The Marquee Division: A Light-Heavyweight Roundup
A division where legends have thrived, where the likes of perennial powerhouses such as Chuck Lidell and Tito Ortiz once mowed through opposition, a division where marquee fights have always resided, most recently of DC/Jones fame, a division that historically has hosted some of the most anticipated and exciting displays of power, technique and pure brutality, the heralded Light Heavyweight division. Today, ask most MMA fans what the most ‘shallow’ division is and you will get this division as an answer, however, I am here to debunk that theory. If you look between the lines, the UFC is building this division with young talented prospects slowly but surely.
For years, two champions have cast shadows over this division of big men. Power has shifted between the often dubbed ‘greatest of all time’ Jon Jones and future Hall of Fame Olympian Daniel Cormier with dangerous sharks, such as Alexander Gustafsson and Rumble Johnson, circling them as they battle for supremacy. However, the battle has seemed to finally wane as Jon Jones has reasserted his place firmly atop the division where he seemingly will be staying for a while. While we have been paying attention to the upper echelon of the famed division, UFC brass has been filling the lower out, adding potential threats to combat the comfortable mainstays we have seen for so long. Let’s take a look at the suddenly star-studded bottom half of a historically top heavy division.
Devin Clark is the definition of a prospect. He is a 27-year-old wrestling stud that has a bevy of championships under his belt. Clark captured the South Dakota high school state championship in wrestling in 2008 before moving on and securing the Junior College National Championship for Rochester Tech in 2009. Clark then transitioned to mixed martial arts where he competed primarily for RFA, capturing their light-heavyweight belt only 3 years into his career. Luckily, Dana White’s Lookin’ for a Fight was filming the night he won his belt and after seeing his skills and his impeccable 6-0 record, White snatched him up. ‘Brown Bear’ is a terror on the mat with powerful takedowns and smothering top game and after slipping up in his UFC debut, at middleweight, he has moved back up in weight and has gone 2-0 with two dominant wins against TUF veteran Josh Stanbury and UFC veteran Jake Collier. The best part is, Clark is training steadily at the famed Jackson-Winkeljohn camp in New Mexico with the likes of LHW king Jon Jones and constantly seems to be adding to his frame to better fit the weight class. Be on the lookout for Clark moving forward as his striking improves and he figures out how to put it all together to build on the 5 finishes he already has in his young MMA career.
Khalil Rountree is violence incarnate. He came up through the Ultimate Fighter circuit, making it to the finale and suffering a wrestling-filled loss to Andrew Sanchez before taking on young ace Tyson Pedro and suffering a submission loss. Suddenly, a switch seemed to flip for Rountree though. His goofy nature and jovial attitude turned into hard stoicism and violence soon followed. Rountree dismantled Daniel Jolly in under a minute in his third UFC appearance in Houston with a thunderous knee to the forehead, dropping him instantly. He made it clear that he had been working tirelessly on his takedown defense and ground game and he was here to stay. He immediately took a fight in Glasgow against BJJ standout Paul Craig who he flawlessly knocked around for 4 minutes before cracking him with a left hand and finishing up with booming hammer-fists on the ground. Khalil seems to get better every time he steps in the octagon and with four first round knockouts in 6 wins, we could be looking at the newest knockout artist in the weight class. Training at Syndicate MMA with the likes of newly signed middleweight Julian Marquez and TUF teammate Cory Hendricks, Khalil will improve by the day and at only 27 years old, keep your eye on the ‘Warhorse’ because this finisher can end someone’s night at any second of the fight.
Pedro is arguably the most exciting prospect from Australia/New Zealand we have had since Robert Whittaker. He burst onto the scene last November as an underdog in Melbourne, upsetting Khalil Rountree with a first round submission before heading over to the States for his first fight outside of Australia and getting a second UFC win by trapping BJJ ace Paul Craig’s arm and hammering him with elbows once again in the first round. Pedro is a spry 25-year-old prospect with very little tread on his tires. He has phenomenal jiu-jitsu and sports some fantastic boxing skills behind it. Very few know that Tyson’s father, John Pedro is a mixed-martial arts pioneer who had a huge hand in bringing MMA down under. John has been training his son in a mixture of Japanese jiu-jitsu and boxing since he was the age of four. Pedro has six first round finishes, with four coming by choke and two by knockout, in as many bouts in his professional career. Now, he looks forward to traveling to the Great White North for the biggest test of his career when he faces off against Swedish powerhouse Illir Latifi at UFC 215. If Pedro can get past the heavy hands of Latifi, he will cement himself among the top 10 of the division and possibly a marquee spot on the upcoming Sydney card.
