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By: Shawn Ennis, MMATorch Senior Columnist
[NOTE: This was originally published October 4. With Jon Jones vs. Lyoto Machida less than three weeks away, we've bumped it in case you missed it or want to take another look.]
This will be the first of two parts breaking down the UFC's light heavyweight division.
When longtime MMA fans think of the light heavyweight division, it conjures up images of a deep pool full of guys who could have great fights, with either fighter coming out on top depending on the day. The pool now isn't quite as deep as it once was and has a somewhat-concerning lack of young lions outside of the reigning champion. Let's have a look at both the top of the division and those who are making a name for themselves or could do so soon.
Jon Jones (14-1): Usually with a guy who has the hype of Jon Jones, it's easier to pick out the "what-if's." "Wait until he gets in there with someone who can hit him," we said about Brock Lesnar. "Then we'll see how good he is." That's just one of many examples. But with Jon Jones it's a little different. I went out on a limb and picked "Rampage" to win their fight at UFC 135. Turns out Jackson couldn't even keep it close. And that's the thing about Jon Jones. I thought after he beat Mauricio Rua that Jones would be most susceptible to a guy like Quinton Jackson because he wasn't going to be intimidated and he was going to try to beat Jones up. The problem with that line of thinking is that it assumes Jackson would be able to get inside on Jones. After watching the fight with Jackson, I don't know anymore what Jones' weakness could be. Torch columnist Matt Pelkey points out that he hasn't taken a punch yet and we don't know how he'll react. To an extent that's true, but does anyone think that Jon Jones can't take a punch? I know I'm not concerned. Here's the other thing: we can talk all we want about what Jones can handle, but what if no one can get in any offense? How do you get to the guy? Jon Jones is a physical freak. The scary part about it is that he knows how to use his... freakiness to his advantage. Imagine if Stefan Struve, at 6'11" used his length half as well as Jones does. How much better would he be? Well, Jones knows how to use the reach, and he knows how to stay out of trouble. I'm not saying that no one can beat him, but I am saying that if they do, I have no idea how they're going to do it. I wouldn't be surprised if Jones holds on to that belt for as long as he wants. I think that an eventual move to heavyweight is probably in the cards, but who knows how long that will take? For now, it'll be interesting to see if anyone can figure out Jones's puzzle.
Rashad Evans (16-1-1): Evans is next in line to see if he can figure Jones out, and he thinks that won't be an issue. As the trash talk begins, Evans will talk about things he saw in camp when they both trained with Greg Jackson. He's already said that he knows how to break Jones, and that he's seen Jones quit. I'll believe those things when I see them, but it's hard to believe that having trained with Jones pretty closely doesn't at least give Evans some sort of insight or possible advantage. All that having been said, I don't think Evans has anything at all for Jones. Evans could probably make the cut to middleweight. He's got a speed advantage over most opponents, but even if he's a little faster than Jones (and Jones is not slow), how is he going to win a five round fight against the Champion? He certainly won't win a battle on the feet – he won't be able to reach Jones unless he can duck inside and throw power shots. Is that possible? Sure. Do I think it's going to happen? Not at all. As far as I can see it, I think Evans has nothing for Jones. Be it striking, wrestling, submissions... whatever. Evans may have more experience and savvy, but when skill is equal or almost equal, size matters. And Jones is way bigger than Evans. Way bigger. I don't think Evans will be able to take Jones down, let alone keep him there. But I've been wrong before, and I'm curious to see how Evans handles his biggest advantage (speed) over Jones as compared to what Jones will do with his size advantage. An interesting fight, even if I do see Evans getting steamrolled.
A STEP OR TWO AWAY
Dan Henderson (28-8):If you told me in April of last year that Dan Henderson's name would be on this list right now, I'd say you were insane. Then-39-year-old Henderson had just lost to Jake Shields in uninspiring fashion, and I figured it'd be a few showcase fights for Hendo before he hung it up. Well, here we are. Dan Henderson (or "Dan Henderson's right hand" as Rich Hansen calls him) could be just a fight away from challenging for the UFC Light Heavyweight Title again. His task? Take out Mauricio "Shogun" Rua at UFC 139 in San Jose. I honestly have no idea what's going to happen in that fight, but I have a really good idea of what's going to happen to the winner when he faces Jon Jones. (Because let's be honest – Evans has nothing for Jones).
