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Why The Light Heavyweight Division Is No Longer King

Author : Brad Taschuk

Friday, 31 July 2009 14:12

Seemingly since the beginning of MMA time, the Light Heavyweight division (more specifically, the UFC LHW division) has been the marquee division in the sport.  Sure, there were certain times when other divisions may have briefly held the title – for instance when PRIDE was putting on their GPs, they stole the spotlight for a period of time – but in the end the MMA universe always seemed to gravitate towards the UFC’s LHW division, especially when it came to gauging the popularity of the sport and/or creating a big matchup.  However, when we look at the LHW division today, the zest that the division once possessed is now gone.  While some big fights still exist at 205, for the most part the mantle and mystique of MMA’s uber division seems to have faded significantly.  I think it is worth a deeper examination of why exactly this has happened.

Before we look at why the 205 division is no longer the powerhouse it once was, we should probably examine how it got to that point in the first place.  That would probably start with a man named Frank Shamrock, who became the first truly dominant champion in the UFC, back when weight classes consisted of only 170, 200, and Heavyweight divisions.  Frank ruled over the then Middleweight division to the point where after winning 4 title bouts in less than a 12 month period, he took almost a year off from the UFC waiting for the next contender to emerge.  That contender is now one of the most well known mixed martial artists on the planet, Tito Ortiz.  Due to the nature of the sport at the time, the September 1999 bout between Shamrock and Ortiz was truly the first time a dominant champion had met a worthy challenger that had risen through the ranks of his division.  It was the biggest and most anticipated UFC match up until that point, and it happened in what is now the LHW division, setting the tone for the future.

Afterwards, the 26 year-old Shamrock felt he had nothing left to prove in the UFC, and retired, leaving the division without a champion.  Tito Ortiz quickly filled the role of dominant, charismatic champion and ran with it.  Tito became the face of the UFC and carried the organization through some of its darkest days.  Since the return of the UFC to Pay-Per-View broadcasting at UFC 33, the organization had struggled to garner the attention of viewers.  However, things began to turn around for the UFC when the next great LHW match was put together.  In November 2002, at UFC 40, Ortiz was matched up with one of the original legends of the sport, Ken Shamrock, who was fresh off a Professional Wrestling career.  This card drew 150,000 PPV buys, which was the most the UFC had seen since UFC 5 (Royce Gracie vs. Ken Shamrock 2), which created 260,000 buys.  UFC 40 was a sign of the potential of MMA as a marketable, profitable sport, and once again the LHW division had provided the vehicle.  Tito was also involved in some other matches (with Randy Couture and Chuck Liddell) shortly thereafter which both came in around 100,000 buys.

As we are all aware, MMA really began its popularity explosion as a result of the Ultimate Fighter TV show, but once again the LHW division was leading the charge.  Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar, who were the first mixed martial artists to really capture the attention of the general public with their fight on the finale of the Ultimate Fighter, were Light Heavyweights.  Their coaches, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture, who immediately became two of the biggest stars in the sport, were also Light Heavyweights.  The second fight between Liddell and Couture, at UFC 52 – which was the first card following TUF – drew a then record 280,000 buys.  The third match between the two – which also came off the heels of a season of TUF – created another new record of 400,000 buys.  At this point, the UFC’s LHW division had created 3 distinct stars in Ortiz, Liddell and Couture, and was far and away the most recognized division in the sport.

However, things didn’t even stop there.  Merely ten months after the UFC had set a new record for PPV buys with Liddell/Couture 3, the organization hit an enormous milestone when the rematch between Liddell and Ortiz broke the 1 million PPV buy mark.  The popularity of the UFC’s LHW division was unrivaled from a dollars and cents point of view.  At the same time, the 205 division in PRIDE (called the Middleweight division) was also the marquee division in that organization.  While PRIDE never approached the PPV numbers that the UFC did, proportionately it was far more popular in Japan than the UFC was in North America.  A fighter like Wanderlei Silva was like a rock star over in Japan, and was involved in just as many interesting and compelling fights as the ones which broke all of the UFC’s PPV records, and the PRIDE 205 division was seen at least as an equal of the UFC’s division.  People will argue until they are blue in the face about PRIDE and UFC to this day, but the simple fact that both organizations had the 205lb division as their flagship division speaks to how deep and talented that weight class really was across the entire sport.

