From the moment Jon Jones ran roughshod past Mauricio “Shogun” Rua to become the youngest champion in UFC history in March 2011, the writing was on the wall: The greatest fighter in the history of mixed martial arts was now at the helm of arguably the sport’s most popular division.
Names like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture did much to bring the division to what heights it was at during the start of Jones’ run, but all of the names that preceded the once-in-a-generation talent were beatable. Jones — thanks to his athleticism, length, fighting IQ and skills — has been considered anything but over the years.
It is to the credit of Jones, and perhaps a few others, that the division now exists as one of the weakest, shallowest weight classes housed by the Octagon. His dominance over the likes of elite talents in Rashad Evans, Ryan Bader, Daniel Cormier, Alexander Gustafsson, Glover Teixeira, Lyoto Machida, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Chael Sonnen, Ovince Saint Preux, Vitor Belfort and “Shogun” are the primary reason that names like Jimi Manuwa and Corey Anderson are suddenly on the cusp of fighting for a shot at the title in 2017.
Manuwa and Anderson — ranked fourth and sixth in the UFC’s 205-pound division, respectively — face off in the main event at UFC Fight Night 107 Saturday. Manuwa comes into the bout with a 3-2 record in his last five, while Anderson is 4-1 across the same number of fights. Neither fighter has looked particularly impressive against high-level fighters over the course of their respective runs, but the circumstances surrounding the division make that notion all the less important.
Anderson’s biggest win has come against Sean O’Connell, an unranked 205-pound fighter who’s more popular for his weigh-in antics than he is for his skill inside the Octagon. Manuwa’s biggest win came against Saint Preux, a former interim title challenger who has gone 1-4 in his last five fights.
How, then, could these two be so close to fighting for such a prestigious crown?
In short: There isn’t really anybody in the division who can argue against it.
Jones, currently serving a one-year suspension for a run-in with the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency last July, is likely due for a title shot upon his return sometime this summer.
Beyond that is where things start to get murky.
Current No. 1 contender Anthony Johnson is slated for a second crack at the light heavyweight championship in early April. A second championship loss in under two years could mark the end of his pursuit for gold at 205 pounds.
No. 2-ranked contender Alexander Gustafsson has already fought twice for the light heavyweight title, falling just inches short of first place on both occasions. Worse yet, he’s just 2-3 since receiving his first title shot, and is a few victories away from convincing anybody of a third claim.
Glover Teixeira, ranked third in the division, was well on his way to title shot No. 2 before running into a vicious uppercut from “Rumble” last summer. A win over Gustafsson in May could make him a viable candidate for a shot, but he would likely be required to face Manuwa or Anderson beforehand.
The only man currently standing in between Saturday’s headliners in the rankings is “Shogun” Rua, who has quietly picked up three consecutive victories over so-so competition (one of those opponents being Anderson, mind you). At 35 and more than six years removed from relinquishing the title against Jones at UFC 128, Rua also has a decent claim for a title shot at 205 pounds.
That’s five men that could be sharing the cage with the champion at some point before the calendar year ends. The total will inevitably drop to four once Saturday’s event concludes, and could potentially drop to just three if Teixeira doesn’t manage to get past “The Mauler” at UFC Fight Night 109 in May.
The quality of contenders doesn’t quite coincide with the quantity, however, as Jones and Teixeira are realistically the only two proven 205-pound fighters who could very well dethrone the current champion.
Of course, that standard could have been better maintained had the UFC been able to hold on to some of the more promising fighters it had in the division just a year ago.
Ryan Bader, who ranked fourth in the division following his latest win over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira in November, has set sail for Bellator. He joins Bellator light heavyweight champion Phil Davis, becoming the second top-five UFC light heavyweight to leave the No. 1 MMA promotion for its biggest rival in just the last two years.
Lest we forget about Nikita Krylov, who, despite dropping his most recent Octagon appearance to a now-rising Misha Cirkunov, is still one of the more promising young names available at 205 pounds. He also left the promotion this year, opting to take his talents closer to home by signing with Eurasia Fight Nights following the completion of his contract with the UFC.
At some point, the tide inevitably shifts from the old guard to the new. That’s the case in just about every sport. One can only hope, however, that the new guard is as well-equipped as the ones who came before.