Josh Gross
Monday May 10th, 2010

Long gone is the Chuck Liddell-inspired Ice Age, when a successful defense of the UFC light heavyweight title was the norm and not the exception. With his win over Lyoto Machida on Saturday, Mauricio Rua became the sixth light heavyweight to hold the UFC title since 2007.

Liddell dropped the belt to Quinton Jackson, who begot Forrest Griffin, who begot Rashad Evans, who begot Machida, who begot Rua. That turmoil is owed in large part to an influx of fighters into the UFC following Pride's death, the implosion of WFA, the success of The Ultimate Fighter and continued good work from UFC matchmaker Joe Silva in identifying young prospects.

Can the 28-year-old Brazilian, five years removed from being utterly dominant while winning a stacked Pride Middleweight Grand Prix (he bested Jackson, Antonio Rogerio Nogueira, Alistair Overeem and Ricardo Arona), provide stability to the division? I believe he can, though it won't come easy.

Of the many attractive options out there, here are five fights fans would be fortunate to see as Shogun (19-4) makes full use of the prime of his career.

Rua's drive to the top of the light heavyweight class began in April 2005 with a shellacking of Jackson. To that point Rua was considered a talent, but few expected him to trample Rampage, whose hopes of winning a Pride tournament were shattered that night along with his ribs.

Jackson (30-7) meets Evans (14-1-1) on May 29 in Las Vegas in the main event of UFC 114. It's believed the winner will get first crack at Rua, though UFC president Dana White has not publicly committed to the idea.

I expect Evans to defeat Jackson, who spent the past year filming movies instead of fighting, and earn the first shot at Rua's belt. Evans' speed, power, striking and wrestling make him a handful for anyone.

With Machida atop the light heavyweight division, UFC middleweight champion Anderson Silva (26-4) was in a sort of limbo. "The Spider" took bouts at 205 -- knocking out James Irvin and embarrassing Griffin -- while making it clear he would never fight his friend for the belt. Those obstacles to a title shot are gone.

Silva and Rua know each other very well. They're former training partners and representatives of Chute Boxe, the famously aggressive Brazilian fight camp. There don't appear to be any hurdles blocking the matchup, with Rua already saying he would fight Silva if given the chance.

Should Silva defend two or three more times at 185 pounds, the UFC indicated he'll move up to light heavyweight full time. A bout against Rua, regardless if a belt is on the line, must happen.

Watching Jones work his way up the light heavyweight ranks is reminiscent of Rua's early success.

With a 10-1 record (the blemish a result of a disqualification during a fight he was well on his way to winning), Jones has shown the brilliant ability to use his height and length while striking from the outside, creating unique angles or finding leverage while grappling. The 22-year-old from upstate New York is as dynamic an athlete as we've seen in MMA, and he will inevitably cross paths with Rua. If we still don't know how well Jones can take a shot to the chin, or if he can fight from behind, Shogun should help provide those answers.

Had Griffin (17-6) not bowed out of his May 29 fight against Antonio Rogerio Nogueira because of a shoulder injury, I'd suggest the winner deserves a spot just behind Jackson or Evans.

It was Griffin, after all, who welcomed Rua to the UFC with a stunning third-round stoppage in 2007 -- it's clear now the fighter Griffin defeated at UFC 76 is not the version that stopped Machida in Montreal. Nogueira certainly deserves a mention since he and Shogun participated in one of the best fights of the last decade.

There aren't any guarantees Griffin can earn his way back to the top, especially in light of a tight split-decision win against a paper mache'd Ortiz last November, and two knockout losses (Silva and Evans) that preceded it. But if he can find that magic again and place himself in line for title contention, a rematch between Griffin and Shogun makes perfect sense.

The Strikeforce light heavyweight champion is his biggest supporter, though he can claim many others following a dominant decision against Gegard Mousasi in April. Is Lawal the future at 205? Perhaps. The 29-year-old former Oklahoma State Cowboy is a powerful wrestler with quality international credentials. He is smart in his fight analysis, possesses a huge personality and has revealed himself to be a tireless worker.

Despite his limited experience -- seven wins, seven fights beginning in September 2008 -- "King Mo" says he can compete with Rua. And I tend to agree with him. Lawal's power wrestling game is perfectly suited for MMA, and he has quickly developed an effective brand of striking based on confusion, feinting and setting up takedowns.

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