With the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division currently at it’s the lowest point in over a decade, it’s left fans bemoaning a once flourishing division.
Looking back over the history of the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division, a contingent of fans would be surprised to know that for a long time it was their premier division.
When Zuffa took the helm back in 2001, Lorenzo, Dana, Frank and crew cherry picked certain fighters to push the brand into more households. Hall of Famers like Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture became prominent figures within the division. The Light Heavyweight division back then was, in relative terms, thriving. Fans took to all three fighters and that in turn helped the promotion build a strong base and develop a younger demographic. The Light Heavyweights were running the show.
While Liddell, Ortiz and Couture were very much the figureheads we’d be remiss to neglect mentioning guys who became their foils. Ken Shamrock, Victor Belfort, Babalu Sobral, Vernon White, Jeremy Horn and even the recently retired Patrick Cote contributed to the excitement and buzz the division brought us. It may not have been the boom period of 2005-6 but this is where a large portion of fans started to become more invested in the UFC. The seed was planted.
As the division became the diamond in the crown for the UFC they simultaneously introduced the show The Ultimate Fighter. With Liddell and Couture as coaches, they would help train a household of young, ambitious fighters with eyes on gaining a spot within the UFC. The show proved a success.
The finale became – along with UFC 40 – one of the most influential points in the early days of Zuffa. The boom period. With scores of fans tuning in to see Forrest Griffin and Stephan Bonnar almost beat each other into oblivion the traction for the division, and in turn the UFC, was very much underway.
In 2005 the division added both Griffin and Bonnar to their ranks. Later that same year on the back of a second successful season of TUF Keith Jardine and Rashad Evans would also be added to the roster. The division was becoming deeper. By June 2006 the division had added Matt Hamill and Michael Bisping and it was finally getting the depth to go along with fan favourites. In late 2006 the UFC acquired Last Vegas-based promotion WFA, which had only recently signed Rampage Jackson to a multi-fight contract. In the buy-out, the UFC gained Jackson’s contract and he was on his way to their Light Heavyweight ranks with one other WFA fighter, Lyoto Machida.
While 2006 saw some very good signings, the following year was the one which really propelled the UFC Light Heavyweight division to the next level and cemented their stranglehold going forward. Zuffa acquired troubled Japanese promotion, PRIDE in March 2007. On doing so the UFC obtained many of the fighters contracts, and as the promotions merged we saw Wanderlei Silva, Shogun Rua and Dan Henderson join rank. Those signings alone were enough to instil fans with glee. They even managed to pick up Thiago Silva as a fledgeling prospect the same year. The division was awash with talent and the depth was something to marvel at.
This huge show of muscle resulted in what has been one of the UFC’s most successful moves. The division was truly thriving and they haven’t looked back…..….until recently.
If 2007 can be argued as the ultimate high-point of the UFC Light Heavyweight division then ten years on in 2017 we are finally seeing the last remnants of those glory days. The division has succumbed to attrition and neglect. Hope is not lost though. There are ways to reignite the division, the fan interest and secure the future of the division.
In this article, I will look to address key points which could help attain that going forward.