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Friday, November 4, 2011
A solid era at light-heavy, but not best ever

By Josh Gross

Has there been a better time to be a light heavyweight in the UFC? Rashad Evans doesn't think so.

"I would say this is the golden era for the light heavyweights, just because of the fact there are so many of us and so many different matchups that you can do, and a bunch of tough guys," Evans told ESPN.

"Sometimes you get in a weight class where everything is drawn out and there's not that many opponents for the champion to fight. Nowadays [at 205] there are plenty of opponents for champions to fight."

By that standard, the UFC is currently enjoying a golden period. Period. But Evans points to his class at this particular moment in time, which shouldn't surprise anyone.

Light heavyweights have held the marquee in the UFC since Tito Ortiz went to war with Frank Shamrock in 1999. When Shamrock retired and the Zuffa crew took over the reins from SEG, Ortiz's former manager, Dana White, perfectly positioned "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" for success. Ortiz was brash and controversial, but not totally ridiculous like the infamous David "Tank" Abbott.

Fans flocked to Ortiz after he won the title, which helped build toward a rare successful pre-TUF venture several cards later at UFC 40. It felt like a big event that night in Las Vegas, a sign that with the right combination, the UFC could promote in a way that draws in a pretty casual audience. Ken Shamrock helped hone Ortiz's promotional skills leading up to that fight.

Waiting in the wings the entire time was Chuck Liddell.

I'll always remember how calm Liddell was as we drove one day into his hometown of San Luis Obispo and I kept prodding. "Why won't you call out Tito?" You deserve a shot." I demanded to know. "The Iceman" did his thing, shrugged, and said he knew it would come eventually.

It did, just not for the title because Randy Couture swept in to wrest Ortiz's belt in 2003. That didn't make Lidddell's knockout of Ortiz at UFC 47 any less sweet. It came after Liddell split fights in Pride during the epic 2003 light heavyweight ("middleweight" in Japan) grand prix tournament. Knocking out Alistair Overeem, then losing in a rough affair to Quinton Jackson. These were great fights with high stakes. Liddell didn't make good on White's guarantee that the UFC fighter would fly to Japan and prove he was the king of the hill. He did, however, return to the U.S. and put together one of the best runs in UFC history, which culminated in a new level of notoriety for mixed martial artists after being featured on the cover of ESPN The Magazine prior to fighting Jackson again in 2007.

Once Liddell lost his title, the division entered a state of flux. Jackson bequeathed the title to Forrest Griffin, who couldn't hold it for three rounds and was knocked out by Evans. Evans lost his next bout to Lyoto Machida. Machida basically lost two in a row to Mauricio Rua, the second definitively. Rua gave the belt to Jon Jones -- and here we are.

So, which do you prefer? The star-building run from 1999 through 2007? Or the rotating title-exchange ever since?

Jones seems the real deal, the kind of fighter who should provide stability at the top. Will he pull a Liddell? If Evans is correct, is that sort of thing even possible?

And as for the notion that this era is of particular importance to light heavyweights in the UFC, I have a hard time believing they're appreciably better or tested more often than Messrs. Ortiz, Couture and Liddell were at their peak.

Today's light heavyweights have a long slog before anyone should proclaim that this is the golden era for the division. Maybe there is more bottom-to-top depth than five years ago, that's debatable; but it's a difficult argument to make that the early-to-mid 2000s weren't the best stretch for light heavyweights, not just in the UFC but throughout the sport as a whole.