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UFC Stockholm, The Morning After: Light Heavyweight division is finally moving forward

Change is one of the only trustworthy constants in life. That’s particularly true in the fight game, where fighters make the jump from prospect to champion in a few short months, or where the previous champion suddenly falls off an athletic cliff.

Yet, over the years, Light Heavyweight has changed very little. It’s been eight years since Jones captured the title, and multiple generations of athletes have challenged him. First, it was the old guard, the veterans and prior champions of that era — Lyoto Machida, Quinton Jackson, and Rashad Evans among others. Next came fighters who began fighting around the same time as Jones; men of similar age to the champion like the athletes in last night’s main event, Alexander Gustafsson and Anthony Smith.

While Jones thrashed them all the same, a problem arose. For a few years now, it seemed that no one new was rising through the ranks to replace the fighters of Jones’ generation. There were few hotshot athletes in their 20s who inspired hope. Instead, the matchmakers have been pulling Middleweights up to throw at the dominant kingpin, such as Smith, Thiago Santos, and if he’s able to win a fight or two, Luke Rockhold.

The last year or so has been different. For example, Johnny Walker burst onto the scene, scoring three vicious knockout wins in the time it takes to put together a ham sandwich. Another hopeful in Dominick Reyes has won five straight, climbing into the top 10 at the age of 29.

Last night, the wheel turned once more. Setting the tone, longtime UFC vet Ilir Latifi was unable to make his fight due to a last-second back injury. In the co-main event, Aleksandar Rakic walked into the cage opposite veteran knockout artist Jimi Manuwa. Just 27 years of age, Rakic is an aggressive finisher with well-rounded skills. It took him only 47 seconds to obliterate “The Poster Boy” with a massive left head kick — one of the most violent one-strike knockouts of the year.

Manuwa, who is nearly 40, has now lost four straight and will slip further down the rankings.

The main event was a battle of two men supposedly in their primes. Smith performed reasonably well; Gustafsson did not, looking hesitant to pull the trigger and unable to accomplish much in nearly 20 minutes of Octagon time. When Smith climbed onto his back and sunk in the choke, Gustafsson left his gloves in the Octagon.

It may hurt to watch Manuwa fall like an uprooted oak tree or see Gustafsson strangled in his home country, yet change is good for all but the established fighters. Even Smith, who was victorious last night, would likely be the underdog to any of three newcomers mentioned. New up-and-comers like Rakic have destabilized the Light Heavyweight gridlock, which will hopefully produce new and interesting challenges for Jones and higher quality fights.

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