A Beginner’s Guide to UFC Light Heavyweights

Last month, we wrote a beginner’s guide to UFC on the heavyweights. It proved to be a popular introductory article to wrestling fans who were curious about UFC, but wanted to know more.

This month, we continue the series and focus on the most popular weight class of all: the light heavyweights. This division is stacked, with no shortage of talented fighters all vying for the title currently held by Quinton “Rampage” Jackson.

Let’s now take a look and examine UFC’s most exciting division, and we hope you find it useful as more and more wrestling fans give up on pro wrestling and migrate to MMA.

Current Champion: Quinton “Rampage” Jackson

Judging by the juggernaut ratings Jackson drew for his fight against Dan Henderson, many of you are already very familiar with this man.

Rampage Jackson is the current UFC light heavyweight champ, having defeated UFC’s biggest star, Chuck Liddell in May of 2007. To this day, that fight was the most publicized in company history, having received a level of mainstream media coverage in the days prior that the MMA world had never seen before, and likely won’t see for a long time. Liddell was coming off an ESPN magazine cover, and UFC was coming off a Sports Illustrated magazine cover, and the media hype was in full gear.

The show also did extremely well on PPV, though exact numbers cannot be verified. It was either the most successful, or likely, the second most successful (behind Liddell-Ortiz from 12/30/06) PPV in MMA history.

The Liddell fight had a great story behind it. Liddell only suffered three losses in his UFC career: to Jeremy Horn, Randy Couture, and Quinton Jackson. He avenged his losses to Horn and Couture, but never got a chance to fight Jackson (who was with PRIDE, and later, World Fighting Alliance). That loss was in 2003, when UFC was fighting for its life, and 4 years later, UFC was on a major hot streak in the United States. Liddell appeared unbeatable, coming off very strong knockout wins over Couture, Renato Sobral, and Tito Ortiz. He was on a roll, and was about to break out as a major mainstream celebrity.

Jackson became UFC property when UFC purchased his contract as part of the World Fighting Alliance acquisition. His first UFC fight was early in 2007, in which he defeated Marvin Eastman in a very tentative performance. Jackson admitted pre-fight nerves, but after hiring new trainers, came into the Liddell fight in top form. There were question marks on him that night, but he had the win over Liddell going for him, which made fans buy him as the real deal.

The result was rather quick. Chuck went against his trainers’ orders and threw a body blow, leaving his chin wide open, and Jackson seized the opportunity. Liddell was out cold in the first round, making Jackson an instant new star.

With the departure of Randy Couture, and the possible impending retirement of Liddell, Jackson is perhaps the only fighter left in UFC who can become a true breakout star. He’s extremely funny, full of charisma and quotables that leave people in stitches. He’s not even 30 yet, and his ratings success at UFC 75 showed hints of his drawing power down the road.

Speaking of UFC 75, it was the second most watched fight in UFC history, behind Ortiz-Shamrock in October of 2006. The fight aired for free on Spike TV, and went the full 5 rounds as Jackson and Henderson put on a technical masterpiece (dull to casual fans, very competitive to hardcore fans). It was billed as the unification of Jackson’s UFC title and Henderson’s PRIDE title (he holds both the light heavyweight and middleweight titles in PRIDE), but it’s unclear if the titles were actually unified in that fight. Either way, it was an impressive win that displayed the skill sets of both fighters.

It’s unclear whom Jackson will fight next, but expect him to fight in the Spring. As stated above, he has a very good shot at becoming a breakout star. UFC definitely needs one right now.

Chuck Liddell

The biggest star and top draw in UFC is still Chuck Liddell. In 2006, he cemented his position as the top light heavyweight in the country, having made quick work of Renato Sobral, and decisively finishing off both Randy Couture and Tito Ortiz.

This pas Spring, Liddell broke out and became an even bigger star, doing tons of media appearances leading up to the Jackson fight in May. Had he won that fight, he would’ve met Dan Henderson in the unification fight and likely closed out the year as the top fighter in the world at his weight.

