Champions have existed for as long as human beings have felt their instinctual desire to compete. From the time of their initial emergence on the ancient battlefield, mankind's champions have been made up of the most physically and mentally gifted amongst us. Just like thousands of years ago, the would be champions of today are forced to prove their worth by trial under fire. Also like their ancient counterparts, once their tribulations are completed, the adulation and praise of the less capable is theirs for the taking .
Even the title of "Champion" itself is meant to recognize and reward the talent and dedication possessed by those bestowed with the honor. In other words, it is a position meant to and used to enhance the reputation and credibility of its owner. Acquiring the title of champion, therefore, is a benchmark moment in a competitors life. What happens, though, when a champion achieves more than what even his title suggests? What happens when the roles are reversed, and the fighter is the one enhancing the title? What happens when it is time for a champion to become a king?
Ever so often and without warning, a rare, precious kind of competitor will emerge equipped with the kind of God given ability that transcends the limitations of previous possibilities thus opening the door for them to dominate their contemporaries so thoroughly that their performances fundamentally alter how the sport is perceived, prepared for, and performed in. Champions that make these levels of contributions achieve more than just titles and praise. They anoint themselves as rulers of their domain and a dynasty is born. Championships can be, and will be lost, but men who have ascended to the level of dynasty rulers can never be defeated.
These are the men who have transcended even their own achievements and entered the stratosphere of sporting legends, destine to live on forever in the minds of those that witnessed their feats and those who have since been told the tale. Michael Jordan built a dynasty. Joe Montana built a dynasty. Muhammad Ali built a damn dynasty. These are men for whom wins and losses have ceased to exist in the minds of those who remember witnessing them in their prime. These men no longer need to be champions. They have moved past those titles, and built their own kingdoms. Their own dynasties. They are no longer men who have become champions. Now they are champions who have become kings.
Fortunately, combat sports, unlike team sports and other individual sports, has the benefit of containing several different weight classes for their athletes to compete in. The increased number of championships at different weight classes has given MMA fans increased opportunities to witness the creation of legendary winning streaks and title reigns created by MMA royalty like Fedor Emelianenko, Georges St-Pierre, and Anderson Silva. The careers of these greats can all be pointed to automatically and referenced when searching for past dynasties in mixed martial arts. Each of these men controlled their respective competition to such a degree that it is widely agreed upon that each of them are the greatest fighters ever produced by their weight classes.
One weight class within the UFC in particular, however, has competition for the best to ever emerge from its ranks; a field so contested that each of the men who lay claim can also boast a dynasty of their own. This division historically stoods alone as the UFC's marquee division and is responsible for producing some of MMA's most well known and accomplished competitors. The championship reigns of most of these competitors do not match the length of the reigns forged by the three legends above, but the pivotal contributions made by these men while they were champions confirms their right to be held in the same esteem.
Coming in with an amazing FOUR era defining champions, there is, of course, only one UFC division that clearly stands out as superior when it comes to nurturing long reigning, championship level, mega stars. Due to the number and magnitude of the stars produced from these reigns, it is clear that this division was the most vital to the survival of the UFC during the late 1990's and early 2000's, as well as to its growth and success in the mid 2000's. The latest of these dynastic reigns would spring up in the more modern UFC, but is proving to be no less historically significant. I am speaking, of course, of none other than the 205 lbs. weight class. The UFC's Division of Dynasties:Light Heavyweight. The men that are responsible for building and maintaining the division to this day make up the Mt. Rushmore of the class: former champions Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and current UFC LightHeavyweight Champion Jon Jones.
The history of the Light Heavyweight Division is essentially the story of a chain of championship dynasties built by these men with several brief reigns in between. Each of the dynasties in question can be defined by heated rivalries, controversy, changing of the guards, and above all else, dominance. . The achievements of four men listed above have been the major factors in shaping the division for basically its entire existence.
To further explain how these men molded the division into what we see today, think about a few observations than can be made about it. For years, Light Heavyweight was the undeniable "bread and butter" division of the UFC while it was relied on as the main tool in driving up interest in the promotion. This high amount of exposure has attracted some of the UFC's most beloved figures to compete in the Light Heavyweight division. MMA icons likeRandy Couture, Vitor Belfort, Quinton Jackson, Forrest Griffin, Rashad Evans, Shogun Rua, and Lyoto Machidahave all laid claim to the Light Heavyweight title during the course of their careers.
