UFC Light Heavyweight in 2017: A Three Horse Race

In the UFC’s light heavyweight division, there are three fighters who’ve separated themselves from the rest of the pack. How they shake out in 2017 will set the table for the future of the 205-pound weight class.

The top of the division will get a long-awaited showdown for the title in April. As the main event of UFC 210, champion Daniel Cormier will finally defend his belt against number one contender Anthony “Rumble” Johnson in Buffalo, New York. It’ll be the second time fans are treated to Cormier-Johnson, with Cormier winning the vacant 205-pound title over Johnson in May of 2015.

Since that bout, both fighters have found success in the Octagon. Neither fighter has lost, and Cormier-Johnson 2 is the obvious match to make atop the light heavyweight division.

Cormier has defended the belt once, topping Alexander Gustafsson at UFC 192. A combination of injuries, canceled bouts, and a lack of real contenders in a division as top-heavy as any in the promotion has caused the light heavyweight title to be on the line less often than would be expected.

Since that victory over Gustafsson, Cormier earned a non-title victory over Anderson Silva at UFC 200. There have been a few additional defenses scheduled in the past couple of years, all of which have failed to come to fruition.

At UFC 197, we were supposed to be treated to a rematch between Cormier and former champion Jon Jones. There are many reasons for a Jones-Cormier rematch, and both fighters have cited a rematch as necessary for their careers. So, when the bout was called off due to a Cormier injury, and later rescheduled for UFC 200, fans were happy to get the fight at all.

And then UFC 200 happened. Replacing the original headliners in Conor McGregor and Nate Diaz, Cormier-Jones 2 looked to save the day for one of the UFC’s biggest cards ever. Unifying the belts, after Jones won the interim light heavyweight title at UFC 197, seemed to be the perfect substitute for losing McGregor-Diaz 2.

But, it wasn’t meant to be. The U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA) notified the UFC of a potential doping violation by Jones days before the headlining bout was slated to take place. With Jones out, “The Spider” stepped in, battling Cormier to a unanimous decision loss over three rounds.

Following the doping violation, Jones was eventually suspended for a year. Unable to return to the Octagon until July of 2017, we find ourselves in a similar spot to a couple of years ago. Cormier and Johnson are obviously at the top of the division, while the uncrowned king continues to blunder outside of the Octagon. So, nobody was shocked to see Cormier-Johnson announced as the main event for UFC 206.

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Fresh off of 13-second knockout of Glover Teixeira at UFC 202, Johnson put together three consecutive Performance of the Night bonus bouts. With Jones out of the picture, a rematch with Cormier was the obvious fight to make. Yet, the injury bug would bite the champ again. This time, a groin issue forced DC to pull out of the title-defense.

Without another legitimate contender, and Jones out of the picture, delaying the deserving rematch wasn’t an issue. Now scheduled for the main event of UFC 210, Cormier-Johnson 2 sets the light heavyweight division up for what could be one of the most entertaining years for the 205-pound weight class in a while.

That likely hinges on the return (again) of Jon Jones. Due back in the summer, UFC President Dana White is already saying Jones will likely challenge for the title upon his return, regardless of who holds the belt after UFC 210. He won the interim light heavyweight title in his last bout, a convincing unanimous decision win over Ovince Saint Preux at UFC 197 last year.

Much like the Cormier-Johnson 2 matchup, Jones facing the title-holder post-UFC 210 makes sense. The reasons are similar as well, and multiple title fights in 2017 is a must for a largely stagnant division in 2016.

After Cormier, Johnson, and Jones, there’s a gap between the trio and the rest of the 205-pound weight class. There is one fighter, though, that has routinely challenged the top-tier at light heavyweight. Although his last three losses have come at the hands of each of trio mentioned, Alexander Gustafsson remained one of the top contenders in the division.

After an extended layoff, Gustafsson returned to the Octagon in September of last year. Earning a unanimous decision win over Jan Blachowicz, Gustafsson showed some rust, but also the same heart and drive we’ve come to appreciate from the Swede. Unfortunately, the back problems that plagued Gustafsson’s career flared up again following the bout, and he’s now out indefinitely with no current timetable for a return.

With Gustafsson out, and a title-fight on the schedule, what else is the division up to as we wade into the new year?

Last weekend at UFC Houston, Ovince Saint Preux took another loss, his third in a row. It was a disappointing performance for the number six ranked light heavyweight, who looked slow and lacked the growth in technique many expected from the one-time prospect.