Antigulov came out of nowhere, the Russian has quietly started a UFC run that we don’t see very often. A big man coming into the UFC and submitting his first two opponents both in under three minutes. The Dagestani first showed up on enemy soil, fighting veteran Marcos Rogerio De Lima in Sao Paulo last November. He performed like he had somewhere to be, submitting De Lima in a lighting quick minute and seven seconds with a vicelike guillotine choke. The American Top Team product turned around and headed to Houston where he dominated Joachim Christensen on the mat before rolling onto his back and locking up yet another first round choke. The former Absolut Championship Berkut LHW king has been a hidden gem on the prelims for the UFC so far and he sports a nasty guillotine and heavy hands as well, finishing 19 of his 20 wins. He is now riding a 14 fight win streak with his last loss coming five years ago back in 2013. Since then, he has only fought to a decision once and has won the ACB LHW tournament and defended his belt. This 30-year-old fighter should get a high profile matchup sooner than later and don’t be surprised if you see him amongst the top of the division within the year as he was recently ranked at number 15 in the UFC rankings.
Ion Cutelaba is a blistering striker that has amassed a 13-3 record in only five years of professional MMA competition. ‘Hulk’, hailing out of Moldova, is a John Lineker type of slugger with ridiculous knock out power, finishing 9 out of 12 wins by 1st round KO. One thing that people overlook when it comes to Cutelaba is his wealth of experience in grappling. Although Cutelaba likes to stand and bang, he grew up training heavily in Greco-Roman wrestling before he transitioned to judo and sambo, eventually becoming a Moldovan national champion in both of those crafts. In 2012, before he made his pro debut, he even won the European National Sambo Championships. Ion is currently 2-2 in the UFC, alternating wins, and losses. His debut was against the very powerful Misha Cirkunov who beat him using technical BJJ on the mat. He followed that fight with two striking wars, one with Johnathan Wilson, where he came out victorious and another with Jared Cannonier, where they engaged in an insanely entertaining Fight of the Night, but he came up short. However, coming off of a 22-second violent flatline knockout of Luis Henrique Da Silva, if Cutelaba can put it all together, he can be a real force and the 23-year-old still has plenty of time to do so.
Jordan Johnson is yet another wrestling phenom, with a high school state championship in the state of Illinois. The young wrestler then moved to the prestigious wrestling school, the University of Iowa, where he became a two-time Division l All-American. The MMA Lab product made his debut in 2013 where he compiled an amateur record of 3-0 at heavyweight before dropping down to LHW and compiling a 6-0 undefeated record, four of those fights with Resurrection Fighting Alliance. Johnson was quickly snatched up by the UFC debuting against Henrique Da Silva and defeating him with his heavy takedowns and powerful top game. He then went on to face BJJ black belt Marcel Fortuna in a predominantly stand up affair that saw Johnson display some fantastic clinch work and improving striking. The final RFA champion is still undefeated in his professional career at 8-0 with 5 finishes by a variety of different submissions. Jordan is a natural wrestler and has a powerful and quick takedown and a smothering top game but with his current camp at the MMA Lab with the likes of Benson Henderson, he should quickly build up a striking pedigree and when he does look out because he is going to be extremely talented. Parts of his game remind me of a bigger Chris Weidman, and the best part is ‘Big Swingin’ Johnson’ is only 28 years old.
A name that you may have glossed over is Abdul-Kerim Edilov. I’m sure many of you forgot about Edilov as he has been suspended since 2015 but the Chechnya Lion is back on the prowl. Edilov was supposed to debut almost two years ago against Francimar Barroso however, he tore his meniscus and immediately after was flagged by USADA for meldonium. Edilov was slapped with a 15-month suspension and spent the time rehabbing his knee along with improving his mixed martial arts skills. The 25-year-old stud is sporting a 10-fight win streak dating back to 2013 and his fantastic 16-4 record includes 15 first round finishes. Edilov has wins over the likes of RIZIN star Jiří Procházka and ranked UFC competitor and previously mentioned Gadzhimurad Antigulov. After finally having his suspension lifted April 15th, the Akhmat Fight Club star has already booked his UFC debut on the upcoming September 2nd card in Rotterdam. He will be squaring off against Bojan Mihajlović, a Serbian striker who is currently holding a 0-2 UFC record. This is going to be a huge opportunity for the young talent and look for him to shine under the octagon lights as we finally get to watch the ACB and Cage Warriors veteran make his big time debut.