Here, however, is where things get intriguing in the 205 lbs class. Even with all of their immense star power and the world class talent possessed by the former divisional champions listed above, not one of those seven men can make a claim to be the greatest Light Heavyweight Champion in history. In fact, none of those men can even claim to be the FOURTH greatest Light Heavyweight Champion in history......Let that sink in for a moment and then I will repeat it.....Of the seven Hall of Famers I just listed, all of whom are former Light Heavyweight champs, not one of them could produce a reign worthy of cracking the top four Light Heavyweight reigns in history. That seems like one helluva bold statement to make considering the parties involved, but it absolutely holds true.
Here are some really eye opening numbers that pretty much put the matter to bed. When combining the length of the Light Heavyweight dynasties and comparing them to the combined length of the seven other Light Heavyweight champions, the dynasties come in at over 4,000 days combined, while the others can account for only 1,961. Four men defeated seven MMA legends by over 2,000 days in this statistical department and the gap continues to grow every day. The numbers are even more lopsided when comparing title defenses. There have been 22 successful title defenses in the UFC Light Heavyweight division. From those 22 defenses, a measly TWO have come from outside the dynasties, and one of those defenses was considered an extremely controversial decision win for then champ, Lyoto Machida.
With combined reigns lasting 5 1/2 years longer and an incredible 20 more title defenses than their fellow Light Heavyweight titleholders, it is impossible to deny just how important the Light Heavyweight dynasties were to not only the division, but to the promotion as a whole, as well. Without the following four men, the UFC would very likely exist nowhere near the level it does today, IF it even did exist. In all honesty, if it were not for some of these men, MMA may have hardly had a presences in North America at all after the early 2000's. Due to these stunning achievements and contributions, Frank Shamrock, Tito Ortiz, Chuck Liddell, and Jon Jones have all permanently etched their names into the history of MMA and the UFC. Let's take a closer look into what makes that true for each of these MMA kings, starting with the inaugural UFC Light Heavyweight Champion, Frank Shamrock.
Champion from December 21, 1997 to November 24, 1999
Length of Reign: 703 Days
- Igor Vinoviev, UFC 16, March 1998
- Jeremy Horn, UFC 17, May 1998
- John Lober, UFC Brazil, Oct. 1998
- Tito Ortiz, UFC 22, Sept. 1999
In 1997, after years of competing in the Japanese promotions, mainly Pancrase, Frank Shamrock finally followed his brother Ken to the UFC and immediately began to write the history of the promotion and sport. The younger Shamrock made his promotional debut in December of 1997 and needed only 16 seconds to become the UFC Light Heavyweight division's inaugural champion, then known as the UFC Middleweight Championship, when he defeated American Olympic gold medalist Kevin Jackson via armbar at UFC Japan. This made him not only the first champion of the division, but also the first man to hold a championship in the UFC outside of the Heavyweight division.
Upon gaining the title, his exciting fights and displays of a well-rounded skill set provided stability and credibility to the fledgling division which proved to be crucial in its development. We would later see divisions likeLightweightand Middleweight flounder initially because of their lack of a credible champion, and even see their belts lie vacant not long after they were first awarded. Shamrock prevented the Light Heavyweight division from suffering through similar circumstances allowing the division to flow smoothly from the very beginning with minimal growing pains. His final title defense against Tito Ortiz at UFC 22 was considered at the time to be the greatest fight in the the history of the promotion and is still viewed as a classic to this day.
After dispatching Ortiz, Shamrock unexpectedly retired undefeated from the UFC after claiming a lack of competition and would never return to the promotion as a fighter. Even though he would go on to feud with the UFC for years after exiting as its champion, he left a strong foundation for the division to grow on in his absence and that is really what his dynasty is built on more than anything else.
TITO "THE HUNTINGTON BEACH BAD BOY" ORTIZ
Champion from April 14, 2000 to September 26, 2003
Length of Reign: 1260 Days
- Yuki Kondo, UFC 29, Dec. 2000
- Evan Tanner, UFC 30, Feb. 2001
- Elvis Sinosic, UFC 32, June 2001
- Vladimir Matyushenko, UFC 33, Sept. 2001
- Ken Shamrock, UFC 40, Nov. 2002
Unlike his predecessor, "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" Tito Ortiz had already reached stardom in the UFC before ever setting his sights on what was still referred to as the UFC Middleweight Championship. After making his debut in 1997, Ortiz would quickly become one of the division's main players. After concluding a memorable series of fights with members of the Lion's Den, a team organized and ran by his arch rival Ken Shamrock, and a failed attempt at claiming the championship from Frank Shamrock during their classic main event at UFC 22, Ortiz's reign atop the division would finally begin in the Spring of 2000.
