By Michael DiSanto
THE NEXT GENERATION
Jon Jones: This kid is the type of athlete that leaves most fighters green with envy. You know the type. He is the guy you grew up with who was good at every sport he played, whether or not he practiced much. Think I’m being a bit hyperbolic? Chew on this for a moment: Jones is a former junior college national champion wrestler who hired his first striking coach prior to his fight with Stephan Bonnar at UFC 94, yet he outclassed the former golden gloves champion on the feet with crisp, straight punches, flashy spinning elbows and solid kicks. Think about that for a moment. Bonnar is one heck of a striker, and he was undressed on the feet by Jones, not to mention getting thrown around in the wrestling realm. At 21 years young, Jones has limitless potential. The only criticism of the undefeated fighter’s UFC career to date is that he appeared to fade a bit in the final round. That raises questions about the effectiveness of his training regimen, something that can be corrected very easily. If Jones continues working hard, then this kid has a scary future, one that could see him competing in the Octagon for the next 10-15 years. A proposed summertime bout with former wrestling standout Jake O’Brien, who recently dropped from heavyweight to light heavy, will be an excellent next step in the career progression of a future superstar.
Ryan Bader: Three-time Pac-10 champion at Arizona State University. Two-time Division I All American. Ryan Bader has a pretty impressive collegiate wrestling pedigree, to say the least. Similar to Jones, he is in the midst of a successful (and undefeated) transition from amateur wrestling to mixed martial arts. Unlike Jones, who still flies quietly under the radar, Bader started his UFC career squarely in the spotlight as the 13th winner of The Ultimate Fighter. The obvious benefit is his new-found UFC celebrity status. But that also creates tremendous pressure for a guy only two months shy of his 26th birthday because he will be under a microscope created by his new-found fame each time he enters the Octagon. Expectations run high and MMA fans can be less than forgiving for guys who fall short of those expectations. Bader has no intention of letting that happen any time soon, particularly after passing the most difficult test of his young career to date earlier this week when he scored a unanimous victory over tough veteran Carmelo Marrero. Bader indicated after the fight that he was less than impressed with his performance. I beg to differ. His transition from takedown to armbar attempt was solid, and even though he was unable to finish the hold, he showed the ability to defend well from his guard--something wrestlers often struggle with early in their careers. But the most important part of the bout was Bader's ability to completely control Marrero throughout the fight. The former wrestling standout remains a very raw fighter, so he needs to keep working hard on his standup, submission skills and especially his transitions. If he is able to improve in those areas, he may very well follow in the successful footsteps of fellow TUF alumni Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Josh Koscheck and Kenny Florian, each of whom have become major forces in their respective divisions.
Steve Cantwell: Former WEC light heavyweight champ Steve Cantwell made an impressive UFC debut last December with a submission win over Razaak Al-Hassan. At UFC 97, he will face fellow top prospect Luiz Cane in a battle to help sort out the pecking order among the division’s future elite. Cantwell is very well rounded, but he has yet to develop truly dominant skills in any category. That isn’t a knock on the Las Vegas native. He is only 22 years old. He has plenty of time to continue evolving as a fighter. But just like his next-generation brethren, he faces the difficult task of honing his skills while competing against the best in the world, similar to a top high school basketball player jumping straight into the NBA rather than spending a few years competing at the collegiate level.
Luiz Cane: Cane is both the oldest and the most experienced of the crew of top prospects. The 27-year-old Brazilian has three trips to the Octagon under his belt. His only career loss came in his UFC debut back in 2007 when he was disqualified for uncorking an illegal knee strike to the head of his downed foe, James Irvin. Cane responded to that bit of adversity in true warrior spirit, knocking out two well-respected, experienced opponents—Jason Lambert and Rameau Sokoudjou. Cane is an aggressive, fearless competitor with an all-out attacking style that thrills crowds. If he continues racking up big wins, it won’t be long before we see him in a marquee matchup. But first things first: he must defeat Cantwell on April 18 if he wants to continue his meteoric rise in the division.
Keith Jardine: How different would life be for Keith Jardine had he shimmied instead of shammed during the final seconds of his recent bout against Quinton “Rampage” Jackson? Many observers believe that he was winning that fight until Jackson dropped him with a two-punch combination a blink before the final horn sounded. Critics will point to his three losses over his last six fights to suggest that Jardine lacks that certain something that makes a fighter great. Proponents will highlight his wins over former champions Forrest Griffin and Chuck Liddell, as well as the ultra-close bout with Jackson as evidence that he can compete with the best that the UFC has to offer. Whether you are a critic, proponent or fall somewhere in the middle, it is tough to argue with the fact that Jardine is one of the most difficult tests in the division. Jardine’s willingness to mix it up with anyone, anytime, anywhere keeps him relevant in the division.
