With or without Tito Ortiz, the light-heavyweight division will remain The Ultimate Fighting Championship's marquee class. Though stars have emerged in each of the organization's five active weight categories, none have delivered bigger fights -- at the gate or on pay-per-view -- than the light heavies.
In a sense, the strength of the division today can be traced back to Zuffa's decision to push Ortiz as its poster boy in 2001. While Chuck Liddell was establishing himself as one of mixed martial arts' best by knocking off contender after contender, Ortiz reigned as UFC champion, generating public interest in fights that had little to start. UFC President Dana White smartly recognized something in the division and used the class as the promotion's catalyst for expansion and MMA's dive into mainstream.
Not much has changed seven years after Ortiz headlined UFC 31 through 33. The promotion's main card in Las Vegas on May 24 featured four light-heavyweight contests, and in July, the division will be showcased again when its champion, Quinton "Rampage" Jackson, defends his belt against the popular Forrest Griffin.
"That's what this light-heavyweight division is about," said Jackson's trainer Juanito Ibarra. "It's about versatility and surprises. It excites me."
Ibarra and Rampage watched UFC 84 from their cabin in Big Bear, Calif., where training camp is well underway for the Griffin bout. While B.J. Penn's lightweight title defense against Sean Sherk headlined the card, Ibarra said his focus, as always, was on the guys at 205.
"They're all potential opponents," he said. "It's been stacked. The light-heavyweight division isn't a division to play with. You can't take anybody lightly."
Winners from UFC 84 included Rameau Sokoudjou, Thiago Silva, Lyoto Machida and Wanderlei Silva. Ibarra said Jackson wasn't particularly impressed with any of his future challengers. But that hasn't stopped fighters like Machida from eyeing the biggest prize in the division.
The slick Brazilian southpaw predicted a Jackson victory against Griffin at UFC 86, setting up a bout Machida claims he can win. "Quinton is a very talented, explosive, strong fighter," he said. "But I have all the tools and everything in my bag of tricks to beat him."
One potential hurdle for Machida -- and any other fighter, really -- is a lack of marketability among casual fans who view his countering, defensive style as boring. He may not be Wanderlei -- the aggressive former Pride champion who owns two stoppages over Jackson and a destruction of Keith Jardine in just 36 seconds on May 24 -- but Machida's footwork and defense speak loudly of the amount of skill required in the sport. Boring? Not so much.
It remains to be seen if his style comports with what the UFC expects from its athletes, but Ibarra believes Machida is being groomed for a title shot. And for what its worth, Machida's management feels he deserves the opportunity, though other undefeated fighters, such as Thiago Silva, share the same record and could easily claim a challenge to the title.
But aside from the potential champions already in the works, perhaps the best example of the UFC light-heavyweight division's depth came at UFC 84's post-fight press conference when White responded to a question regarding Wanderlei possibly moving down to middleweight.
"There's one interesting fight for him at 185 pounds," White said, alluding to a bout against reigning middleweight champion Anderson Silva. "I think there's lot of interesting fights for him at 205."
But let's face it, that goes for just about everyone fighting at that weight right now.
Lyoto Machida vs. Thiago Silva
This isn't rocket science: two of the division's best prospects who both own perfect 13-0 records and are also Brazilian. Slick and unique, versus rough and dangerous. It's a great fight that Machida's camp seems to have little interest in at the moment. But the winner would immediately become a clear-cut contender for the UFC belt, and both fighters would be better for the experience.
Chuck Liddell vs. Mauricio Rua
Originally scheduled for June 7 in London, injuries put both men on the sidelines. However, this fight represents another classic UFC-vs.-Pride contest. As Liddell dominated the division in the United States, Rua asserted himself against top-flight competition in Japan. A clash of styles -- Liddell's power punching against Rua's high-paced attack -- should make for one interesting fight.
Forrest Griffin vs. Rashad Evans
Winners of the first and second season, respectively, of Spike TV's The Ultimate Fighter, Griffin and Evans represent the UFC's new generation at 205. It's a natural fight that sells itself to an audience invested in both men.
Quinton Jackson vs. Wanderlei Silva --Part III
Silva needed less than a minute to score one of the more vicious knockouts in recent memory against Jardine on Saturday. While some people will take from the Brazilian's victory, it's undeniable that his killer instinct remained intact after three consecutive losses. But that's not why a match against Jackson is compelling. The duo shares a meaningful history and Jackson, according to his trainer, would love nothing more than to avenge his two defeats against Silva. Clear the tape -- this fight will need a lot of space on the highlight reels.