mma / Columns

Cormier’s “Shogun” Callout Highlights Light Heavyweight’s Weakness

July 16, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Daniel Cormier UFC

Mauricio “Shogun” Rua’s name was in the news last week for a strange reason. It was only tangentially related to Rua’s upcoming bout this Sunday against Anthony Smith. In an interview with Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show, UFC light heavyweight (and heavyweight) champion Daniel Cormier declared that if Shogun wins on Sunday, that’s who he wants to face next. Not Alexander Gustafsson, the top active contender at light heavyweight, nor Brock Lesnar, who can’t fight until January, but Shogun. Shogun, whose last great win was eight years ago.

It sounds ridiculous because it is—even if Shogun defeats Smith impressively on Sunday, the odds are against him squaring off against Cormier for the light heavyweight crown. However, the fact that this idea was even floated by Cormier, whether he was being completely serious or not, speaks to the sorry state of MMA’s light heavyweight division.

From at least November 3, 2001—when Wanderlei Silva vs. Kazushi Sakuraba sold out the Tokyo Dome in the biggest fight MMA had seen to that point—until Brock Lesnar took the heavyweight division by storm in 2008, the light heavyweight division was the sport’s marquee weight class. It was the loaded weight class in which Pride’s two most notable Grand Prixes were held. Both before and in the few years after The Ultimate Fighter debuted, it was the division that housed the UFC’s biggest stars (Chuck Liddell, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, and Ken Shamrock were the key figures).

Once, Shogun Rua was the future of the division. He was a dynamo, destructive beyond his years. At age 23, he took out Quinton Jackson, Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, and Ricardo Arona in a period of fourth months and five days. It was like facing a firing squad and coming out on top. This was a talent-rich division featuring established top fighters (Wanderlei Silva, Quinton Jackson, Randy Couture, Tito Ortiz, and Chuck Liddell), a deep second-tier (Ricardo Arona, Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem, Vitor Belfort, Dan Henderson), and tough veterans on the way down like Igor Vovchanchyn and Kevin Randleman. This was the crop of fighters that, amazingly, Shogun topped in 2005, when several outlets ranked him as the division’s best fighter.

Years later, it was the sturdy legacy of the light heavyweight division that allowed Jon Jones to build his own legacy right on top of it. From 2011 to 2012, Jones dispatched five fighters in a row that had held the UFC light heavyweight championship. By the fifth one, there was no question of Jones’s status as the best light heavyweight in the sport’s history, because he was able to forge his reputation by beating fighters that had reach the top of what had been MMA’s most famous division. Compare him to Demetrious Johnson, who still struggles to find an audience after six years of dominating a division with no prior history at a major level.

Today, it would be tough for a Shogun or a Jones to earn the same respect by taking over the light heavyweight division because it has shallowed so drastically. With the exception of its top three fighters, the light heavyweight division hasn’t been weaker since its earliest days in 1997. There is a wide gap between those top three fighters—Daniel Cormier, Jon Jones, and Alexander Gustafsson—and the rest of the division. Furthermore, the division has gotten older. Only four of the UFC’s top sixteen (seventeen if you count Jon Jones) light heavyweights are under 30. In the Pride Middleweight Grand Prix field that Shogun bested in 2005, ten of sixteen competitors (including each of the final four fighters) were under 30 when the tournament began.

Of those top three current light heavyweight fighters, if Cormier sticks to his retirement date in March 2018, he has at best one light heavyweight bout remaining before he calls it quits. Jones’s status is still unknown. He could be out of action for the next three years, or he could be back before the end of the year, depending on his USADA sanction. When he does come back though, his search for lucrative fights might lead him up to the heavyweight division. Only Gustafsson, 31, appears to be in it for the long haul.

Below them, the most exciting prospect might be Dominick Reyes, the unbeaten 28-year-old that has finished all but one of his opponents, but still has a lot to prove. Corey Anderson and Misha Cirkunov can still turn into something, but they need to take the next step. Tyson Pedro needs to clear up holes in his ground game, and Gadzhimurad Antigulov needs to prove himself against the division’s better fighters.

The UFC’s strongest second-tier light heavyweights, Ryan Bader and Phil Davis, left the promotion for Bellator.

This lack of depth is what enabled Cormier to move up to challenge for the heavyweight championship in the first place. It’s also the thing allowing Cormier to bring up Shogun’s name as a potential title challenger. Cormier has already beaten the only legitimate title challenger, Gustafsson, and Gustafsson still needs to beat Volkan Oezdemir in August.

At 36, Shogun is three years younger than Cormier, but has far more fight mileage on him, and hasn’t been the same following an unfortunate series of knee injuries between 2007 and 2010. He has fought sparingly of late, just once in each of the past three years, but won all three of those bouts. That ties him for the longest win streak among the top ten light heavyweight contenders, and warrants having his name in the title shot discussion.

However, Shogun is only in the discussion because of the weak state of UFC’s light heavyweight division. When viewed from the perspective that Cormier’s final fights should be against viable opposition—granting him the Brock Lesnar money match he’s more than earned—it’s tough to give the spot to Shogun, no matter Sunday’s outcome.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.