With his submission of Volkan Oezdemir, Anthony “Lionheart” Smith called for a title shot. Oezdemir was in his athletic prime and coming off a scrappy loss to dominant champion Daniel Cormier. On the other hand, Smith was an ex-middleweight whose only wins in the division came against creaky champions from years past. So weathering and then finishing Oezdemir should justify the call out.
But analysts and pundits shrug, and rightly so. The light heavyweight division has a balance issue and has for some time.
Old glory days
Not too long ago, people could tell you that the light heavyweight division was the best in the world with a straight face.
Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture drew fans with their magnetic star power and the division formed around them. Tito Ortiz played the role of cartoon villain, but he was just a notch or two below them in skill. Ken Shamrock and Renato Sobral’s “primes” may be greeted with a shrug now, but they were legitimate contenders back in the day. Rampage Jackson’s incredible knockout victory signaled the changing of the guard to an even more talented bunch.
The inaugural TUF winner Forrest Griffin led the charge, taking the belt from Jackson in a superb if controversial fight. Another TUF winner, the boxer-wrestler Rashad Evans, spectacularly KO’d Chuck Liddell and then took the belt from Griffin. He lost to the defensive karate specialist Lyoto Machida who, in turn, was knocked out by PRIDE FC superstar Shogun Rua. It genuinely looked like a golden era… brought to an end by one man.
The Jon Jones problem
On the one hand, dominance is a boon to marketability. Michael Jordan, Wayne Gretzky, Tiger Woods, etc. all had intangibles that were built on a foundation of shredding the competition. MMA stars whose names don’t end in “-cGregor” build their brand on objective supremacy. There’s a reason Metro PCS features the likes of Daniel Cormier, Dominick Cruz, and Demetrious Johnson. Sage Northcutt is the outlier in the Metro PCS situation, but I digress.
But what if your champion is polarizing for the wrong reasons?
Jon Jones is the greatest athlete to ever fight in MMA, and I don’t say that lightly. Except for a controversial decision against Gustafsson, no one has come close to beating him. During his tenure as champion, the rest of the division flexed for the silver medal. It takes someone truly special to render champions like Liddell and Couture irrelevant in the light heavyweight GOAT conversation.
But there IS that fight against Gustafsson, in which the crafty Swede took three out of the five rounds but still lost. And there are the run-ins with the law and his laughable gesture of pretending to acknowledge his drug use. Then there was the actual dirty drug test after his highlight reel knockout of Daniel Cormier. And the fact that he’s the Halley’s Comet of the light heavyweight division, his rare sightings are something to be celebrated.
He isn’t absent enough for fans or fighters to forget about him, but he is absent enough take the luster off the division. Who cares about talented contenders fighting for the belt when the most dominant champion in that division’s history is standing in the periphery.
And now that those contenders and ex-champions have left, the division is in even worse shape.
The great light heavyweight extinction
The era of Shogun, Machida, Evans, and Rampage is undoubtedly the pinnacle of light heavyweight depth. Their slide from elite status coincided with the rise of Gustafsson, Cormier, and Anthony Johnson.
Who is left?
Wars of years past destroyed Shogun, Machida, and Evans. Rampage is “fighting” as a “heavyweight” at Bellator. Cormier went on to become the UFC’s first legitimate double-weight class champion. Johnson has retired to get into the marijuana business.
Who has filled their shoes? Oezdemir is a good fighter, but he isn’t close to the caliber of Gus. In return, Gus is a notch below Jones. After that, it’s a gaping chasm of contenders who can make the highlight reel but can’t pose a threat to the best of the division.
Is Anthony Smith elite?
And that brings us back to “Lionheart.”
He showed grit, determination, and an ability to change his game plan when he was getting shellacked. Even moving up a weight class, he is incredibly strong and quick. But how many people think coming back against Oezdemir makes him ready for Gustafsson?
Gus may be 3-3 in his last six fights, but those losses came to the division’s elite. He made a tremendous scrap of both his Jones and Cormier losses, while Johnson demonstrated why you don’t circle in the same direction with a head kick.
And remember, it likely won’t be Gustafsson. Jones may be irresponsible and cocky, but he’s not stupid. The tricks Gus used to piece him up in the first fight will not be effective the second time around.
But who else have we got? No one.
And so Anthony Smith definitely deserves a title shot. But he isn’t ready for it, and I don’t think anyone in the division will be.