Earlier this week, my Combat Press colleague Dan Kuhl published his recent chat with UFC 235 headliner Anthony Smith, who will challenge Jon Jones for the light heavyweight strap in Las Vegas on March 2. Smith made a strong argument for his merits as the top contender to the belt, but not everyone is a believer.
Take Twitter user avicenna, who had this to say:
he is the most undeserving title contender in light heavyweight history. he was TKOd not 3 fights ago. hes the dan hardy of the light heavyweight. unoworthy of jon Jones.
— avicenna (@Avicenna110) February 21, 2019
Yes, Smith was knocked out just three fights ago. This much is true. However, that loss came at middleweight. It also came to Thiago Santos, a fighter who, like Smith, has since moved up to 205 pounds and turned into a contender. Smith sits in the No. 3 spot in the UFC’s own light heavyweight rankings, and Santos currently shares the sixth spot in that same poll with Corey Anderson. It’s hardly like Smith lost to the light heavyweight equivalent of C.M. Punk.
Since he shifted gears to focus on the light heavyweight division, Smith has performed admirably. He decimated former champion Rashad Evans in just 53 seconds. Evans is just a shell of his former championship self, but this is still a significant victory that added a big name to Smith’s resume. Then, “Lionheart” needed only 89 seconds to vanquish Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. The Brazilian is another former UFC titleholder and entered the bout on a three-fight winning streak that included victories over fringe top-15ers Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Gian Villante, plus the same aforementioned Anderson who shares a ranking with Santos. Finally, Smith added a third-round submission stoppage of Volkan Oezdemir, a fellow contender who fell to No. 5 in the UFC’s rankings with the loss.
That’s two victories over top-10 light heavyweights, plus a victory over a former champion. So, how does Smith stack up against the historic list of UFC light heavyweight title challengers? Glad you asked.
Let’s start with the three former champions or contenders Smith has topped at the light-heavyweight level.
Evans earned his shot at Forrest Griffin after winning The Ultimate Fighter 2 as a heavyweight with a split nod over Brad Imes. He just barely edged Sam Hoger and Stephan Bonnar over his next two fights and then continued to pile on the wins against Jason Lambert and Sean Salmon. He stepped up to the next level and fought to a draw with Tito Ortiz and squeaked by Michael Bisping via a split decision. He grabbed the title shot with a knockout of the legendary Chuck Liddell. Was Evans deserving? Yes, but it’s hardly like he decimated the top-level competition outside of his win over “The Iceman.”
Rua, of course, is a legend from the Pride era. He was expected to storm into the UFC and blow everyone away. This was hardly the case, though. He was submitted by the aforementioned Forrest Griffin in his Octagon debut. He bounced back with victories over Mark Coleman and Liddell, which was enough to earn him a crack at Lyoto Machida. Shogun just barely lost that fight and ultimately won in the rematch the following year. He, too, was deserving of his shot based on past accomplishments, but his victories over aging legends Coleman and Liddell aren’t exactly a more convincing argument than Smith’s own recent run — and the Griffin loss came one fight closer to his title bid than Smith’s loss to Santos.
Oezdemir, meanwhile, entered the cage with Daniel Cormier following wins in his first three UFC fights. Those victories all came against fellow contenders, including Ovince St. Preux, Misha Cirkunov and Jimi Manuwa. The Swiss fighter undoubtedly deserved his shot after steamrolling through Cirkunov and Manuwa in a combined 50 seconds. However, he also lost to Kelly Anundson under the Bellator banner just three fights prior to joining the UFC. Just sayin’.
As for historical title challenges that don’t involve any of Smith’s recent foes, there’s plenty to unpack. If we go back to the beginning of the modern light heavyweight title’s timeline, it can get pretty ugly.
Kevin Jackson? The Olympic gold medalist wrestler had just three career wins when he entered the cage with Frank Shamrock, but two of those wins came in the UFC 14 tourney to secure his title bid. His biggest win in that stretch? It came against rookie Tony Fryklund.
Igor Zinoviev was coming off a pair of draws when he challenged Shamrock.
John Lober might actually win the honor of the least deserving light heavyweight title challenger in UFC history. He had lost five of his last six fights — the remaining contest ended in a draw — prior to his own scrap with Shamrock. Lober was only in that spot because he had narrowly edged Shamrock at Superbrawl 3.
Tito Ortiz made title defenses against Yuki Kondo, Evan Tanner and Elvis Sinosic. None of these men had built an outstanding case for a shot at UFC gold. Sinosic was the worst of them, entering his title bout with just one win in his four prior fights.
Once Randy Couture stepped up to challenge and beat Ortiz for the belt, the UFC’s light heavyweight division entered a golden age in which we saw plenty of worthy title challengers. The belt changed hands between Couture, Vitor Belfort, Couture again, Liddell and Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Other challengers of the era also had strong cases to receive a title bid. Hell, even Griffin had the benefit of his surprise win over Shogun to help shore up an argument that otherwise consisted of the TUF crown and an up-and-down run that included a loss to Keith Jardine.
This pretty much covers the history of the title up to the Jon Jones era. Once “Bones” snatched the gold with his win over Shogun, he was in control of the division. This doesn’t mean all of his opponents were up to snuff, though. Many of them were, but there’s one glaring exception: Chael Sonnen.
If there’s one fighter who can give the aforementioned Lober a run for the “honor” of least-deserving light heavyweight title challenger in UFC history, it has to be Sonnen.
The outspoken Team Quest fighter’s route to a shot at Jones and the light heavyweight strap? A loss. Granted, it came against Anderson Silva, but it wasn’t even the spirited performance against Silva that almost gave Sonnen the middleweight belt. That better showing against Silva had some three fights earlier. The second loss to the middleweight champ also featured some of Sonnen’s wrestling, but Silva put his foot on the gas in the second round and finished Sonnen with strikes.
Also, both of Sonnen’s performances against Silva came at middleweight, a division where Sonnen did most of his work in those days. He had made a previous light heavyweight appearance with the UFC, but it came much earlier in his career in a loss to Renato “Babalu” Sobral. He had also suffered a defeat as a 205-pounder outside the UFC to the aforementioned Griffin. His middleweight record wasn’t spotless either. He’d suffered UFC losses to Demian Maia and Jeremy Horn.
Sonnen’s bona fides made him a solid perennial middleweight contender at the time. He had vanquished a lot of fellow contenders while only suffering losses to Maia and Silva (twice). His list of victims included Dan Miller, Yushin Okami, Nate Marquardt, Brian Stann and Michael Bisping. This is more than enough to qualify Sonnen for middleweight title berths, but usually an immediate title shot in a different division comes with a prerequisite of a title victory in one’s own weight class. Sonnen couldn’t even manage that, but he was still granted the opportunity by the UFC to challenge Jones at the light heavyweight level.
Sonnen talked his way into a title shot he didn’t deserve. Lober rode a six-fight winless stretch into a title bid, because he held a previous win over the reigning champion of the time. Meanwhile, Smith has topped two former UFC titleholders and a former title challenger, all in convincing fashion. The least deserving title challenger in UFC history? Hardly.