But 2007 showed that things hardly ever go as planned. Liddell lost his title in May, and then lost what was supposed to be an easy win over Keith Jardine. He closes out the year with an 0-2 record, with talks of possible retirement.

Most likely, though, Liddell will face PRIDE superstar Wanderlei Silva early in ’08. Dana White has wanted that fight for 5 years, but with high profile losses suffered by both in ’07 (Silva lost his PRIDE title to Henderson in February, shortly before PRIDE closed up shop), the match-up has lost some of its luster. There was talk of this fight happening on 12/27, but with the highly anticipated Hughes-Serra fight headlining that show, UFC wisely made the decision to hold off Liddell-Silva to early ’08.

Another loss by Liddell will badly damage his star power, drawing power, and rankings within the light heavyweight division. He’s closing in on 40, which doesn’t help (it didn’t affect Couture, but Liddell is a partier and Couture is not). A win over Silva would keep him in the game, but he’d need another couple wins before being considered for the dream rematch with Jackson.

Still, with the money Liddell draws, he’ll always be in hot demand by many fight groups, and stands to make the most money in his life these next few years.

Tito Ortiz

The Huntington Beach Bad Boy, the current boyfriend of adult entertainment star Jenna Jameson, still has to be considered one of the top 5 draws in UFC. He dominated the sport at 205-lbs during the dark days of UFC (2001-2005), and then catapulted UFC to profitibility with his fights with Ken Shamrock in 2006 that did incredible business. For 2007, Ortiz is 0-0-1, and it was hardly the follow-up year to last year’s 3-1 record.

Ortiz understands how to draw money, playing the punk heel role to perfection. He had a contract dispute with UFC and came back in 2006 to coach Ultimate Fighter opposite against Ken Shamrock, who has years of name recognition from his early UFC, and later, WWF days. Shamrock was past his prime and not a top caliber fighter, but his drawing power against Ortiz was unparalleled.

The fight did the biggest buyrate up until that time in UFC history. Unfortunately, the fight (and the UFC 61 show in general) was stopped prematurely, leading to a furious audience reaction. It was a total squash, even moreso than experts predicted. Still, the stoppage was undoubtedly premature (not that the end result would’ve changed had it not been stopped).

On the advice of journalist Dave Meltzer, Dana White put the rematch on free TV as a way to give “refunds” back to the PPV buyers who got ripped off. It was the right call, as the rematch drew the largest audience in UFC history and forced advertisers and media folks to take UFC seriously as a brand that could bring in large numbers of young males. Millions of wrestling fans sampled the UFC product that night, and instantly became UFC fans.

The rematch was another squash, as Ortiz did the same thing he did at UFC 61 (take him down, ground and pound). It went a little longer than UFC 61, and was not stopped prematurely. Best of all, millions of fans had just seen this Ortiz guy solidly defeat the legendary Ken Shamrock, thereby setting him up to draw a record PPV audience against Chuck Liddell on 12/30/06.

And draw a record audience they did. Just over 1 million buys (and a lot more viewers than that) were done as Liddell beat Ortiz in an exciting 3-round war. It was a fitting end to UFC’s most successful year.

Ortiz sat out the first half of the year, until headlining a show in Sacramento this year against Ultimate Fighter alumni Rashad Evans. It was a decent fight, ending in a draw. Ortiz looked ok, but not at championship level.

In the months before the fight, UFC ran a special on Spike TV documenting the buildup to a fight between Ortiz and UFC President Dana White. The two were to have an exhibition boxing match, as stated in their contract. Ortiz bowed out, and the Spike special buried him because of it. The special did no favors to Ortiz’ drawing power, which was a huge mistake on Spike and UFC’s part. Ortiz has the charisma that few do, and messing with that in any way was just dumb business. UFC didn’t make many dumb moves in 2007, but that was certainly one of them.

The natural thing to do was rematch Ortiz and Evans. That was the plan for the November show in Jersey, but Ortiz didn’t sign on time, saying he wouldn’t be able to be at 100%. This was a real blow to the card, and UFC was forced to headline with Evans vs. Michael Bisping. Neither are major drawing cards in the U.S., but it’s a good thing it happened, because it will teach UFC not to tamper with Ortiz’ star power. Without Ortiz, suddenly UFC would be out one of their major stars with 15+ major shows to run per year. Throw in the recent resignation of Couture, and the impending retirement of Liddell, and suddenly UFC could be facing losing its key players.

