Jon Jones (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)UFC’s Light Heavyweight Division: Who Can Step Up Against Jon Jones? Vince Carey December 27, 2013 Spotlight The light heavyweight division isn’t quite what it used to be. Five years ago, the 205-pound class was the most talent-rich division in the sport, especially near the top. Household names like Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Forrest Griffin barely scratch the surface of the iconic fighters that have competed in the light heavyweight division. The most important fight in UFC history, The Ultimate Fighter Finale battle between Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, took place in the 205-pound division. The decade-long rivalry between Ortiz and Liddell started over the light heavyweight belt. Since the promotion blew up in 2005, the division has been the UFC’s most consistent in terms of putting on high-caliber match-ups and delivering star power. But now, for the first time since the days before Ortiz and “The Iceman,” the division is slowly becoming ordinary. The problem is, most of the star power that built the UFC wasn’t in the form of young, homegrown talent. Outside of TUF-built fighters like Griffin and Rashad Evans, most of the top fighters at 205 were longtime UFC and Pride veterans like Liddell and Wanderlei Silva. While the division was the most fun in the sport for a few years, eventually father time was going to catch up to the aging weight class. As it turns out, father time came in the form of a 23-year-old monster named Jon Jones. The days of Liddell and Randy Couture are long gone. Rampage and Ortiz are aging stars fighting under the Bellator banner now. Griffin and Bonnar are retired. Most of the stars of yesterday are either completely gone or on the downside of their careers, and Jones made that completely obvious when he won the UFC title a couple of years ago. “Bones” ran through the old guard with relative ease, defeating five straight former champions to start his UFC title reign, and he effectively put the division on life support in the process. There was a point a few years ago during Anderson Silva’s dominant run through the middleweight division where it felt like the UFC was practically pulling title contenders out of a hat for “The Spider” to vanquish. Names like Patrick Cote and Thales Leites don’t exactly scream “UFC title contender,” but Silva decimated the 185-pound division to the point where the UFC was basically out of options. Fans talk about a dominant fighter cleaning out his division all of the time, but Silva is one of the few who actually did it for a little while. The same scenario could easily unfold with Jones in the near future, but in the meantime, the UFC has a trio of fighters that could still prove to be Jones’ kryptonite. First on the agenda for the champion is surging contender Glover Teixeira, who’s riding a 20-fight winning streak into his bout with Jones this spring. After scoring a “Knockout of the Night”-winning performance against Ryan Bader this past September, it was clear that Teixeira was on the verge of a gigantic fight. And while scoring a knockout win over an unranked veteran like Bader doesn’t normally result in title opportunities, Teixeira had shown enough in his five UFC victories to earn himself the shot. Whether it was completely decimating Kyle Kingsbury and Fabio Maldonado or beating up former champion Rampage for three rounds, Teixeira has been almost flawless in his UFC career heading into his title fight. Whether or not he’s going to make the most of his opportunity to fight Jones remains to been seen. Teixeira is a fantastic boxer, and he possesses some serious power behind his shots, but it’s going to be tough for him to consistently get inside Jones’ 84-inch reach in order to land punches. Adding to the uncertainty is Teixeira’s defensive wrestling game, which hasn’t really been tested inside the Octagon. There are very few fighters that can use leverage to their advantage as well as “Bones,” and it will be interesting to see if Teixeira can stay off of his back long enough to get his own offense going. On paper, Teixeira seems like a bit of a pushover of an opponent for Jones, but you could have made a strong case if you had said the same thing about Alexander Gustafsson a few months ago. As cliché as it sounds, styles make fights, and Gustafsson had the right style and the right game plan to force Jones to go to war at UFC 165. It’s doubtful that Teixeira can do the same, but he has some lethal power and if he’s able to connect even half as many times as “The Mauler” did a few months ago, he could pull off the upset. Gustafsson was extremely close to earning a decision win in what may end up being the best fight of 2013, but the judges didn’t think he did quite enough to take the belt from “Bones.” Many fans felt that the