Mauricio Rua (20-5): It's hard to reconcile the guy we saw run rampant through Pride in 2005 with the Shogun of today. Yes, he knocked out a clearly uninterested Forrest Griffin in short order. But can Rua really get through another fight or two without hurting one of his knees again? Can he make it through a training camp? I don't know. It's a real shame, but the Shogun of six years ago? He's not coming back. I'm not saying he's completely shot, but I just don't see how he'll be durable enough to be what he used to be, or anything close to it.
Phil Davis (9-0): Dana White backtracked on the announcement of a Davis-Machida fight, but the fact that they were willing to match these two up shows that they've got plans for "Mr. Wonderful." Davis is probably the most buzzed-about potential opponent to Jon Jones that excites the hardcores, but I think his position on the contender list may belie his actual readiness for a shot at Jones. I'd like to see Davis take on a few bigger name guys and see how he does before giving him a title shot. Machida would be a good fight, but maybe two more after that and let's see where he is. Davis is the real deal, but Jones is a different animal at this point. Also, if you want to talk about physical freaks, Davis looks like a comic book character. I mean seriously, how is his torso/chest area real?
Lyoto Machida (17-2): Ah, the Machida era. The first guy anyone mentions when telling a cautionary tale of letting the hype get too big too fast. Since "defending" his title against Rua, Machida has gone 1-2, with his only win coming (admittedly in very impressive fashion) over the retiring Randy Couture. It's certainly premature to count out a guy like Machida, and the non-matchup with Phil Davis shows that the UFC isn't ready to give up on him either. I imagine that since Davis is still rehabbing, they'd pair Machida up with another name opponent sooner rather than later if they got their way, though Machida says he's not fighting again this year. The problem is that everyone else is pretty much booked until December. So it could be that a fight with Davis is Machida's most likely next move.
UP AND COMERS
I tell you, I scoured the light heavyweight division looking for guys to put in this category. According to my own rules, they've got to have three or fewer UFC fights. That eliminates guys like Alexander Gustafsson and Kyle Kingsbury, who feel like they haven't been around for long but are already 4-1 inside the Octagon (I'm not saying their ceiling is similar, mind you – I think Gustafsson is more impressive, but I'm just making a point). The light heavyweight division right now is extremely top-heavy. Some Strikeforce guys, like Mohammed Lawal and Rafael Cavalcante would actually be really nice additions to freshen up the joint. But anyway, I do have one guy who I figured I could put on here.
Ronny Markes (12-1): Markes came in as a late replacement for Stephan Bonner on the fifth Versus card back in August, and he didn't disappoint in his debut. He ground out fellow prospect Karlos Vemola for three rounds, taking a lopsided decision. Markes is pretty well-rounded, showing acumen both on the feet and on the ground. He threatened Vemola a couple of times during their fight with an arm triangle and some good ground and pound. I'm interested in what he can do with a full camp, and I'd love to see what he can do against a guy like James Te Huna.
I've got three more guys to mention, but I don't feel like any of them warrant their own sections just now. First we've got James Te Huna. I thought about putting him and Vemola on the list, but in the end I'm just not sure what to make of either of them yet. Vemola probably has more potential, but he hasn't exactly lit the world on fire with his 1-2 UFC record. Although his first fight was at heavyweight, it was against Jon Madsen. So make of that what you will. Then there's Stanislav Nedkov. He beat Luiz Cane at UFC 134, and I don't know that I've ever seen a UFC debut win met with such derision by the MMA faithful. The prevailing wisdom here is that he'll get wrecked by his next opponent. That's tough on a guy who has a 12-0 record, but as we've seen with guys like Jason Reinhardt, records don't always mean much. How about matching up Te Huna with Markes and Vemola with Nedkov? Then we'll separate the what from the chaff, right?
Next time I'll have the rest of the light heavyweight division, and that will be followed by a breakdown of the Bantamweights. That'll lead into Lightweights, Featherweights, and then Welterweights. I like to do these after title fights, and the UFC is not exactly spacing out title fights in a way that fits my timing. Isn't it great? Until next time.
Jamie Penick, editor-in-chief
STAFF COLUMNISTS: Shawn Ennis - Jason Amadi
Frank Hyden - Rich Hansen
Chris Park - Matt Pelkey
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