The victor, Volkan Oezdemir, took the fight on short notice and made the most of his UFC debut. Originally slated to fight for the Titan FC heavyweight title in January, the Swiss-born light heavyweight replaced Jan Blachowicz, and could be looking at a return to the promotion later this year. The split-decision win is a big one for Oezdemir, but both he and OSP will be hoping for better performances in their next bouts.

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The man Oezdemir replaced, Blachowicz, already has his next bout scheduled. He’s slated to fight Patrick Cummins at UFC 210 in April. Both have lost three of their last four bouts, including their most recent Octagon appearances.

The UFC is no place for losing streaks, but in a division begging for contenders, a win or two in a row could get either Blachowicz or Cummins into the light heavyweight top-10.

Glover Teixeira is looking to rebound from a loss when he takes on Jared Cannonier at UFC 208. He lasted just 13 seconds against Anthony Johnson at UFC 202, but had won his three fights going into the bout with “Rumble”. A top-five fighter in the 205-pound weight class, a win for Teixeira in Brooklyn keeps him among the true title contenders in the division.

Teixeria faces another big test, both literally and figuritively, in Cannonier. Going 8-1 as a heavyweight throughout his career, Cannonier made the move to light heavyweight in his last bout. Defeating Ion Cutelaba in his 205-pound debut in December, Cannonier showed he was for real with a Fight of the Night performance.

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Fans in London, and the UFC, will be hoping for a Fight of the Night performance from the two light heavyweight fighters competing in the main event on March 18. The headline fight, between Jimi Manuwa and Corey Anderson, has received some static from fans and analysts alike. While it may not be the typical headline fight for a UFC event, the bout will undoubtedly impact the 205-pound weight class.

Surrounded by the likes of Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Ryan Bader, and Saint Preux, a win for either Manuwa or Andreson should give them a solid boost in the light heavyweight rankings. That will also depend on how Shogun’s bout with Gian Villante in Fortaleza pans-out.

The legendary Rua has seen a small resurgence the last two years, going 1-0 in both 2015 and 2016. For Villante, it’s a chance to begin a real run at 205 with a marquee win. His last bout in Brazil, a 2014 decision-loss to Fabio Maldonado, was headlined by Rua, who lost to Dan Henderson. Now in his return, he’ll get a chance at Rua himself, and will want to make the most of it.

When it comes to making the most of an opportunity, Marcel Fortuna did just that at UFC Houston last week. Stepping in on short-notice, and competing at heavyweight, the natural 205er knocked out Anthony Hamilton in impressive fashion. What’s next for the former middleweight competitor on The Ultimate Fighter will be interesting to see in a division needed fresh faces.

There’ll be at least one familiar face at light heavyweight that fans won’t be seeing in the Octagon in 2017: Ryan Bader. Both Bader and UFC President Dana White confirmed he’ll be leaving the promotion, with Bellator as the likely destination. He was 7-1 in his last eight bouts, only falling to Anthony Johnson since December of 2013.

Ranked in the top-five, Bader provided some of the little top-tier depth the UFC’s light heavyweight division has. With him gone, the gap between the Cormier, Johnson, Jones, and the rest of the division grows wider.

It’ll get worse if the promotion decides to let one of the hottest commodities in the division go as well in Misha Cirkunov. Currently a free agent, letting Cirkunov go makes even less sense for the UFC. We’re expecting and hoping they’ll resign the Latvian, who’s 4-0 in his UFC career. He went 3-0 in 2016, and ended the year with a first-round submission of Nikita Krylov at UFC 206 in December. Cirkunov is a necessity for the UFC, and a potential future champion in the 205-pound weight class.

With the majority of the top-10 relatively “up for grabs”, there are fighters like Nikita Krylov and Ilir Latifi, who could find themselves in the title-picture with a couple of victories in a row. Both lost their last bouts; Krylov to Cirkunov, and Latifi to Bader. But since 2014, there are few light heavyweights as consistent as Krylov and Latifi.

There’s more than meets the eye in the UFC’s light heavyweight division. But in all reality, it’s a three-horse race for the title. Those three are a few of the UFC’s most entertaining and liked fighters in the promotion. Here’s hoping we finally get a year in which all three can compete in the Octagon against each other. If not, the 205-pound weight class could be in for another sub-par year.

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