You could see him thinking, rather than reacting. Nothing could be further from the truth these days. Evans now believes that he is the best in the division, and his confidence is paying dividends—big time. 2008 saw Evans score a dramatic knockout victory over Liddell to earn a shot at the title. Then, when his moment in the spotlight arrived, he stopped then-champion Griffin with equal brutality. With the belt around his waist, Evans likely believes that he is unstoppable. Yet, his grueling training and sparring sessions with Keith Jardine and Nate Marquardt keep him hungry. I’m a firm believer of the notion that a fighter isn’t truly a champion until he successfully defends his belt once. Evans will face Machida at UFC 98 on May 23 in what may be his toughest test to date. A win over Machida will leave no doubt that Evans is a true champion.

THE CHALLENGER

Lyoto “The Dragon” Machida: It is not uncommon for an undefeated fighter to enter the mix in the UFC. It is very uncommon, however, for that fighter to remain undefeated after six trips to the Octagon. But it is not just Machida’s undefeated record that is impressive. It is the way that he wins—without ever suffering so much as a bloody lip during his six-fight UFC run. Sure, his counter striking, defense-first style causes some critics to call him boring. That is an unfair assessment. It takes two individuals working together to tango beautifully, and Machida was a virtuoso when faced with aggressive, attacking opponents Ortiz, Remeau Sokoudjou and Thiago Silva. He dominated each of those men in entertaining fashion. Can he continue his run of success against Evans? That remains to be seen. Suffice to say, Machida may be Evans’ toughest test to date, but that is definitely a two-way street. Machida has never before faced someone with the same blend of explosive punching power, high-level wrestling and elite overall athleticism as Evans. This is going to be a great fight. Granted, there may be moments of inaction, as both men prefer to counter. Regardless, there will be memorable fireworks before it is all over—count on it.

NEXT IN LINE

Quinton “Rampage” Jackson: But for a damaged ligament in his jaw, Rampage would be the one challenging Evans for his title at UFC 98, not Machida. A surgeon’s knife and just over a month of rest will cure Rampage’s ailment. Then, he will presumably take his rightful place as the next in line for the winner of Evans-Machida. No fighter is more deserving, despite needing a last-second knockdown to guarantee victory against an awkward Jardine. In his last five bouts, the former 205-lb champion defeated three all-time greats—Liddell, Dan Henderson and Wanderlei Silva. The last of those bouts was without a doubt the greatest win of his career because he finally found a way to defeat his arch nemesis. Rampage stands at the top of the 205-lb food chain in terms of knockout power (and he possesses it in both hands) and physical strength. Mix in excellent wrestling skills and tremendous submission defense, and it is easy to see why Rampage was able to rise to the top of the division so quickly. Now, if he would only start checking leg kicks…

FORMER CHAMPIONS LOOKING TO REBOUND

Chuck “The Iceman” Liddell: There was a time, not too long ago, when Liddell was the most feared striker in the sport, bar none. Those days are over after suffering losses in three of his last four fights, including two knockouts. Nine months shy of his 40th birthday, Liddell is starting to show the wear and tear of more than a decade competing inside the Octagon. He isn’t nearly as spry as he was during his championship reign. He doesn’t have the same bounce in his step. And he doesn’t appear to have the same sharp reflexes needed to sit back and counter strike, something Liddell loves to do. Nonetheless, the last thing to leave a fighter is his punching power. George Foreman is living proof of that fact. Thus, Liddell remains ultra dangerous each time he steps into the cage. On April 18, he will return to action against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a long-overdue matchup of two of the game’s most thrilling strikers. This bout should be a firefight for as long as it lasts. If Rua isn’t at top form, he may very well end up like Michael Moorer—unconscious on his back after getting clipped by a guy who many thought was well past his prime. If Liddell really is too long in the tooth, then he will likely end up on lullaby lane. Does Liddell have one last run at a championship left in the gas tank? Does he have a handful of great performances still in him? Whatever the answer, Liddell is a surefire UFC Hall of Fame inductee the minute he is eligible.

Forrest Griffin: Griffin’s win over Rampage at UFC 86 was one of the sport’s real “feel good” moments. It was one of those times when hard work overcame raw talent—a moment that supported the notion that anything is possible if you are willing to put in the effort. Of course, Griffin’s reign over the division was short lived. One fight later, Evans knocked him out. But that doesn’t diminish the significance of Griffin’s win. It proved beyond a shadow of a doubt that he is more than just a lovable, self-deprecating competitor. Forrest Griffin is a world class fighter. Wins over Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and Rampage established that fact. Losing to Evans doesn’t change anything. But the affable former champion certainly wants to get rid of the sour taste of defeat by scoring a win in his next bout. When and against whom remain an open question at this point, though sometime late this summer seems likely. Nevertheless, Griffin’s determination, amazing work ethic and tremendous heart once the fight begins makes it more likely than not that he will be back in the title picture sooner rather than later.

