Manuwa must prove doubters wrong before earning UFC title shot

Fans sit in their seats at UFC 203 on Saturday, Sept. 10, 2016, in Cleveland. (AP Photo/David Dermer)
(AP Photo/David Dermer)

Jimi Manuwa is inarguably one of the very best light heavyweight fighters on the planet. He reminded us of that again Saturday night, knocking out a rising but not-quite-there-yet Corey Anderson just more than 3 minutes into their five-round main event in London.

“Poster Boy” knew he would be the better striker; he just needed to ensure Anderson’s plans of taking the fight to the ground would not impede upon his ability to connect fist to face. Stuffing three takedown attempts with relative ease, Manuwa needed just six strikes to put his younger counterpart away. A swift left hook to the temple and Anderson went down like a 205-pound sack of potatoes. There weren’t any follow-up punches — Manuwa didn’t need them.

The Englishman has now won two in a row, earning both victories by way of KO against a top-10 opponent in the UFC. Ranked fourth in the division coming into his headliner Saturday night, Manuwa currently stands as one of three top-five fighters with a winning streak of any kind. One is receiving a title shot next month, dwindling that total down to two.

The field will grow to three once Jon Jones returns, all but eliminating what chances Manuwa has of being next in line for a crack at the gold. Despite the circumstances, the English slugger feels he’s proven he belongs among the elite group of 205-pounders that previously only included Jones, Daniel Cormier, Johnson, Alexander Gustafsson and perhaps Glover Teixeira.

“I’ve always thought I was in the elite group,” Manuwa said during the post-fight press conference. “It was just a matter of getting great performances put together, and I’ve done that twice in a row now, so it’s time now. It’s time now. I believe my next fight will be for the title and I can’t wait.”

Barring an injury to Jones or the defending champion come this summer, Manuwa will not be fighting for the title next.

There’s a silver lining in what will likely be received as disappointing news for Manuwa: He gets to shed what doubt currently surrounds his true potential.

Already 37 years old with 19 professional MMA fights to his name, Manuwa has only lost twice since he kicked off his career in 2008. Both of those losses ended with the referee peeling his opponent off of him, suffering a TKO to Gustafsson in 2014 and KO to Johnson in 2015.

It’s difficult to not get excited about Manuwa’s ceiling after witnessing what he was able to do to both Saint Preux and Anderson in less than six months. It’s important to remember, however, that he’s only ever faced one of the elite light heavyweights twice in his career — losing both in emphatic fashion.

Dropping those fights can only be considered his fault. The fact that he’s only fought two noteworthy contenders at 205 pounds, however, is no fault of his own.

According to Manuwa, a handful of fighters — including Mauricio Rua, Teixeira and Ryan Bader — turned down the opportunity to face him recently. The next-best option came in the form of sixth-ranked contender Corey Anderson, one of the younger 205-pound members of the roster who’s yet to pick up a noteworthy win in his career.

“It makes me think twice, that everyone’s not like me,” Manuwa said when asked what he thought of others not accepting deals to fight him. “Everyone wants to dodge people, and hold onto their spot. I’m not bothered about where I’m ranked in the world or anything. I’m just worried about fighting the best people in the world and being a natural, original champion. That’s what I’m working towards.”

With the next two title fights at 205 pounds essentially set in stone (Cormier vs. Johnson and then-champion vs. Jones), Manuwa finds himself in similar positioning he was in before. He’ll now be forced to seek out a quality opponent en route to the mountaintop.

That quality opponent will likely come in the shape of Rua, Teixeira or the loser of Cormier vs. Johnson. Beating Rua would add a legend to his resume, but not much evidence of his worthiness. Fighting Teixeira would enhance his credibility far more, but not quite as much as a fight against either Cormier or Johnson — the latter of whom already defeated Manuwa in 2015.

“People can say what they want; at the end of the day, when we get in there it’s a fight,” Manuwa said. “The first thing I say to everyone: It’s a fight. It’s not technical, it’s not wrestling, it’s not boxing — it’s a mixed martial arts fight. We knew what he was coming with, we knew he would try to mix up striking with takedowns. We’ve worked tirelessly on takedown defense for this fight and we do that anyways. I work with the best team in the world.”

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