Almost since the light heavyweight division was formed, it has been the marquee division in MMA.  Not just in the UFC, but everywhere. The division has been deep enough to populate multiple organizations with real stars and top talent.

From Frank Shamrock retiring undefeated in the UFC, to Tito Ortiz’s title reign, to Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, not to mention Forrest Griffin, the light heavyweight division delivered plenty of action and pay-per-view drawing power. Meanwhile in Japan, superstars like Wanderlei Silva, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson, Dan Henderson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Ricardo Arona, and so many others made the division equally as deep overseas. Even after the UFC consolidated much of Pride’s talent, the light heavyweight division had enough talent remaining to be Strikeforce’s deepest and most talented division, featuring stars like Henderson, Muhammed “King Mo” Lawal, Rafael “Feijao” Cavalcante and Gegard Mousasi.

So, how did a division that was so deep and featured so much talent dry up so quickly?  Jon Jones has only been champion for 18 months and already it feels like the division has been cleaned out.  For evidence, look no further than UFC on Fox 4, where Brandon Vera—with a record of just 1-3 and one no-contest in his last five fights—found himself in what was originally called a No. 1 contender fight. How could this be?

I think there are three major factors in the decline in the most dominant division in MMA.

First is the failure to develop young talent. Outside of the champion, Jon Jones, the UFC seems to have failed in developing real talent in the division. The majority of the stars and top contenders in the division today were top stars five years ago. In a typical division, you would see some stars fade and new faces start to appear during that span, but the light heavyweight division appears almost stagnant.

If you look at the current age of the top five ranked fighters on this site, excluding Jones, then the top contenders are nearly 35 years old. If you mix in popular fighters such as Rampage (34), Nogueira (36) and Griffin (33), who did not make the rankings on this site but are ranked on a number of other sites, you start to see the age of top competitors in the division. Even what feels like new talent to the division, such as Glover Teixeira (32), isn’t actually a young fighter in some circumstances.

The UFC needs to find and cultivate new talent in the division outside of Jones if it is ever going to return to its glory days.

Second, there’s the extremely active champion. While Jones might be doing the UFC a favor by being ready to headline pay-per-views, he sure isn’t doing the division any favors.

Since facing Ryan Bader at UFC 126 in what was essentially a fight to determine who was going to replace Rashad Evans and challenge for the title, Jones will be fighting for the sixth time when he faces Machida for a second time on Sept. 22.

This means Jones is defending his title on average once every 3.2 months.

Over the same time frame, Anderson Silva has fought just three times, or once every 6.3 months. The heavyweight and welterweight titles have been defended only two times each, or once every 9.5 months.  In fact, the closest any other title has been to the activity of Jones is the lightweight division, which has seen the belt defended once every five months.

Jones’ activity prevents the division from creating new contenders. The champ is knocking down contenders faster than anyone can find them.

For an example, look at the welterweight division. The division was considered to be cleaned out, but with the lack of activity from the title holders, a group of new worthy contenders have appeared, including Martin Kampmann and Johny Hendricks. This never would have happened if they were rushed into contention, or if they weren’t able to put their streaks together over top competition because those other competitors were busy with title fights.

Finally, there’s the dominance of the phenom. To be blunt, Jones has dominated everyone he has faced. If a fight was close, a rematch might be appealing. Think if someone challenged Jones the way Chael Sonnen did Anderson Silva, or if a fight was close like Benson Henderson vs. Frankie Edgar. The rematch would be huge and would provide someone the fans would believe is truly worthy.

However, Jones has dispatched everyone decisively, so rematches with those contenders really do not appeal to most fans.

Unfortunately, there doesn’t appear to be an easy solution to rebuilding the division. This is something that will take time.

And the UFC may not be willing to make the changes necessary.  Does the promotion really want to keep Jones off some cards to add more time between his fights in a time where pay-per-view sales have been struggling? Doubt it.

This makes it that much harder for the division to return to prominence.  At least longtime fans have the memories of how great the division once was.

Photo: Jon Jones (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Richard Wilcoxon
Staff Writer

An East Coast native, Richard Wilcoxon grew up a die hard fan of traditional team sports. In the early 1990's, he stumbled onto the sport of MMA and has been hooked ever since. He started writing about the sport on his Sporting News member blog in 2005 where he worked to spread his passion for the sport. He eventually became an official staff writer for Sporting News' "The Rumble" MMA/boxing blog before joining The MMA Corner.