Ortiz should return in ’08, and there is no shortage of fighters ready to face him. We’ll see what happens. 

Forrest Griffin

Forrest, along with Rampage Jackson, are the two main UFC players who have the ability to become major stars and will be expected to carry this weight division for the next 5 years. The two of them will also probably fight each other in 2008, which should be very exciting.

Forrest was introduced to the world on the first season of the Ultimate Fighter. On the show, his personality shined and he became a cult favorite with viewers who liked his humble nature, sense of humor, and every-man persona.  

But aside from that, his major claim to fame is being involved in the greatest fight in the history of mankind. On the Ultimate Fighter Finale show (underneath the Ken Shamrock vs. Rich Franklin main event), Forrest and Stephan Bonnar went to a 3-round war that shocked the world and led to both becoming full-time UFC fighters.

Anyone who saw it will never forget it, and it’s the Hagler-Hearns of this generation. The fight was so awesome and legendary that has its own page on Wikipedia.

Forrest’s star continued to rise after the fight (Bonnar’s did not). A much less exciting rematch between the two followed, but Forrest’s second big break came when he faced Tito Ortiz at UFC’s Anaheim debut in 2006. The fight was awesome (again), and even though Tito’s hand was raised after 3 rounds of heated excitement, many thought Griffin deserved to win. But win or lose, Forrest always turns in a great performance that gets the crowd into it. His “selling” and comebacks are Ricky Steamboat level, except it’s real.  

After the Ortiz loss, Forrest faced Keith Jardine, and got knocked out. It wasn’t a good showing, and Forrest’s crybaby-like reaction after the fight did not endear him to anyone.  

Luckily, he came back strong. He faced and defeated Hector Ramirez later in 2007, and looked good, though the fight was a little on the dull side. Still, it was a confidence booster for him that was badly needed.

Next up was the highly regarded Mauricio “Shogun” Rua from PRIDE. Rua was felt to be perhaps the best in the world at 205, and when the match with Forrest was made, most expected Forrest to take it on the chin. Rua had faced world class competition for years, and Forrest was just some kid from a reality show.

It was thus with pure glee that UFC celebrated Griffin’s surprise win over Rua, shocking the fight community. Forrest, who trains with Team Couture, was in far better cardio shape than Rua, who got injured during training and couldn’t do cardio in the weeks leading up to the fight. It showed, as Rua gassed in the second round, and Forrest took him apart, finally choking him out in round 3. It was another tremendous fight, and even though Rua lost, he did quite a number on Griffin’s face. The crowd was unglued the whole time, as they almost always are for Griffin’s fights. If he can retain his humble, nice-guy-who-kicks-ass personality, he just might be the next Randy Couture in 10 years.

Griffin is a cardio machine and hard trainer, and will be a force to be taken seriously in ’08.

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua

Rua is the latest of the big name PRIDE fighters who came to UFC, was expected to dominate, and lost to someone thought to be nowhere near his level. He enters 2008 with a tarnished reputation, but is still good and young enough to beat anyone in the division at any time.

Rua was one of the best for most of this decade, and probably still is. It’s easy to call him washed up after the Griffin loss, but so many PRIDE guys have met similar fate that there is probably something else going on there (some have said the steroid testing in UFC, which PRIDE never had, has made the PRIDE fighters seem human).

Whatever the reason, do not count Shogun out. His list of victories is impressive, and once he finds his groove, he’s going to make a lot of people’s lives miserable when he gets them in the octagon.

Rua is also newly married, and as anyone reading this who is married knows, your wedding, honeymoon, and first few months of marriage are a major distraction (in a good way). We think Rua simply needs to adjust and re-focus, and once he does, he’s going to be dangerous.

Dan Henderson

Talk about bad timing (or good timing, depending how you look at it), Dan Henderson had the best and worst of times in 2007.