Swedish fighter deserved an immediate rematch against Jones due to the close nature of the fight, but the UFC decided to move Jones opposite Teixeira instead. As a result, Gustafsson is going to have to work his way up to another chance at the title, with the first stop coming against unranked prospect Jimi Manuwa in March. Manuwa is highly talented, but he hasn’t proven himself against top competition thus far in his short MMA career. Going from the likes of Cyrille Diabate and Ryan Jimmo to a fighter of Gustafsson’s caliber is a tremendous leap in competition, and “The Mauler” is likely going to be the heavy favorite come fight time. Barring a major upset for Manuwa, it’s highly possible that Gustafsson could earn his second UFC title shot at some point in 2014, and (barring another major upset) earn a second shot at Jon Jones. Even if Gustafsson is able to win in impressive fashion against Manuwa, he may still have some competition looking to jump him in line for a chance at Jones. After a year in the Octagon spent at heavyweight, former Strikeforce Grand Prix champion Daniel Cormier is finally making his way to 205 pounds, and he has his sights firmly set on “Bones.” Cormier and the champion have traded a few shots over Twitter over the past year, and with “DC” getting ready to fight former champion Rashad Evans at UFC 170 early next year, we’re one step closer to seeing some actual shots thrown between these two. With a world-class wrestling background and ever improving striking, Cormier has been a popular pick to end Jones’ reign over the division for about a year now, but he’s spent the last 12 months competing at heavyweight, slowly shedding weight and preparing to move down to 205. “DC” spent his time in the cage dominating ranked heavyweights in Frank Mir and Roy Nelson this year, and now that he has officially dropped down to light heavyweight, he’s landed right in the middle of the title picture. Of course, going from a sluggish brawler like “Big Country” to a quick-hitting, movement-heavy fighter like Evans is going to be a major riddle for Cormier to solve. Whereas he was able to use his speed and power in equal measures at heavyweight in order to work his game, “DC” is going to be at a major speed disadvantage compared to some of the better fighters at light heavyweight. Considering that Evans is viewed as one of the fastest fighters in the entire division, Cormier is going to have to adjust to a new level of speed and quickness almost immediately. As promising as Cormier has been while defeating a handful of top-10 heavyweights, his upcoming fight against Evans is still going to be the biggest test of his young career. Whether or not Cormier is even able to get to Jones remains to be seen, but his wrestling pedigree and his overall physical build make a potential title fight more problematic for Jones than most other fighters. We’ve seen almost nothing of Jones’ game off of his back, but Cormier could get it there. We haven’t seen anyone completely muscle Jones around and attempt to wear him out. Cormier may be able to do that, too. More so than anyone in the division, Cormier has a unique set of skills that fans and critics alike can see giving Jones a significant amount of trouble. Jones hasn’t completely cleaned out the light heavyweight division yet, but the number of fighters he needs to defeat in order to do so keeps on getting smaller. In all reality, the UFC’s light heavyweight roster is incredibly thin at the moment, and outside of Teixeira, Gustafsson and Cormier, there isn’t a fighter that seems likely to jump into the top of the heap. Sure, there’s a plethora of former champions and MMA legends to choose from at 205, but the vast majority of the top fighters in the division are over 30 years old. Phil Davis is slowly working his way towards the top, but his less than impressive (not to mention controversial) win over Lyoto Machida didn’t exactly put him in the driver’s seat for a title shot last summer. Odds are, “Mr. Wonderful” is going to need a couple more W’s before he finds himself fighting with a belt on the line. Unless the promotion is able to find a handful of talented prospects sitting at 205 pounds, the division is going to be in pretty abysmal shape over the next few years, no matter who is residing over it. Everyone loves a dominant champion, but it’s hard to build a legacy when there’s no quality competition available. Jones still has a few quality opponents for the next year, but there isn’t even an emerging prospect to get excited about at 205 pounds right now. Once the current run of contenders sorts itself out, it’s very possible that we could see a fighter along the lines of Cote or Leites end up across the cage from “Bones.” As impossible as it seemed even two years ago, the light heavyweight division is on the verge of becoming the weakest on the UFC roster.