On the surface, the UFC’s light heavyweight division doesn’t exactly inspire confidence.
Current champion Daniel Cormier was knocked out by Jon Jones at UFC 214 over the summer and lost the belt. However, a second drug test failure by Jones led to the UFC stripping him and awarding the title back to Cormier, with Jones’ UFC future very much in doubt.
While Cormier has reclaimed his throne as champion, his kingdom isn’t as vast as say, the UFC’s bantamweight, featherweight or lightweight divisions – still considered among the deepest in all of mixed martial arts. But Cormier needs to defend his belt against someone to keep the fans’ interest. I decided to rank the most deserving contenders in a very shallow light heavyweight division, combining a criteria of the most “deserving” (a term that is quickly becoming irrelevant in MMA) and who could generate the most interest among fight fans.
I didn’t put Gustafsson No. 1 because he is also listed as the No. 1 contender in the UFC’s rankings. I believe Gustafsson should be the top contender because he is the most interesting match-up for Cormier right now. The two previously faced each other at UFC 192 in 2015 in one of the better fights from that year. Cormier eked out a split decision victory but only outlanded Gustafsson in total strikes 140-120, and only landed one takedown in the entire fight.
Gustafsson seems to perform his best on the biggest stage, as he took both Cormier and Jones to the limit when he faced them. Gustafsson has won two straight since his loss to Cormier, including a knockout of Glover Teixeira, one of the more feared strikers around. Gustafsson was Cormier’s toughest test during his initial title reign and has looked better than ever. A rematch between the two should be every bit as entertaining as their first meeting.
No, you’re not seeing things. Shogun is still in the UFC, and he’s still winning. He’s won three straight fights and knocked out Gian Villiante in his last bout. Shogun landed 94 total strikes in that fight, proving that he can still be the Shogun of old even at 35 years of age.
Shogun was supposed to face fellow contender Ovince Saint Preux in Shogun’s adopted home country of Japan in September – the country that made Shogun a star in the old days of PRIDE. Shogun had to withdraw from that fight because of a knee injury, but if he wouldn’t be named as an opponent for Cormier, rebooking his meeting with “OSP” would go a long way toward solidifying Shogun’s claim to another title shot.
This is who Cormier was supposed to face next for the title, possibly early next year. However, Oezdemir was arrested last weekend and charged with felony battery following an alleged assault at a Florida bar in August. While Oezdemir was released on bond and is innocent until proven guilty, it probably wouldn’t be a good look for the UFC to reward Oezdemir’s arrest with a title shot on a pay-per-view. Fair or not, optics play a big role in the fight game.
However, Oezdemir’s arrest isn’t the main reason I ranked him as the third contender for the light heavyweight title. Oezdemir is undefeated in his three-fight UFC career, with back-to-back, first-round knockout victories. So he definitely has the credentials. But does he move the needle? Are fans going to pay $60 to watch a pay-per-view card headlined by Daniel Cormier and Volkan Oezdemir?
As I stated before, a meeting between OSP and Shogun could go a long way toward determining a true title contender at 205 pounds. OSP has fought for the title before when he came up short in an interim light heavyweight title fight against Jon Jones last year. But OSP has rebounded to win three fights in a row, with three finishes. Unfortunately, OSP’s dance card is already full with a just-announced fight against Ilir Latifi waiting for him in 2018. But if OSP wins that one, you have to think he should be considered for another crack at gold.
When you look at the rest of the UFC’s light heavyweight roster, you see names like Teixeira, Jimi Manuwa, Misha Cirkunov and Corey Anderson. The division may not be short on contenders who could make an argument for a title shot, but it is short on marquee names that would draw eyeballs to a title fight with Cormier. The four fighters listed above are the best candidates in what has arguably become the UFC’s most shallow pool.