The year started out great, as Dan knocked out Wanderlei Silva at the February PRIDE show and shocked the world. Dan normally fights at 185, so it was even more impressive when he moved up a weight class to defeat the man known as the Axe Murderer. It was a great fight, with a great ending scene as Dan became the first man to hold two belts in two different weight classes at the same time.

Then PRIDE was sold to UFC, and Dan was left with nothing to do.

After months of wondering what to do with PRIDE, UFC decided to just let it die and unify Dan’s light heavyweight belt with Jackson’s belt in a superfight on free TV. At UFC 75, Henderson and Jackson fought for 5 very competitive rounds before an enormous television audience.  No casual fans had ever heard of Henderson, but he put on a good showing.

It’s unknown what 2008 holds for Henderson. UFC wants him at middleweight because that division desperately needs new stars, but Hendo wants to stay at 205. He’s someone to contend with at either weight, but would certainly have better odds at 185. After Anderson Silva and Franch Franklin, the middleweight side is empty and ready for the taking. Henderson would fit in perfectly. We’ll see what happens, but do not count this man out.

Michael Bisping

Bisping, another Ultimate Fighter alumni, is UFC’s top star and biggest draw in the United Kingdom. His next fight is UFC 78 in November, in which he’ll headline for the first time in his career, against Rashad Evans.

Bisping’s first fight in the UK was at UFC 70, where he defeated Elvis Sinosec in the 2nd round of one of the most heated fights of the year. The crowd exploded, and it was a triumphant return to England for UFC.

The follow-up didn’t work quite as well. At UFC 75, he was on the winning end of one of the most controversial fights in UFC history. Bisping went 3 rounds with Matt Hamill, a deaf fighter who also came from the Ultimate Fighter and wasn’t exactly best friends with Bisping. Most people watching it clearly thought Hamill won the fight, but the judges saw it differently. Bisping was announced the winner, which the crowd loved (and didn’t expect), but viewers at home were furious over. In his post-match interviews, Bisping was hardly a genlteman, saying he thought he clearly won the fight and throwing obscenities at reporters. To the American fans, he had become a big-time heel.

But as MMA fans will soon learn (wrestling fans learned this long ago), the outcome of that fight was a win-win situation. Bisping won because, well, he won, and got a chance to headline his own PPV in the USA’s biggest market. Hamill won because he now becomes a huge sympathetic babyface figure to American fans who are demanding a rematch. UFC wins because the rematch will do business.

The rematch will happen in 2008. It would’ve happened sooner, but Hamill was too banged up to do the fight. When it happens, fans will be watching.  I just hope it happens in the USA, because it will turn Hamill into a big star as the babyface who was robbed, and now this is his chance for revenge.

Wanderlei Silva

Our last featured fighter is Wanderlei Silva, the dominant star of PRIDE for the past 5 years. As he was cleaning out the ranks in PRIDE, and Liddell was doing the same in UFC, Dana White wanted to match them up for years. It never happened.

Until now.

Silva now fights for UFC, and with Liddell coming off two straight losses and wanting to redeem himself, it would behoove UFC to make the fight now before either of them loses again. Silva himself is coming off a major loss to Dan Henderson, so both have something to prove. 

The Silva-Liddell megafight will not mean what it would’ve meant a year ago, but it will still mean a lot. A win by Chuck will put him back in title contention. A win by Silva will make him an instant star. Alternatively, a loss by either would certainly not do their careers any favors.

The fight was to happen on 12/29, but UFC felt it would overshadow the Serra-Hughes main event, which is expected to do big numbers following the Ultimate Fighter series. UFC has more big cards to fill and fewer big stars to fill them with, so they made the (right) decision to hold Liddell-Silva off another couple months. While UFC has a lot of new great fighters under contract thanks to the PRIDE purchase, none of those fighters are known enough in the U.S.A. to where they can draw big numbers.

Silva, if he wins, can close out the decade as a big star. He’s got the charisma and talent, and if he fights better than he did in 2007, he’ll be a threat to the title..

So there you have it for the light heavyweights. Next month, we’ll examine the middleweight and welterweight divisions.