Tuesday, August 8, 2017

Greatest Light Heavyweights in MMA History

By Brad Oremland

The weekend before last, July 29, 2017, Jon Jones regained the UFC's Light Heavyweight title from Daniel Cormier. With about 1:15 remaining in the second round, announcer Joe Rogan asserted, "These are easily the two best light heavyweights of all time."

Jones certainly is the greatest light heavyweight in the history of mixed martial arts. Three years ago, I argued that Jones deserved consideration as the greatest mixed martial artist of all-time, in any weight class. He's 3-0 since then, including two decisive wins over Cormier.

But is Cormier "easily" one of "the two best light heavyweights of all time?" Cormier is 6-2 at light heavyweight. That's a good record, especially for someone consistently fighting top-level competition. The two losses aren't especially damning, because no one has beaten Jon Jones, and Cormier has some quality wins, including Anthony Johnson and Alexander Gustafsson. His other three wins at 205 came against Patrick Cummins, Dan Henderson, and a washed-up Anderson Silva. Cormier defeated Johnson in 2015 to win the vacant UFC Light Heavyweight Championship, and defended the belt against both Gus and Rumble.

That's an impressive record. But Chuck Liddell defended the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship four times — against Jeremy Horn, Randy Couture, Renato Sobral, and Tito Ortiz — without needing the real best LHW to get suspended. Liddell beat Couture, Ortiz, and Babalu twice each. He beat Vitor Belfort, Alistair Overeem, Kevin Randleman, and Wanderlei Silva. Cormier doesn't nearly have that kind of record at 205.

If you include Cormier's heavyweight record, that adds wins over Antonio Silva, Josh Barnett, Frank Mir, and Roy Nelson. I'd still take Chuck. Other than Henderson — who was 43 and weighed in under 200 pounds — Cormier hasn't beaten anyone with the stature of Couture, Ortiz, or Wanderlei. Liddell won 21 fights as a light heavyweight; Cormier has won six. And Cormier is a grinder more than a finisher. His striking power doesn't scare anyone and his only submission move is the rear naked choke. As far as MMA has come in the last decade, if you could put 2005 Chuck Liddell in a time machine and have him fight 2017 DC, I'd bet on Liddell. From 2004-06, the Iceman won seven fights in a row by knockout or TKO, against a who's-who of the light heavyweight division.

The only comparable run was Wanderlei Silva from August 2000 to December 2004. During that period, the Axe Murderer went 16-0 with one no contest (and a draw against heavyweight legend Mirko Cro Cop). 14 of those 16 wins came by knockout or TKO, and he logged wins over Dan Henderson, Rampage Jackson (twice), and Kazushi Sakuraba (three times). When Wanderlei finally lost on New Year's Eve of '04, it was a split decision against a top heavyweight, Mark Hunt. Silva wouldn't lose to someone in his own weight class for another 2½ years.

Tito successfully defended the Light Heavyweight Championship five times in a row. His record includes wins over Wanderlei, Guy Mezger, Evan Tanner, and Ryan Bader. Ortiz TKO-ed Ken Shamrock three times, including in 2002, when Shamrock was still a top fighter. Tito beat Vitor Belfort and Forrest Griffin, albeit by split decision. If his record isn't as imposing as Liddell's or Silva's, it still compares favorably to Cormier's. Tito was a top-10 light heavyweight for a decade; Cormier has been a top-10 light heavyweight for three years. Tito has wins over three UFC light heavyweight champions; Cormier hasn't beaten any.

Now, perhaps Rogan felt that Cormier was really a light heavyweight even when he fought as a heavyweight. Certainly that would be grounds for re-examining his record. Even Wanderlei struggled when he faced top-10 heavyweights. Cormier won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, then came to the UFC and beat Frank Mir and Roy Nelson — those are really impressive accomplishments for a guy who probably could have made 205.

But if that's how we're looking at Cormier's career, how on earth would you rank him ahead of Randy Couture? The Natural's résumé includes wins over UFC champions Vitor Belfort, Kevin Randleman, Pedro Rizzo, Chuck Liddell, Tito Ortiz, and Tim Sylvia. Couture won the UFC 13 Heavyweight Tournament, six UFC Heavyweight title fights, and three Light Heavyweight title fights, and he did it all without topping 230 pounds. If Cormier beats Stipe Miocic, defends the belt a couple times, and eventually overcomes Bones Jones, then he's in the same discussion as Randy.

I'm not trying to disrespect DC. He's the second-best light heavyweight on the planet. He's beaten a lot of good fighters, and a few great ones. But the notion that he's the second-best light heavyweight of all time is ill-founded, and the assertion that he "easily" deserves that title can be dismissed out of hand: it's not credible. Rogan is paid by the UFC, so it's understandable that he hypes the guys that still do pay-per-views. The UFC makes a lot more money these days from D.C. than it does from Couture and Liddell. And it's possible Joe just got caught up in the moment — Cormier was winning that fight before Jones caught him — and said something silly. We all do that sort of thing once in a while.

That said, ranking Cormier together with Jon Jones as "easily the two best light heavyweights of all time" is absurd. Right now Cormier wouldn't make my top five LHW in history, maybe not even the top 10. He's still a top fighter and he might get there eventually, but I don't think it's at all obvious that Cormier is ahead of former champions like Dan Henderson, Shogun Rua, Lyoto Machida, or Vitor Belfort, to say nothing of guys like Chuck and Randy, or Tito and Wanderlei. There's a reasonable argument to be made for any of those four as the second-best light heavyweight of all time. I wouldn't want to argue against any of them, except maybe Tito, but if I had to name the one LHW in history who comes closest to Jon Jones, I'd go with Chuck Liddell. Maybe you prefer someone else, and that's fine — but Cormier isn't there yet.

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