Why a champion is so much needed in the UFC light heavyweight division to distinguish out from the competition

The 205-pound division, which was once the pinnacle of the organisation, has struggled since Jon Jones moved up to heavyweight.

If the time since Jon Jones’ initial retirement from the UFC light heavyweight title in 2020 has taught us anything, it’s to be ready for the unexpected. Most of the time, that has been advantageous because the division has generated plenty of high-level excitement and volatility, including four belt changes and two brutal title fights that will not soon be forgotten. Yet here we are, approaching the three-year mark since Jones applied his skills to the heavyweight division, and we not only lack a long-term champion after Jones, but also a champion at all.

The terrible news that the division’s reigning 205-pound king Jamahal Hill would have to relinquish his throne due to an ACL tear sustained during a basketball game last week only further complicated matters.

The division has gone through four separate periods since Frank Shamrock’s 16-second submission victory over Kevin Jackson in the first UFC light heavyweight title match in 1997, before the pandemonium that characterises the current one.

Shamrock dominated the first era; he made four successful title defences over a two-year period before giving up the belt and leaving the UFC, alleging a lack of opponents. After Shamrock’s departure, the 205-pound division enjoyed a historic six-year run during which it rose to the status of the sport’s elite.

Along with the 2005 “The Ultimate Fighter” finale between Forrest Gryphon and Stefan Bonnar, household names like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Ken Shamrock, and Vitor Belfort participated in an unofficial round robin of fights against one another that significantly contributed to creating marketable stars and preserving the sport as a whole.

Between 2007 and 2010, the third era saw a hot potato of championship changes as a new crop of future Hall of Fame fighters alternated holding the trophy while defending it just once. Through a pedigree that has Gryphon, Rashad Evans, Lyoto Machida, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua all holding the championship, this started with Quinton “Rampage” Jackson’s knockout of Chuck Liddell at UFC 71.

Jones was the next.

At age 23, MMA’s future G.O.A.T. destroyed Rua to win the title in 2011 and continued to rule for a total of seven years despite having his medallion taken away a UFC-record three times for failing drug tests and run-ins with the law. Nevertheless, Jones was able to completely dominate a particularly challenging period for the division, with four victories over his two main competitors, Daniel Cormier and Alexander Gustafsson (although the second Cormier victory was converted to a no contest).

Light heavyweights to successfully defend title

Jon Jones 11 2020
Tito Ortiz 5 2002
Chuck Liddell 4 2007
Frank Shamrock 4 1999
Daniel Cormier 3 2018
Jan Blachowicz 1 2021
Quinton Jackson 1 2007
Lyoto Machida 1 2009

This current crop of contenders had a difficult challenge ahead of them in trying to follow Jones quickly, and it was never going to be simple to surpass the drama and pageantry of the previous three light heavyweight eras. Even though the aftermath has had a mix of highs and lows, few could have imagined how weird it would actually be.

One of the highlights, of course, was the perseverance victories of two seasoned boxers, Jan Blachowicz and Glover Teixeira (while Blachowicz added a high-profile championship defence against middleweight king Israel Adesanya). Hill, at the age of 32, was a revelation in and of himself as he quickly advanced from also-ran to breakout champion before suffering an injury. He did this by capitalising on the division’s parity and unrest at the top.

The previous three years have also seen a number of bloody battles, with Teixeira, 43, caught in the centre of both after suffering consecutive losses to Jiri Prochazka and Hill. And for a brief while, there was Prochazka’s sudden rise to prominence. In the course of three fights, he went from being a RIZIN veteran to the UFC champion, and he did so in a manner that was as heedlessly entertaining as was practical at the professional level.

If there was ever a time when things went south, it was right after Prochazka’s spectacular victory over Teixeira at UFC 275, when it was discovered that he had sustained a shoulder injury so bad that he had to forfeit the title right away. That was back in November. When Blachowicz and Magomed Anakalev’s fight for the vacant title ended in a majority draw in December of last year, it presented the division with its worst-case scenario and allowed Hill to rise in the rankings and claim the title one month later.

Hill had surgery this week, and there is still no word on when he will be able to return. And even though former middleweight champion Alex Pereira recently entered the division and will face Blachowicz at UFC 291 the following week, the promotion has not yet explicitly stated whether or not that bout will have title significance.

The fact that, for the first time in many years, it’s reasonable to say the best light heavyweight in the world isn’t currently competing in the Octagon doesn’t help the situation, especially for any company attempting to outdo or compete with UFC in the global MMA landscape. Vadim Nemkov, the 205-pound champion of Bellator MMA, held the title when he fought Prochazka in his ninth professional contest under the RIZIN banner in 2015.

So, would the top light heavyweight in the UFC kindly take the stage? And when precisely can we anticipate learning who that fighter will be?

The UFC needs to make some long overdue internal decisions, just like with the women’s bantamweight and featherweight divisions, whose belts in both remain vacant following the unexpected retirement of two-belt champion Amanda Nunes in June.

The most renowned and distinguished sector of the Octagon is currently going through some very difficult times and is in desperate need of restoration. However, at 205 pounds, it’s difficult to see things becoming any worse than they already are following a run of unprecedented bad luck.