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua: When Shogun knocked out Ricardo Arona in the finals of the PRIDE Middleweight Grand Prix, many pundits anointed him as the best light heavy in the world. It was difficult to disagree with that notion because Shogun, who has as much raw fighting talent as anyone in the division, was in the midst of an eight-fight winning streak that included dominant knockout victories over Rampage, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alistair Overeem. Aside from a loss to Mark Coleman due to a freak injury, Shogun continued his run of dominance for two years, building to a mighty crescendo for his UFC debut against Griffin. The fight itself was anticlimactic for Shogun as Griffin beat him from pillar to post before slapping on a rear naked choke to bring the fight to a merciful end. Words like “exposed” and “overrated” were bandied about before the world learned that Shogun had suffered a torn ACL. Did that affect the outcome of his fight with Griffin? It certainly didn’t help matters. Nor did tearing it a second time when training for a proposed bout with Liddell. Shogun is finally healthy. He proved that with a hard-fought knockout win over Mark Coleman back in January. Now, it’s time for the former PRIDE tournament champion to finally face Liddell in their long-awaited matchup. The winner of Shogun-Iceman will reestablish himself as a force to be reckoned with in the division.

TOP TALENTS

Rich “Ace” Franklin: Franklin’s four-year run as a middleweight was time well spent, culminating in a three-fight, 16-month championship reign. The only problem was the arrival of Anderson Silva, who is arguably the sport’s most devastating fighter. With Franklin unable to defeat Silva after two attempts, the Cincinnati native decided to move back to the division where he first made his mark inside the Octagon—light heavyweight. He dominated former training partner and The Ultimate Fighter standout Matt Hamill in his first fight back last September. But his success was short lived, as Franklin suffered a razor-thin split decision loss to Dan Henderson in January. Franklin is looking to rebound from that loss in what might be the most intriguing matchup of his six-year UFC career as he faces former PRIDE champion Wanderlei Silva in a 195-lb catch-weight bout at UFC 99.

Brandon “The Truth” Vera: It’s scary how talented this guy really is. Vera mixes collegiate-caliber wrestling and vastly underrated Brazilian Jiu Jitsu with the division’s best Muay Thai skills. His well roundedness is reminiscent of Shogun Rua, though there are very distinct differences in their respective arsenals (i.e., Vera is the better wrestler and more technically sound with his strikes, whereas Rua is more aggressive on the feet and a better submission artist). In fact, one doesn’t have to rewind his or her memory bank too far to recall a time when experts like Joe Rogan were questioning whether Vera could win both the heavyweight and light heavyweight crown. Vera ran into a bit of a rough patch at heavyweight, prompting his migration south to the land of the light heavies. Now that he properly reshaped his body and mastered the cut down to 205 lbs, Vera looks downright scary. The leg kick clinic he put on at UFC 96 against Michael Patt was a virtuoso performance, certainly the best display of a lower body attack inside the Octagon since the height of Pedro Rizzo’s heavyweight run. If Vera remains committed to such an aggressive, focused game plan for future fights, the sky is the limit. Actually, I’ll head off the reservation for a moment and predict that Vera wins UFC gold at some point in the next 24 months.

Thiago Silva: At this time last year, Thiago Silva was a red hot prospect knocking on the door of contender status. Though he only fought once in 2008, he continued his run of dominant wins, submitting Antonio Mendes to improve his professional record to a spotless 13-0 and cementing himself as a legitimate top contender. But this is the UFC, so the inevitable was around the corner. Let’s face it: there is tremendous parity across the elite fighters in the UFC, so everyone loses sooner or later. Of course, Silva suffered his first career loss in his last bout, suffering a vicious knockout at the hands of Lyoto Machida. Just like with Griffin’s loss to Evans, Silva’s loss does nothing to drop him from the fraternity of the elite. It will, however, test his character and resolve. All fighters react to a loss a little differently, particularly a knockout loss. Some become hesitant. Others become chinny. A few others completely shed their aura of invincibility. Yet, the great ones pick themselves back up and grow from the loss. They use it as a source of motivation. They return with a vengeance. If anyone has the DNA to return from a brutal knockout loss with a crazed vengeance, it’s Thiago Silva.

In Part II of the 205-lb survey, we will take a look at the next generation of superstars, a few guys trying to figure out whether they are gatekeepers or contenders and also a quick run through a deep pool of relative unknowns looking to make their mark in the UFC’s glamour division.

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