After defeating future Pride FC great Wanderlei Silva via UD for the vacant and freshly minted UFC Light Heavyweight Championship at UFC 25, Ortiz would begin to tear through the companies top competition, defending his title a then record five times, including defenses against Evan Tanner, Vladimir Matyushenko, and Ken Shamrock, all while becoming a bigger star for the promotion every step of the way. His growing star power would quickly become an invaluable asset and act as a stabilizing force for the company during the dark financial days that would define the UFC during his reign. Without Ortiz at the helm of the division and the success of UFC 40, a card headlined by Ortiz vs Ken Shamrock, the UFC would likely be out of business today or owned by parties other than Dana White and the Fertitta brothers.
Ortiz's refusal, however, to defend his title against the #1 Contender Chuck Liddell in 2003 would lead to the biggest controversy of his reign, but also to the biggest PPV in the UFC's history up to that point in April, 2004. Even though his reign would be ended by Interim champion Randy Couture in September of 2003, before his first encounter with Liddell only months later, Ortiz would remain one of the UFC's most important and popular draws for years to come. He would never regain the title, but his reign saw him rise to the top of the sport in North America and he would continued to face world class competition until his exit from the UFC in 2012. Even though he would only be victorious in one fight between the end of 2006 and mid-2014, his record of 5 title defenses and 1,260 days as champion would stand as the most ever by a UFC Light Heavyweight Champion until both were finally exceeded by current champion, Jon Jones.
While he will always be remembered by fans for his brash, cocky attitude, his willingness to create and stoke controversy, and his constant run-ins with the UFC's main office, Ortiz's most massive contributions to the sport will always prove to be the fact that he provided much needed life support to the UFC during its struggles that would be instrumental to the promotions ability to survive its tribulations and successfully advance to the next phase of its development in the mid-2000's. Without Ortiz and others to bridge the gap between eras, the UFC's chances of success would have been drastically reduced.
CHUCK "THE ICEMAN" LIDDELL
Champion from April 16, 2005 to May 26, 2007
Length of Reign: 770 Days
- Jeremy Horn, UFC 54, Aug. 2005
- Randy Couture, UFC 57, Feb. 2006
- Renato Sobral, UFC 62, Aug. 2006
- Tito Ortiz, UFC 66, Dec. 2006
One of the more interesting personalities to ever enter the Octagon, the kickboxing, Division I wrestling, accountant from Santa Barbara, CA, made his promotional debut against Jeremy Horn in 1999. Even though he would lose his debut match against the ultra experienced Horn, the potential star power of "The Iceman" became undeniable after he spent more than three years competing against, and often defeating, the best competition in not only the UFC, but also its larger Japanese competitor, Pride FC.
By 2003, he was chasing the top of division and the belt. After failing to lure then champion Tito Ortiz into the cage, Liddell settled for an Interim Light Heavyweight Championship opportunity in June of 2003. While he would ultimately fall short against Randy Couture in the championship bout, Liddell would get his next opportunity at claiming gold less than two years later. A stint coaching along side Randy Couture during the first season of the groundbreaking show The Ultimate Fighter climaxed at UFC 52 in a highly anticipated rematch between the two legends.
This time there would be no interim props at stake. Instead the competition would be for Couture's Undisputed UFC Light Heavyweight Championship. Once the bout commenced, Captain America would not be able to match his prior success against his challenger and would eventually fail to advance past the first stanza, falling to Liddell's strikes early and relinquishing the championship. Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell had ascended to the top of the division and the UFC was about to experience a windfall of good grace and fortune directly due to the rise of their newest superstar.
Undoubtedly the most beloved title holder in the history of the division, Liddell was the perfect champion at the perfect time for both the Light Heavyweight class and the UFC. Spring boarding off of the tremendous momentum gained by "The Ultimate Fighter" and taking full advantage of UFC's new partnership with Spike TV, Liddell would become the biggest star in the history of the UFC and usher them into a new era of unprecedented success. Outfitted with his trademark Mohawk, tattooed head, a grisly yet inviting personality, and his extraordinarily violent, exceedingly fan friendly style of fighting, Liddell kicked down the door to mainstream American pop culture and thrived there in a manner and duration previously unheard of for a UFC champion. Everything about the man intrigued the multitudes of new fans rushing to the sport. The UFC could not have asked for more as spectators became increasingly infatuated with the newly crowned champ.