Stephan Bonnar: Suffice to say, Stephan Bonnar has yet to find his groove as a bona fide contender in the UFC’s glamour division. He is better than his 5-4 UFC mark suggests, as three of those losses came in very close contests against reigning champion Rashad Evans and former champion Forrest Griffin. But his most recent loss was a thorough lashing at the hands of red-hot prospect Jon Jones. Bonnar needs to rebound from that loss with an impressive outing in his next fight if he wants to remain relevant in the division.
Matt Hamill: I’ll be the first to admit it: When I first saw Matt Hamill compete on TUF, I thought he was a one-dimensional wrestler who would quickly be exposed as such when he stepped up against legitimate A-list competition. Actually, I’ll take it one step farther. I thought Hamill would be a lay-and-pray specialist who was a yawner to watch. Whoops. Hamill, much like fellow TUF alumnus Bader, uses his wrestling to keep the fight on the feet so that he can throw hands. The results speak for themselves: Eight trips to the Octagon with six wins and five of those wins ended with strikes. His last fight, a jaw-dropping knockout win over Mark Munoz at UFC 94, was the most impressive effort of his career. And he won with a high kick, of all things. What wrestler knocks out guys with perfectly placed high kicks? Hamill is an outstanding athlete who is just starting to develop as a fighter. But for his 32 years on the earth, he would sit squarely among the top prospects. Nevertheless, Hamill is progressing at an impressive pace, so it isn’t inconceivable that he could eventually rank among the legitimate contenders in the next 18 to 24 months. A loss to Rich Franklin in late 2008 shows that he isn’t to that level yet, but back-to-back knockout wins show that he is on the right path.
HOME RUN HITTER OR GATEKEEPER?
Houston Alexander: Talk about impressive debuts. Houston Alexander’s first trip to the Octagon was nothing short of timeless. Facing Jardine, Alexander suffered a concussive blow in the opening seconds. He responded by planting his feet and unleashing a fistic attack that resembled a young Mike Tyson. Jardine quickly found himself at the wrong end of a spectacular 48-second knockout. And Alexander found himself as the new darling of the division. Following up that win with a second first-round knockout win, this time over former pro boxer Alessio Sakara, further fueled the Alexander hype machine. But his success was short lived, as he suffered losses in his next three fights, each of them in the first round. Three straight losses would be enough to end, at least temporarily, the UFC career for most newcomers. But Alexander isn’t just another UFC fighter. His penchant for putting on fights with spectacular, decisive endings makes him a fan favorite whether he wins or loses. Being a fan favorite is great. Having the sort of power that keeps you one punch away from beating anyone in the world is even better. Nevertheless, if Alexander wants to be considered a true competitor rather than a gatekeeper, he needs to start racking up wins, and he needs to start racking them up now. He will have the opportunity to do just that in a few weeks at UFC 98 when he squares off with Andre Gusmao.
Mark Coleman: Midway through his fifth decade of life, Mark “The Hammer” Coleman has seen it all in MMA. He is the former UFC Heavyweight Champion. He is the former PRIDE Open Weight Grand Prix Champion. He is the undisputed Godfather of Ground and Pound. And he is a well-deserving inductee into the UFC Hall of Fame. Now, in the twilight of his illustrious career, he is an active member of the UFC light heavyweight division. Coleman’s return to the UFC came at a price, however. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua made sure that he received a rude welcome by handing him a knockout loss a decade after Coleman last competed inside the Octagon. Is he still a force to be reckoned with, or is he competing for a few more paychecks? His next bout may answer that question. Until then, Coleman remains one of the division’s most famous unknowns.
THE REST OF THE PACK
Light heavy isn’t the UFC’s glamour division for nothing. It is replete with talented fighters. Our two-part survey is already 4,200 words into the division’s landscape, and we haven’t yet mentioned Tim Boetsch, Krzysztof Soszynski, Brian Stann, Jason Brilz, Tomasz Drwal or Eliot Marshall. Each of those guys is a tough character capable of dominating in lesser organizations. It remains to be seen whether they can make true name for themselves the world’s premier MMA promotion. Boetsch seemed like the best candidate to firmly entrench himself among the mainstays, but a 2-2 Octagon record raises doubts about his prospects. Maybe Brilz, the man who recently defeated Boetsch, has taken his place. Maybe Brian Stann, a former WEC champion, is best positioned to succeed. What about former heavyweight Jake O’Brien? Talented guys like Andre Gusmao, Carmelo Marrero or Vinicius Magalhaes? It’s impossible to say at this point, but the next time we survey the division, I would not be the least bit surprised to see one or more of those names replace one of the guys examined in this survey.
Land of the Light Heavies - Part II
Michael DiSanto, UFC - The 205-pound weight class is home to some of the UFC's biggest names. But what of the light heavyweight division's rising stars and contenders? Click below for Part II of the divisional breakdown.