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Ranking the Champs: Light Heavyweight (MMA)

Light Heavyweight was, for many years, seen as the “glamour” weight class in Mixed Martial Arts. Much like the Heavyweights in boxing, Light Heavyweights in MMA have typically been held in high esteem by fans of the sport. Many of the earliest superstars existed within the weight class making it one of the tougher ones to grade. One thing to note, I’m only rating the champions based on their championship tenure and not on their entire body of work. In other words, Tito Ortiz’s MMA record currently stands at 16-11-1 but he only held or fought for the title in 7 fights. For the purposes of this article, only those 7 fights will be considered.

Jon Jones Banner

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion (Mar 19, 2011 – present) 4 title defenses

Jones is the current UFC Light Heavyweight Champion and lineal MMA Light Heavyweight Champion. Given his age (25), his skill set, and the fact that he’s already beaten most of his toughest challengers, Jones could be set for an extended run at 205lbs. Of his 4 title defenses, only one of his opponents (Rashad Evans) made it to the final bell. Jon has made mention of a move to Heavyweight several times which may be the only thing that derails his winning streak. Jon is one of two champions on this list to never lose in a championship fight.

Frank Shamrock Banner

UFC Middleweight Champion* (Mar 13, 1998 – Nov 24, 1999) 4 title defenses

WEC Light Heavyweight Champion (Mar 27, 2003 – Aug, 2003) 0 title defenses

It’s a shame that most MMA fans only know Frank Shamrock as a part time announcer for a variety of shows. "Wrestling Observer" named Frank Fighter of the Decade for the 1990’s and was 3-time Fighter of the Year by "Full Contact Fighter" Magazine. Frank vacated both the UFC Light Heavyweight title (lack of competition) and the WEC Light Heavyweight title (move to Strikeforce) making him one of two fighters on this list to never lose a 205lb belt in any promotion. Shamrock also holds the distinction of finishing his opponents in both of his title victories and all 4 of his title defenses.

The biggest knock on Frank Shamrock was that the bulk of his career occurred while the sport was in its infancy. While Frank would be undersized by today’s standard for Light Heavyweight, I feel it’s important to give credit where credit is due.

Chuck Liddell Banner

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion (Apr 16, 2005 – May 26, 2007) 4 title defenses

Liddell used his unorthodox striking style and freakish punching power to terrorize the UFC’s 205lb division for the better part of 3 years. His 4 title defenses included 2 TKO and 2 KO finishes of high caliber opponents. Chuck’s feud with our number 4 finisher, Tito Ortiz, helped drive new fans to the sport and provided some of the biggest pay-per-view numbers during the early stages of the Zuffa-led UFC.

Tito Ortiz Banner

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion (Apr 14, 2000 – Sept 26, 2003) 5 title defenses

One of the sports early stars, Tito Ortiz actually has the most title defenses (5) of any fighter on my list. His notable wins during his reign include high profile names such as Wanderlei Silva and Ken Shamrock. However, the fact that both Frank Shamrock and Chuck Liddell hold wins over “The Huntington Beach Bad Boy” forces him down the list.

Wanderlei Silva Banner

Pride Middleweight Champion* (Nov 3, 2001 – Feb 24, 2007) 4 title defenses

While Silva was unsuccessful in his lone attempt at claiming UFC gold against Tito Ortiz, the “Axe Murderer” dominated Pride’s Middleweight division for over 5 years while simultaneously competing in Pride’s Middleweight and Openweight Grand Prix’s.  He claimed the Middleweight crown with a TKO win over Kazushi Sakuraba and defended his belt with wins over Quinton Jackson and Ricardo Arona.  Overall, Wanderlei wore the Pride Middleweight strap for 1,688 days making him the longest tenured champion on our list.

Rampage Banner

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion (May 26, 2007 – July 5, 2008) 1 title defense

While “Rampage’s” title reign was short lived, he undoubtedly made an impression while he was at the top.  Quinton was the man who ended Chuck Liddell’s 205lb rule with a surprise first round knockout of the “Iceman”. Jackson’s only title defense came against another future Hall-of-Famer when he defeated then-Pride Champion Dan Henderson by decision.

Randy Couture Banner

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion (Sept 26, 2003 – Jan 31, 2004, Aug 21, 2004 – Apr 16, 2005)

Interim UFC Light Heavyweight Champion (June 6, 2003 – Sept 26, 2003)

Between June 2003 and Feb 2006, 6 of Randy Couture’s 7 fights were for the UFC’s 205lb belt. Amazingly, he was unsuccessful in defending that title a single time even though he held the belt on two different occasions. While he may not have been the most successful champion when it comes to defending a belt, he gets high marks for the caliber of opponents he faced during his tenure. Originally winning the belt from Tito Ortiz, Randy traded wins with Vitor Belfort before losing a pair of fights to our number 3 titlist, Chuck Liddell.

Dan Henderson Banner

Pride Middleweight Champion* (Feb 24, 2007 – Sept 8, 2007)

Stirkeforce Light Heavyweight Champion (Mar 5, 2001 – Sept 19, 2011)

Dan Henderson’s career has been marked by two things: (1) frequent movement between weight classes and (2) frequent movement between promotions.  Henderson’s Pride title victory over Wanderlei Silva occurred almost exactly one month prior to PRIDE being sold to Zuffa. His Strikeforce victory over Rafael Cavalcante occurred mere days before Zuffa acquired Strikeforce, giving him no opportunity to defend either belt.

Lyoto Machida Banner

UFC Light Heavyweight Champion (May 23, 2009 – May 8, 2010) 1 title defense

The Shokotan karate black belt’s rise to the championship was so unique that, upon winning the belt, UFC announcer Joe Rogan famously exclaimed “Welcome to the Machida Era!” Many in the MMA fan-base joined Rogan in his expectations that Lyoto’s reign atop the UFC’s Light Heavyweight division would be long. History didn’t quite pan out as everyone intended.

Machida’s first and only title defense came in a decision victory against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua in a fight that many felt Rua had won. The two would meet in a rematch 7 months later with Machida tasting defeat for the first time in his MMA career. Lyoto is schedule to face the winner of this Saturday’s title fight between Jon Jones and Chael Sonnen.

Gegard Mousasi Banner

DREAM Light Heavyweight Champion (Sept 25, 2010 – current) 1 title defense

Strikeforce Light Heavyweight Champion (Aug 15, 2009 – Apr 17, 2010)

Bleacher Report’s 2008 Fighter of the Year: Mousasi , like Dan Henderson, was the victim of promotional unrest during his reign. DREAM tentatively has a show scheduled for May 2013 but Mousasi’s place within the organization is probably tentative at best now that he’s under contract with the UFC. His Strikeforce reign lasted only 1 fight with no successful title defenses.

The Future of 205

The immediate future of the division as well as the lineal championship are at stake this weekend. Jon Jones will either cement his position at the top of my list or possibly fall a few spots should he lose. Looking beyond that fight, five of the champions that made my list are still active today with four of them (Jones, Machida, Henderson and Mousasi) still being relevant in the division. Add in several new fighters such as Glover Teixeira, Alexander Gustafsson and Phil Davis and you have the makings of top quality fights for years to come.

*Note: Pride did not have a Light Heavyweight division but the upper weight limit of the Middleweight division was 205lbs, which coincides with the current Light Heavyweight limit. The UFC’s early Middleweight division was likewise capped at 205lbs.


Brian Doerfler is the Social Media Manager for TITLE Boxing and TITLE MMA.