Dominick Reyes is the most badass IT guy you will ever meet. Working as a high school IT guy during the day and shadowing as a knockout artist at night, Reyes has exploded onto the scene this year. Reyes actually started out in football, the defensive back became captain of Stony Brook University’s team and was a two time All American with NFL aspirations but when the draft didn’t go his way, he turned his attention to MMA where he made his pro debut in 2014 in King of the Cage. The 27-year-old phenom racked up 6 wins in the next three years, five of them by first round finish. His most impressive and what ultimately got him the eyes of the UFC was a phenomenal head kick knockout of Jordan Powell in his LFA debut, bouncing his shin off of the head of Powell in just 53 seconds. The Devastator made his short notice debut in the UFC in Oklahoma City 23 days later where he squared off against veteran Joachim Christensen where he pounded his opponent with a vicious striking combination ending the bout only 29 seconds in and securing his first performance of the night bonus. He is constantly getting better in his young MMA career as well, already a blue belt in BJJ training under Joe Stevenson at Cobra Kai Fitness. Keep your eyes on the young Reyes moving forward as he possesses some of the cleanest and most technical striking in the division and some absolutely terrifying head kicks.
I would be remiss if I didn’t include the most recent exciting signing by the UFC, kickboxing legend Gökhan Saki. The former K-1, Glory and Muay Thai champion holds an 83-12 kickboxing record with 59(!!) knockouts. He holds wins over Tyrone Spong, Ray Sefo, and Melvin Manhoef in kickboxing and promises to “knock everyone the fuck out” in the UFC. To go through this man’s accolades would take an entire article in itself. Saki is training in Mike’s Gym in Amsterdam but we have also recently seen him training with the likes of Alexander Gustaffson and Illir Latifi in Sweden. He has seemingly been developing a ground game as well. This is an enormous signing for the UFC. The Rebel enters a division in the UFC and is immediately one of, if not the most, elite strikers in the division. This rarely happens. We will get to see Saki debut in Saitama, Japan at UFC Fight Night 117 where he will face Luis Henrique Da Silva who has shown to be trouble on the ground but has also shown to be a bit chinny, recently getting knocked out quickly at the hands of Ion Cutelaba. This should show us if Saki can keep the fight standing and land his shots, ending Silva’s night quickly. This is a widely anticipated debut as one of the best kickboxers in the world transitions to our sport.
One of the biggest unknowns on the list is Austrian powerhouse Rakić. The 25-year-old is on a solid 8 fight winning streak, losing his debut before finishing his next eight fights to build an impressive 8-1 record. He also has a win over ONE Championship star Marcin Prachio, who since losing to Rakić, has won eight fights in a row and is in close contention for a shot at the championship belt in the esteemed promotion. Rakić seems to be good everywhere, boasting a Muay Thai base with electric, quick hands and also showing off a solid ground game, although not many people are able to take him there. Alex draws a big test for his UFC debut as he faces off against Francimar Barroso, who is a seven fight UFC veteran with an octagon record of 4-2-1. If Rakić can hit the ground running with an impressive win against the veteran in Rotterdam next month, we could see him build himself up for a high profile sophomore appearance in the octagon. This 28-year-old is a solid European signing by the UFC who should show us all why he belongs under the bright lights soon enough.
There is just something about the name Bones in this division. Mike ‘Bones’ Rodriguez burst onto the scene this week on Dana White’s Tuesday Night Contender Series with a blistering flying knee knockout of Jamelle Jones in the main event. Dana put pen to paper shortly after, inking the 28-year-old to a UFC deal. Training out of Massachusetts at the famed Lauzon Mixed Martial Arts, Rodriguez has compiled quite the four fight winning streak. His last four wins have all came by knockout in the first round with a combined time of 7:47 seconds. One of those wins is a seven second knockout in CES. That is quite the stat line. Rodriguez holds a very impressive record of 9-2 with all wins coming by finish and none of them reaching the third round. With the mentorship of Joe Lauzon and an ever evolving game, highlight reel finishes should keep flowing for Rodriquez as he rides his insane flying knee knockout all the way to the dazzling lights of the octagon where he will make his debut soon enough.
A division long left top heavy is getting the renovation it deserves. Hosting not only a fierce top 15, this division is rounding out, leaving a robust shelf of killers vying for a shot at the spotlight, ready to take the place of the aging veterans that we have watched for so long. In a few months, we will have many questions answered about the future of this division as many of these fighters will be competing to move up. The excitement is growing, the division is filling and soon we will see a plethora of marquee fights once again born from this division we have all loved over the years and that is something we can all look forward to.