After beginning his reign by avenging his loss to Jeremy Horn via TKO, Liddell would follow up the feat by engaging in and completing what is likely the most successful trilogy in the history of North American MMA. Randy Couture had earned his rematch by also being victorious at UFC 54 and fully intended to reclaim the belt he lost to Liddell. The former champion would only last one round longer than his previous encounter with "The Iceman," however, and would once again fall to strikes. The victory further legitimized the already wildly popular Liddell's reign and was another massively profitable event for his employers, grossing $3.3 million at the gate and likely topping 400,000 PPV buys, an astronomical number for the company in 2006. Even with the huge steps taken by UFC 57, though, this event was only a precursor to Liddell's future achievements and would eventually come nowhere near the heights of future events that he would soon headline.
After stopping yet another top contender in Renato Sobral at UFC 62, with strikes no less, Chuck Liddell readied himself for the most significant event of his reign. While Tito Ortiz had lost his title at UFC 44 and was also defeated by Liddell in their grudge match at UFC 47, "The Huntington Beach Bad Boy" had secured the third title shot of his career on the strength of a five fight winning streak that had stretched on for over two years. This was a dream scenario for the UFC, as Tito's name recognition was actually comparable, though probably not equal, to the champion's at the time. The undisputed biggest fight in the history of the UFC to that point was promptly scheduled to take place in December of 2006 at UFC 66, possibly the most important event in the history of the UFC.
By the time Liddell had forced Ortiz to relent in the third round of their championship battle, the UFC had come of age. The numbers produced by UFC 66 dwarfed every record the UFC had ever set for itself. The gate had grossed a staggering $5 million, a new record by far, but vastly more important than even that was the shows performance on PPV. For the first time ever in its 13 year existence, the UFC had surpassed 1 million buys on PPV. It would not be the last time the UFC would exceed 1 million buys, but UFC 66 would mark the arrival of the UFC as not only an industry leader, but as a powerhouse corporation that has never again sunk even remotely close to the depths it had experienced only a few short years before that.
Even the defeat of Liddell at the hands of former Pride FC standout Quentin "Rampage" Jackson five months later at UFC 71 couldn't quell the exponential rise of the UFC. The company was already off to the races and not even the fall of its biggest star could stop it at this point. Luckily, the lack of the UFC Light Heavyweight Championship had as little affect on Liddell as his dethroning had on the UFC. With his popularity intact, he would go on to prove the worth of his dynasty by headlining or co-headlining five more events against elite competition. Unfortunately, he would lose four of those five contests, with three of those losses coming due to violent KO's, before being forced into retirement. Even then, however, his fan support never waned. This continues to serve him well to this day, as Liddell still continues to be one of the most beloved and respected icons at the disposal of the industry. The former champion has managed to retain his celebrity more than four years after his last bout, allowing him to function in the mainstream to this day while also remaining with the UFC in an administrative capacity.
During his time with the belt, Chuck "The Iceman" Liddell became the most financially viable personality of the era and possibly of all time. His four bouts with Tito Ortiz and Randy Couture helped to propel the industry into a new stratosphere of exposure and popularity while also elevating his own level of stardom well past any previously enjoyed by an MMA fighter in North America. While his reign was not the most accomplished from a competitive perspective, it helped him to contribute more to the promotion and industry than any fighter that came before, undeniably making Liddell the most important and valuable UFC Light Heavyweight Champion in division history and arguably the most invaluable and indispensable champion in industry history.
JON "BONES" JONES
CURRENT UFC LIGHT HEAVYWEIGHT CHAMPION
Champion from March 19, 2011 to PRESENT
Length of Reign: 1292+ Days
- Quinton Jackson, UFC 135, Sept. 2011
- Lyoto Machida, UFC 140, Dec. 2011
- Rashad Evans, UFC 145, April 2012
- Vitor Belfort, UFC 152, Sept. 2012
- Chael Sonnen, UFC 159, April 2013
- Alexander Gustafsson, UFC 165, Sept. 2013
- Glover Teixeira, UFC 172, April 2014
Vitor Belfort may hold the rights to the nickname "The Phenom," but when it comes to actually personifying the word, Jon "Bones" Jones cannot be matched. Jones was born in 1987, made his professional debut 21 years later in April of 2008, his Octagon debut in August of 2008 after only a mere 6 professional fights, and was the UFC Light Heavyweight Champion before he was 24 years of age, younger than any man to win a title in the UFC before him. The lightning fast rate of his ascent to the top has never been seen and will almost certainly not be duplicated for what could be decades.
