The light heavyweight division is both the UFC's most talented weight class and -- right now anyway -- its most frustrating. There are so many good fights that can be made, but the championship belt is tied up because the champion, Shogun Rua, is recovering from knee surgery.
It's been almost a year and a half since anyone other than Shogun and Lyoto Machida has fought for the light heavyweight title, and it'll probably be another six months or so until we see Shogun defend his title again. So as we look at the light heavyweight division, we're looking at a division with a wealth of contenders but a shortage of title fights.
Next title fight:
Shogun Rua vs. Rashad Evans: Evans earned another shot at the light heavyweight title by defeating Rampage Jackson in May, but he can't fight for the title until the champion is ready, which means Evans is going to be sidelined as long as Shogun is. This will be a good fight -- Evans' wrestling could give Shogun lots of problems -- but there's no word on when the fight is going to happen.
Key fights to watch:
1. Rampage Jackson vs. Lyoto Machida, UFC 123, November 20: The winner of the main event at UFC 123 will clearly establish himself as next in line in the light heavyweight division, after Evans and Shogun. Based on timing, however, the Jackson-Machida winner will likely have to win at least one more fight after UFC 123 before fighting for a belt.
2. Jon Jones vs. Ryan Bader, UFC 126, February 5: In the battle for the title of Best Young Light Heavyweight, I expect Jones to win and demonstrate that he deserves a title shot sooner rather than later. He should be in the mix by the end of the year, or early 2012.
Others in the title mix: Forrest Griffin is expected to fight Rich Franklin at UFC 126, and the winner would firmly establish himself as a Top 5 light heavyweight. After he sat out all of 2010, I'm skeptical that Griffin will ever be in title contention again, but Griffin does have a win over Shogun on his record, and if he were to beat Franklin the UFC would surely consider him for a title shot. And if Franklin were to follow his knockout of Chuck Liddell with an impressive win over Griffin, the UFC would probably consider Franklin for title contention as well.
Potential breakout fighter: Phil Davis was an NCAA champion wrestler at Penn State in 2008 and has now been fighting professionally for two years, and he's shown all kinds of promise in racking up a 7-0 record. Tim Boetsch could give Davis some trouble at UFC 123, but I expect Davis to remain undefeated and go on to bigger and better things in 2011.
Predicted champion at end of 2011: Shogun Rua