Right around the time PRIDE was purchased by the UFC, things began to go awry for the LHW division.  Randy Couture – who had retired after UFC 57 – returned, but to the HW division, taking one of the biggest stars of 205 out of the mix.  At PRIDE’s second last show, Wanderlei Silva suffered a KO defeat that saw him relinquish the Middleweight Championship which he had held for approximately six years.  Three months later Chuck Liddell was knocked out by Quinton Jackson, a star in his own right, but nowhere near the level of the Iceman.  During this time, Tito Ortiz – who has had problems with the UFC management for years – has fought only twice since his record breaking performance with Liddell.  Clearly, the star power that separated the 205ers from the rest of the MMA world was starting to wane.

The examples of Silva and Liddell – as well as the majority of the LHW division today – also bring up another point, that I’d be remised if I did not mention.  That is the disproportionate amount of strikers (or those who fancy themselves as strikers) at 205 pounds.  When compared with the other aspects of MMA, striking carries with it the greatest amount of uncertainty and variance.  While I don’t want to examine that point too thoroughly at the moment, I shall suffice it to say that in this sport, at some point nearly every striker gets caught, no matter how good they are, and in a division where nearly everyone is playing the role of striker, it makes it difficult for fighters to get to the top and remain there.

Dana White always talks about how people see the brand of the UFC, and not the individual fighters, but when looking back at the numbers, it certainly seems like the name behind a fighter makes a significant difference.  For a long time, the LHW division was the only division in MMA that was able to create big stars, and that played a huge role in its place at the forefront of MMA.  In fact, when you look at the history of the UFC since Zuffa took the reigns, there really was only one long-term star outside of the LHW division, and that was Welterweight Matt Hughes, who held the UFC’s PPV record for a whopping one event, which marked the only time until UFC 100, where a non-LHW headline fight held the PPV record for the company.  So, once those stars began to dim the prominence of the LHW division began to abate as well.

The PRIDE acquisition was supposed to help answer the questions of who the best mixed martial artist in the world was at each division.  For years, the most anticipated fight in the sport’s grandest division was Chuck Liddell vs. Wanderlei Silva, and with the merger, this fight was supposed to be made into reality.  In the end, the fight was made, and it was a huge fight, possibly even the last huge fight in the LHW division, but due to the circumstances surrounding Liddell and Silva’s recent losses, the fight had a mere fraction of the lustre it could have had.  Instead, the fight to determine the best LHW on the planet was Quinton Jackson vs. Dan Henderson, and it was deemed so unmarketable by the UFC that it was put on free TV.

So the marketability of the division has certainly decreased, but how is the depth of the division?  Light Heavyweight used to have numerous fighters, in fact nearly the entire top 10 at some points, who on any given day could beat or be considered the number one fighter in the world.  It was part of the appeal of the division that there were so many elite fighters, and they were always matched up with one another.  Looking at the picture in the division these days, you get a much different feel.  Champion Lyoto Machida is the clear number one LHW, and after him there are maybe three fighters who pose a legitimate threat to his spot.  Does anyone really look awestruck and mouth agape at a division where Keith Jardine, Thiago Silva and Luis Cane make up the bottom of the top ten rankings?  The LHW division simply cannot compare with divisions stacked with rising talent, like the Lightweight and Featherweight divisions.  Even the much maligned Middleweight division and the running joke of MMA which is the Heavyweight division appear to be at least equally as deep as Light Heavyweight right now.

Finally, since the UFC’s explosion in popularity, more and more stars have emerged, and increasingly these stars are not in the LHW division, as they are marketable personalities in their own right.  Fighters like Brock Lesnar and Georges St. Pierre have surpassed some of the old guard as the UFC’s newest, most recognizable faces.  With the biggest stars of the 205 division clearly aging, and not the draws they once were, the division is in a transition period in terms of both depth and marketability right now, and is not occupying the top spot in the world of MMA for the first time in about ten years.  The 205 division has had an amazing ride, especially over the past 6-7 years in carrying the sport of MMA, but now it is time to move on and realize that while it was once the king, things are meant to change.