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2019 Year in Review: The Light Heavyweight Division

Johnny Walker
Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

With 2019 coming to a close, it’s time to look at how each division fared over the year. What where the bright spots? What were the low points? What’s in store for 2020? First up, one of the marquee divisions in the sport: the light heavyweight division.

Year in Review

While 2018 was an exciting year for the light heavyweight division, what with the return of Jon Jones and his mission statement that he would fight as frequently as possible, 2019 felt like a return to the norm. Jones fought only twice in 2019 and both bouts left a lot to be desired. Perhaps even more unfortunate was Jones’ seeming disinterest in his own division, instead picking fights with newly crowned middleweight kingpin Israel Adesanya.

Top-heavy divisions tend to follow where their champions go and with Jones having an underwhelming and unexciting year, so too did the light heavyweight division.

Movers and Shakers

This is what the UFC Rankings looked like at the start of the year (shoutout to MMANation).

And here is how things look now.

The big winners of 2019 are, as you might expect, two men tasked with title shots, Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes. While Santos had his shot and came up short, “Marreta” still wound up a dramatic five spots up in the rankings. Similarly, Reyes, the next man in line for champion Jon Jones, jumped up four spots to crack the top-five.

The biggest losers of 2019 were teammates. Alexander Gustafsson and Jimi Manuwa train together and both had rough 2019s. Gustafsson was submitted into (possible?) retirement by Anthony Smith and as a result, dropped five spots in the rankings. Meanwhile, Manuwa lost his fourth fight in a row and also (possibly?) retired, thus dropping out of the rankings altogether. Aside from those two, most of the downward trending fighters only dropped a couple of spots.

Storyline of the Year?

Thomas Lakes, MMA Fighting

The rise and immediate fall of the middleweights.

After seeing their 185 compatriots like Anthony Smith and Thiago Santos make the jump to light heavyweight to great success, a number of former champions and elite middleweights decided to follow suit. In 2019, Chris Weidman, Luke Rockhold, and Ronaldo Souza all made their light heavyweight debuts and each was met with failure. Rockhold got knocked out by Jan Blachowicz at UFC 239 and functionally retired from the sport; Weidman was knocked out by Dominick Reyes at UFC on ESPN 6, his fifth such loss in his last six fights, and Souza lost a split decision to Blachowicz at UFC Sao Paulo.

In a time where light heavyweight could’ve used an infusion of new blood, some big names came up short and left the division severely lacking in star power.


Esther Lin, MMA Fighting

Johnny Walker

Unlike most years, 2019 was not dominated by marquee matchups at the top of the division. Instead the tale of the year was the rise of a number of contenders from interesting prospects to actual threats. No one embodied this rise more than Johnny Walker, who burst into prominence at the end of 2018 and then exploded this year, fighting three times and spending a total of 2:58 seconds combined for all three. Aside from the brevity of his triple-header, Walker also brought the excitement, scoring two KO of the Year contenders and dying by the sword once as well. (We’ll discuss all this more in a moment).

Had Aleksander Rakic beaten Volkan Oezdemir at UFC Busan, he may well have taken these honors and Glover Teixeira deserves recognition for turning back the clock this year to rattle off three wins over younger contenders, but 2019 belonged to Walker.

KO of the Year

UFC Fight Night: Manuwa v Rakic Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images

Aleksander Rakic KOs Jimi Manuwa via head kick at UFC Stockholm

The light heavyweight division brought a lot of good KOs into 2019 and, as mentioned above, it feels like Johnny Walker was responsible for half of them. In his two winning performances in 2019, Walker knocked out Justin Ledet with a hook kick-backfist combo in 15 seconds and then followed that up by finishing Misha Cirkunov with a flying knee in just 31 seconds. (Walker also generously contributed on the other end of the spectrum, getting blasted by Corey Anderson at UFC 244). But despite Walker’s valiant contributions, the light heavyweight KO of the Year goes to Aleksander Rakic, who sent Jimi Manuwa into unconsciousness and retirement in just 47 seconds with a picture-perfect head kick KO.

Submission of the Year

UFC Fight Night Gustafsson v Smith Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Anthony Smith submits Alexander Gustafsson with a rear-naked choke at UFC Stockholm

2019 was the year of comeback submissions for the light heavyweight division. In January, Glover Teixeira started off the festivities by rallying back after being hurt by Karl Roberson, submitting Roberson with an arm-triangle choke in the first round. The trend kept right on rolling in March when Paul Craig survived a third-round knockdown—and multiple fence grabs—to finally submit the previously unbeaten Kennedy Nzechukwu with a triangle choke at UFC on ESPN 2.

But the best, and certainly the most important submission of the year came from the UFC Stockholm card when Anthony Smith who—after looking like he was on his way to losing to Alexander Gustafsson—ended up tapping out the three-time title challenger with a rear-naked choke. The win not only sent Gustafsson into retirement, thinning the already emaciated ranks of the light heavyweight elite, but it also removed all doubt that Smith is a legitimate threat at 205 pounds.

Fight of the Year

UFC Fight Night Gustafsson v Smith Photo by Michael Campanella/Getty Images

Anthony Smith def. Alexander Gustafsson at UFC Stockholm

We can shoot straight here: there were not a lot of great or even good light heavyweight fights this year. From a sheer entertainment perspective, Teixeira’s one-round battle with Roberson was probably the best fight of the year but it’s hard to call a one-round fight the Fight of the Year. Similarly, for high stakes and drama, Jon Jones’ title defense against Thiago Santos was the best fight of the year as Jones nearly lost his title to one of his most unheralded opponents ever. Likewise though, it’s hard to call a fight that is aggravatingly boring at times the Fight of the Year. So instead we’ll split the difference and say the high stakes, back-and-forth battle between Anthony Smith and Alexander Gustafsson—where Smith won early, Gustafsson took control, and then Smith won in the end—was the Fight of the Year.

Did anything major happen outside of the UFC?

Not really. Bellator light heavyweight champion Ryan Bader has been far too concerned with his heavyweight title and hasn’t defended the 205 pound belt since 2017(!); Jordan Johnson will take on Emiliano Sordi in the PFL finals on New Year’s Eve; and Aung La Nsang beat Brandon Vera to retain the ONE Championship title. It’s an ignominious fall for what used to be one of the marquee divisions in the sport.

What’s in store for the division in 2020?

UFC 247 Press Conference Photo by Jeff Bottari/Zuffa LLC

Sadly, probably more of the same. Jon Jones remains perched a top the light heavyweight division and with him sitting there, it’s unlikely that 205 gets particularly interesting anytime soon. It will likely be just more of the king ruling with an iron fist and knocking off newcomers that fans can’t even get themselves that excited about.

UNLESS Dominick Reyes can do the unthinkable and actually upset Jones when the two match up at UFC 247. If Reyes can unseat Jones, suddenly the entire division opens up. There would be an immediate rematch which would be a huge fight and, regardless of the outcome of that, the champion would then have a host of challengers to fight to prove their mettle.

There’s also a potential wild card here is the possible return of Anthony Johnson who has made overtures that he’s looking at coming back and would like to finally settle things up with Jones. If that happens, then 2020 could definitely be one of the better years in recent memory for the 205 pound division.

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