Antônio Rogério Nogueira, aka “Lil Nog,” is without a doubt a legend of the sport. He’s competed on the biggest stages of MMA, from Pride to the UFC and almost everything in between. He’s had memorable fights with other legends, such as Dan Henderson, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Tito Ortiz and Alistair Overeem. His most recent win over Rashad Evans proves he belongs in the top 10 of the Official UFC Rankings.

But does he belong in the top five?

Back-to-back wins over former light heavyweight champions always puts a fighter on the radar, but back-to-back losses to standout wrestlers like Ryan Bader and No. 3-ranked Phil Davis should make every panel member on the rankings committee question the true contendership of Lil Nog. Because that’s the whole point of rankings in the first place, to know who the No. 1 contender is, and the top five is usually reserved for fighters either coming off a title shot or very close to getting one.

So, is Lil Nog really that close to a title shot?

The answer is simply no. While he did have an illustrious career before entering the UFC, he has only fought six times in the last four years, going 4-2, which in and of itself isn’t a bad thing, until you take a closer look at the fights themselves and the overall level of competition. When he defeated Ortiz, his opponent had only accumulated one win in seven fights over a five-year span. His other big win, over Evans, wasn’t a devastating and impressive performance, and was more seen as a fight Evans lost than one that Nogueira won.

Then there’s his first two UFC fights, which were both wins. He came into the UFC strong with a TKO in a “Knockout of the Night” performance over Luiz Cane, but Cane doesn’t even fight for the UFC anymore. His split decision win over Jason Brilz may have earned “Fight of the Night” honors, but it wasn’t without controversy, as many watching felt he was bested that night. Brilz has also subsequently been released from the UFC since that fight.

If we don’t rank Nogueira as No. 5, then the real question is, who should be No. 5?

The light heavyweight division is in a state of transition at the moment. Lyoto Machida would be an easy fit at No. 5, but he’s made the permanent move to middleweight and has since dropped to No. 10 in the 205-pound rankings for the time being and will ultimately be removed from consideration at all in the not-so-distant future. Gegard Mousasi is another potential option, and would be an easy case to make with another win in the UFC. However, Mousasi will be following Machida’s lead and making the move to 185 pounds as well.

A case could be made for Shogun, as he’s held the light heavyweight strap in the UFC before and bested Lil Nog in Pride back in 2005, but his current track record isn’t very impressive either. He has only won two of his last six outings. Shogun and Lil Nog were originally set to square off at UFC 161, which would have rendered this whole debate obsolete, but the injury bug caught wind and ensured the rematch didn’t take place.

It’s easy to see how Lil Nog squeaked in at No. 5 with so many fighters in flux right now, but that doesn’t mean there isn’t a viable solution.

Surprising to most, the best option for No. 5 is the man currently ranked No. 6: Chael Sonnen.

It’s easy to dismiss him as a top-five contender in the light heavyweight division because he was so brutally defeated by the current champion, and himself has only won three of his last six fights. But those three losses were to people holding the belt in their respective division at the time, making him eligible as a top-five fighter under the justification that he recently competed for the title. Add on the fact his most recent win was a very impressive submission victory over the previously mentioned No. 9 light heavyweight, Shogun, and the case starts to get a lot stronger.

No, Sonnen will most likely not receive a title shot at 205 pounds so long as Jon Jones reigns supreme, and, yes, he must first get past Evans and then Wanderlei Silva sometime next year before we can even have a serious discussion about it, but the fact remains people are much more likely to buy Sonnen fighting for a title at any division than they are Nogueira fighting for a title, ever, at this point in his career.

Critics of Sonnen constantly point out how he talks his way into title fights, but one would have to go back all the way to UFC 95 in 2009 to find a non-title fight where Sonnen lost, so you can’t say he wasn’t deserving at some level, especially for his middleweight title bouts. Most people love him or hate him, which is why they pay or tune in to watch him, but one objective look at his quality of opposition compared to that of Nogueira, and the math doesn’t lie. Sonnen not only competes against better fighters, but he’s competed against the best fighters in more than one division.

Lil Nog has likely gone as far as he will in this sport and is ranked as high as he ever will be, thanks in no small part to the exodus of two top-10 fighters and the sudden decline of others. He has a famous name and has had an overall successful career, for which the fans will forever be eternally thankful, but it would be more entertaining to see him battle other legends in the same position, like Dan Henderson or Shogun, than to see him take on other contenders and become a gatekeeper for guys like Alexander Gustafsson or Glover Teixeira.

The easiest way to settle these arguments will always be to see what happens when the cage door closes, but unfortunately Nogueira has been plagued with injuries his whole time in the UFC, and it has cost him big fights. Fights which would determine if he was a true contender or not, and frankly we should take into account the length of time fighters are inactive in between fights into how they are ranked, especially when so many questions remain about where they really stand amongst the elite of their division. That’s why it’s easier to say Sonnen is No. 5 over Lil Nog. Not because he’s popular, or because he’s able to promote himself, but because he’s active, and active fighters deserve more credit. And that’s the bottom line.

Photo: Antonio Rogerio Nogueira (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)