HeavyMMA Rankings: The Light Heavyweight Division

Rashad Evans, our No. 2 light heavyweight, faces UFC champ and No. 1 205-pounder Jon Jones at UFC 145 on April 21

Division’s top two battle April 21 in Atlanta

HeavyMMA’s fighter rankings are back this week with a look at the light heavyweight division, which obviously has a rather big fight coming up in less than two weeks when UFC champion Jon Jones defends his title against former friend and training partner – and one-time champion – Rashad Evans at UFC 145 in Las Vegas.

Heavy’s panel consists of HeavyMMA editor Matt Brown, writer Duane Finley and writer/editor Matt Erickson. Each panelist compiles his rankings independently, and the votes are tabulated to reach the results listed below. Coming next week, we’ll take a look at the middleweight division.

1. Jon Jones
UFC champion (15-1, 9-1 UFC)
They keep inventing new accolades for “Bones” Jones, and the crazy thing is, they’re probably all deserved. The man has proven to be virtually unstoppable, with his lone loss being one giant asterisk technicality for a disqualification. He hasn’t gone to a decision in three years, finishing the likes of Ryan Bader, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua, Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Lyoto Machida – and that was just in 2011 alone. Jones gets arguably his biggest test yet, though, on April 21 in the UFC 145 main event in Atlanta against former friend and training partner Rashad Evans, and finally there will be some resolution to one of the biggest grudges in MMA history.

2. Rashad Evans
Former UFC champion (17-1-1, 12-1-1 UFC)
What a long, strange trip it’s been for Evans’ return to a light heavyweight title fight. If you don’t know the crazy back story by now, you probably shouldn’t be reading this. But Evans gets a shot at all kinds of redemption at UFC 145. He gets a shot Jon Jones, the fighter he believes stabbed him in the back on his way to the title. He gets a shot at his former coaches at the Greg Jackson camp who he believes betrayed him. He gets a chance to get back a belt he once held, which would make good on the only loss of his career. There’s plenty on the line. Plenty. And to top it all off, a win over Jones, a more than 5-to-1 favorite, would be one of the biggest title fight upsets in UFC history. No pressure at all.

3. Dan Henderson
Former Strikeforce champion (29-8, 6-2 UFC)
Hendo’s return to the UFC was an absolutely epic one – 2011’s Fight of the Year against Mauricio “Shogun” Rua. And now he apparently is content to sit back and wait for a title shot, either against the Jones-Evans winner or a drop down to middleweight to face the Anderson Silva-Chael Sonnen winner after their June 23 fight. And Dana White says he’s fine with this. Either way, he’s not likely to fight again before we vote next at 205, so he could actually move up to No. 2 without doing anything but waiting for Jones or Evans to lose. Or the next man on our list could jump a couple spots.

4. Alexander Gustafsson
(13-1, 5-1 UFC)
“The Mauler” has been drawing comparisons to Jon Jones, and with good reason. At 6-foot-5 and just 25 years old, he’s been an absolute wrecking machine his last four fights – winning all four by stoppage, which is how he’s won 12 of 13 times in his career. He’s got a big test on Saturday against Thiago Silva, who will be fighting for the first time in 16 months, in the main event of UFC on Fuel TV in his home country of Sweden. If he passes that test with flying colors, it may not be long before we see him challenging for the light heavyweight title.

5. Phil Davis
(9-1, 5-1 UFC)
Rashad Evans’ experience advantage appeared to play a role in Davis’ loss in January, the first of his career. And it came on the national stage on Fox. Now he has to go into regroup mode and fight his way back up the ladder. His next opponent is unknown, but it appears he’s reached a level in the game where they’re all going to be top-shelf caliber opponents like Evans.

6. Mauricio “Shogun” Rua
Former UFC champion (20-6, 4-4 UFC)
It’s been an up-and-down run for Shogun in the UFC. He hasn’t put together back-to-back wins since his second and third fights in the promotion, victories over Mark Coleman and Chuck Liddell – and the Coleman win was far from impressive. With his title reign now more than a year in the rearview mirror, Shogun needs to start the climb again after his five-round war with Dan Henderson. He likely fights Rampage Jackson later this year – if Rampage is healthy and hasn’t Tweeted his way out of the UFC by then.

7. Ryan Bader
(14-2, 7-2 UFC)
Bader’s loss last year to Jon Jones is understandable. But when he followed it up with a shocking submission loss to Tito Ortiz in July, he was in dangerous territory. But there’s no better way out of that then a 77-second knockout, then an absolute dismantling of a legend like Rampage Jackson in front of a Rampage-friendly Japanese crowd. Bader awaits his next opponent, but he’s clearly on his way back up the charts right now.

8. Gegard Mousasi
Former Strikeforce champion (32-3-2, 3-1-1 Strikeforce)
Mousasi still is very much a force to be reckoned with. He’s lost just once in the last five years, though his draw against Keith Jardine was clearly disappointing (and the result of a point deduction against him). Still the Dream light heavyweight champ, Mousasi was set to fight Mike Kyle a month ago until Kyle pulled out with an injury. He needs a fight, and soon, and he may just wind up getting another Strikeforce light heavyweight title shot soon. But he remains an intriguing choice to slide over to the UFC, where the level of competition will be greater than he’s ever faced – and he’s fought and beaten some solid names.

9. Lyoto Machida
Former UFC champion (17-3, 9-3 UFC)
Machida is hanging on to the Top 10 by just a couple threads since he’s lost three of his last four – and it could be argued that he was close to losing four of his last five. His first title defense against Shogun at UFC 104, he won a highly disputed decision that many observers, including Dana White, believe he lost. He, of course, lost the belt in the rematch, then lost a split decision to Rampage. His front kick knockout of Randy Couture last April at UFC 129 was enough to get him a title shot against Jones, who promptly put him to sleep. “The Dragon” does not yet have his next fight booked, but he’ll clearly need a win, and an impressive one to stay in the hunt.

10. Antonio Rogerio Nogueira
(20-5, 3-2 UFC)
After back-to-back losses to Ryan Bader and Phil Davis following a split decision win over Jason Brilz that many people believe he should have lost, “Little Nog” really needed a big win – and he got it. His first-round TKO against Tito Ortiz in December kept him hanging on in the Top 10. A knee injury knocked him out of the main event at this week’s UFC on Fuel TV event in Sweden against Alexander Gustafsson, and he may drop off this list in two months without a fight. But depending on the level of competition he gets next, he could be on the way back up after a rough run.

On the fringe: Muhammed Lawal, Stephan Bonnar, Thiago Silva, Forrest Griffin, Rafael Cavalcante, Randy Couture, Rich Franklin, Tito Ortiz, Brandon Vera, James Te Huna

Make sure to check out who ruled the roost in other divisions:
HeavyMMA’s Pound-for-Pound rankings (March 26)
HeavyMMA’s Heavyweight rankings (April 2)

And stay tuned for our every-Monday rankings in a new weight class!
HeavyMMA’s Middleweight rankings: Coming April 16
HeavyMMA’s Welterweight rankings: Coming April 23
HeavyMMA’s Lightweight rankings: Coming April 30
HeavyMMA’s Featherweight rankings: Coming May 7
HeavyMMA’s Bantamweight rankings: Coming May 14