The State of Competition in Divisions with Dominant Champions
Every once in a while such a dominant champion comes around that everyone else in the division just looks childish. I should amend that statement, because it seems pretty common. With Ronda Rousey, Renan Barao, Jose Aldo, George St. Pierre, Anderson Silva, and Jon Jones all experiencing very little adversity in their respective careers, one might think the dominant champion is a theme that will always dominates the MMA landscape. All of the aforementioned fighters have, with very few exceptions, convincingly defeated all comers for a long time in their respective divisions, which gives an impression of “another level.” This is a coveted position, one defined by being leagues ahead of your potential and actual opponents. This perception in turn leads me to my subject of choice: the level of competition among the rest of the field.
In particular, I’d like to discuss the light heavyweight division, which is full of yesterday’s standouts and a few up and comers. Whereas a champ like Jose Aldo has a tendency to fade in the latter rounds of a championship fight, and George St. Pierre has to rely on his wrestling to grind out increasingly boring decisions, Jon Jones has made every single one of his opponents look bad. Even the one loss on his record comes from illegal elbows brutalizing Matt Hamill. No other fighter has been as consistently dominant as Jones to date. Even Anderson Silva ran into some major adversity in his bout with Chael Sonnen.
The top end of the light heavyweight division is filled with superstars: Shogun, Machida, Evans, Jackson, Henderson, and to a lesser extent (yet of near equivalent notoriety), Sonnen, Gustafsson, Mousasi, Griffin, Texeira, and Davis. Jonny Bones has either already handily dispatched, or is likely to handily dispatch, all of these names in short order. He holds convincing victories over the first four on that list, as well as a few others of lesser standing (but still notable in their own way). Names such as Ryan Bader, Stephan Bonnar, Matt Hamill, and Vladimir Matyushenko. His ascendency has been nothing short of miraculous, as he’s not only dominated, but in most cases dominantly finished these opponents, who by all rights aren’t exactly pushovers.
To what do we owe this tyrannically unstoppable reign of fiery death amongst 205 pounders? Obviously there’s the matter of Jones’ unbridled athleticism and uniquely suited physique. At 6’4 with an 84″ reach, it’s hard to debate that the length and effective use of range isn’t a major part of Jones’ success. Not only that, but he also possesses immense physical strength for such a lanky frame. He easily controls high level wrestlers on the ground and against the cage, a la Bader, Hamill, and Matyushenko. This tranquil, almost lackadaisical, regulation of the grappling game showcases that “next level” strength and athleticism which no one has yet been able to capably counter. That’s why it’ll be very interesting to see how he fares against Chael Sonnen, who is undoubtedly the most accomplished and aggressive grappler Jones will have faced to date.
I fully expect him to dominate that match as well, but I think it will be very exciting to see how he will stuff the American Gangster’s takedowns, and if he can’t, how he’ll create scrambles to avoid being smothered.
The only spots of trouble Jones has been involved in thus far in his career, are against Lyoto Machida in the first round of their outing, and in a near submission against Vitor Belfort. These two crafty Brazilian veterans are the only ones who’ve been able to even present the idea of adversity to Jones; which leads me to an important point: Jones is younger than all of his competition. Jones is arguably still peaking in his physical and technical prowess. At the still-ripening age of 25 years, he hasn’t stopped growing yet, hasn’t finished polishing his striking, and his grappling/submission games will likely improve as well. His opposition on the other hand, is largely on the downslope of their respective careers.
Let’s examine some of the past and present top light heavies who either had or will have legitimate shots at the belt, shall we?
I refuse to talk about Rashad Evans until he redeems himself for the Nogeira fiasco.
So who’s left? Where is a legitimate challenger? Davis and Gustafsson are on the horizon, but everything they do well, is something that Jones does demonstrably better. Not only that, but he’s younger than both of them. They both would need to train in some kind of anime time compression chamber to reach Jones in just one of the many aspects that he outpaces them in. And even if you do give them a year’s worth of high intensity training at 10x Earth’s gravity, they’re still going to have shorter reaches.
The point I’m trying to make here is that even though Jones is truly the best light heavyweight in the world, considering the fact that all of his most credible opponents are in their decline, this may not be as impressive as it sounds. Of the new breed, Jones is certainly a stand out, but I wonder how he’d do against these guys in their primes, Shogun especially. If the Shogun that stomped the Pride Grand Prix back in 05 ever made it to the UFC…well, it’s always fun to play with hypotheticals.
I’m not questioning the caliber of these athletes. They are most assuredly the best of their time period, but that period is rapidly ending, and field is becoming rather narrow in both light heavyweight and middleweight. But the dominance of both Jon Jones and Anderson Silva begs the question – what kind of competition are they really up against? With Silva having consistently and convincingly cleared the field at middleweight with his superior striking and cage control, combined with the fact that so many of the recent middleweight contenders keep coming off of fluky performances, it makes it seem like the level of competition simply isn’t as high as in the lower weights.
GSP has been dominant at welterweight for a while, but with how close he was to going out against Condit, and the extremely impressive performances that the top ten in that weight class have been putting out, there’s a very real sense of uncertainty to his continued supremacy. Welterweight, lightweight, and featherweight all shape up to be a gang of ravenous wolves at the top. Every one of the top 10 in these weight classes seem like they have a decent shot of putting together a successful title contention, and the top 5 in each look as if they could actually capture gold.
Rory McDonald, Chan Sung Jung, Ricardo Lamas, Johnny Hendricks, Carlos Condit, Gray Maynard, Gilbert Melendez, Frankie Edgar, Anthony F*****G Pettis. Which of these names doesn’t seem like they couldn’t potentially be champion? It’s a shark tank down in these weights, where one mistake means the champ turns to chum in a hurry.
From middleweight up, there is a much clearer pecking order. In middleweight itself, I see that as especially being the case, and at light heavyweight, I expect that scenario to become much clearer as the aging fighters continue to decline, while the up and comers continue to be three steps behind Jon Jones. Until he pops up to heavyweight (hopefully putting on some weight below his waist in the process, I’d hate to see his legs snap into pieces against a leg kick with 240+ lbs. behind it), don’t expect Jones to face anything but less-than-sincere threats to his throne.