Still only 27 years old, the current champion has already become the most competitively successful and impressive champion the division has ever known. While technically not undefeated due to a DQ for illegal elbows before his title reign began, "Bones" has never truly tasted defeat and has only appeared to even be near it on one or two occasions. With seven title defenses and quickly coming up on a 1,500 day reign, no one has ever held onto the belt longer than Jones. Possibly the most impressive and least likely divisional record to be tied or exceeded that is currently held by Jones is his record of five consecutive victories over former Light Heavyweight Champions, consisting of Mauricio "Shogun" Rua, Quentin "Rampage" Jackson, Lyoto Machida, Rashad Evans, and Vitor Belfort. This is an accomplishment unequaled in any other division by any other champion and will likely remain so for many years to come.
If "Bones" current stretch of domination continues for more than a year, it is more than likely that he will have eliminated all valid contenders to his championship before he even comes within a year of his 30th birthday. While a rematch with Alexander Gustafsson, a grudge match with Olympic wreslter and arch rival Daniel Cormier, and an interesting matchup with Anthony "Rumble" Johnson are all very likely, there will likely be no worthy challengers left for Jones to compete against for some time if one the three men mentioned above can't end his time as champion. Consecutive victories over his next three challengers, again, likely to be the men listed above, will set him on par with Anderson Silva for the most title defenses in any division in UFC history, yet another milestone he will likely reach before he turns 30. In fact, it is almost a foregone conclusion that he will be the most decorated champion the UFC has ever seen before he sees the second year of his third decade.
Honestly, the only category that a champion should be concerned with that Jones doesn't already dominate or come close to dominating in so far is drawing PPV sales, but even that is misleading. He may not have the drawing history or ability of Chuck Liddell, probably the most financially successful Light Heavyweight Champion in history, but time is once again on his side. His numbers will almost certainly improve as his resume, legacy, and legend grows. It is entirely possible that Jones has a decade or more left in his already HoF career. If his dominance stays anywhere near the level he is holding right now, becoming a major PPV draw over time should not be an issue for him. He may not even have to wait that long to achieve truly major PPV success.
If his planned bout with Cormier can pick up the momentum it had going before an injury forced it to be delayed it will almost certainly be the highest grossing event to be headlined by Jones in his career and will likely put him very close to Liddell's career PPV's sales mark . Knowing Jones tendency to alienate some fans and Cormier's willingness to call the champ out for any perceived slight, regaining all the steam lost because of the injury to Jones should just be a matter of getting the two back in front of a camera together. The potential for a MASSIVE payday for all involved is there, so expect fireworks in this feud long before "Bones" and Cormier actually step into the cage with one and other. But honestly, however it goes in the promotion and marketing at this point, a win for Jones will go a long way in developing his star power.
Hugely successful draw right away or not, it is plain to see that Jon "Bones" Jones has an amazing, unprecedented opportunity to become the greatest champion the UFC has yet to employ, both from a competitive and a financial perspective. No other champion has been gifted with not just the skills Jones possesses, but also the amount of time Jones will have to ply his trade and build upon his already legendary legacy and dynasty. He still stands behind Liddell when it comes to contributions to the division and the sport, but if he continues on the path he has set for himself, Jon "Bones" Jones will one day be considered not only the greatest light heavyweight of all time, but the greatest Mixed Martial Artist of all time.
After examining the careers of the most influential titleholders in the UFC Light Heavyweight division, it should be clear that the men discussed here are part of one of the most special, accomplished groups of champions to ever step onto the canvas. Whether it was Frank Shamrock and his legacy of laying the foundation of the division, Tito Ortiz and his contributions to keeping the industry alive, Chuck Liddell carrying the UFC on his back to the promised land, or Jon Jones redefining what is physically possible in the Octagon, each of these legends have contributed and continue to contribute to the growing story and history of MMA, the UFC, and the Light Heavyweight division. While it may be impossible to see what history will be made in the UFC Light Heavyweight division in the years to come, or who exactly it will be that is making it, if the legacy of the 205 lbs. class and the legacies of the men who built it has anything to teach us, its that the most productive UFC division in history will continue to unleash once-in-a-generatoin, transcendent champions. These future rulers of the division, like their predecessors before them, will have the ability to push themselves, their competition, their division, and their promotion to previously unreachable heights that are only visible to those of us capable of combining the heart, determination, and skills of a champion with the ambition and vision of a king.