The UFC light heavyweight division has hosted some of the biggest names in the sport during the Octagon’s lifetime.
With light heavyweight champ Jon Jones set to face Thiago Santos in the UFC 239 main event July 6, let’s run through some of the legendary rivalries in this marquee division.
Originally called the middleweight championship, Frank Shamrock was the first man to hold the belt, defeating Kevin Jackson in 16 seconds at UFC Japan in December 1997.
Shamrock was one of the earliest UFC fighters with a truly diverse skillset and training methods focused on finding men who could teach him new skills outside the comfort of a “home team.”
Shamrock dominated the division before clashing with Tito Ortiz in one of the UFC’s more formative grudge matches. Ortiz had run through Lion’s Den fighters — a gym run by Shamrock’s adopted brother Ken — and his taunting of Frank’s brother was central to the fight’s marketing.
Ortiz was a much larger fighter than Shamrock, something that caused Shamrock trouble in the early stages of the fight. In the end, Shamrock won by submission when he finally pinned an increasingly tired Ortiz to the mat in the fourth round and battered him with punches to a submission finish.
Shamrock retired from the UFC after defeating Ortiz. That set the table for Tito to become champion with a win over Wanderlei Silva at UFC 25 in April 2000.
After four consecutive title defenses, a fight four years in the making was put together: Tito Ortiz vs. Ken Shamrock.
The rivalry between Ken and Ortiz was more legitimate than Frank and Ortiz. It stemmed from Tito defeating two Lion’s Den fighters and showing disrespect to Ken.
The Lion’s Den was one of the first true “teams” in MMA. Shamrock — a UFC legend dating back to UFC 1 — was the man running the show, so his fighters falling to a brash, disrespectful kid got deeply under his skin.
Their fight at UFC 40 was a major commercial success for the promotion. It delivered some significant in-cage fireworks with Shamrock almost scoring a first-round knockout. That was before Ortiz turned the fight around and dominated before Shamrock’s corner threw in the towel prior to the start of the fourth round.
Shamrock had suffered a bad weight cut coming into the fight and had a badly injured knee, both leading to the way the fight played out and the abrupt end. But Ortiz had proven himself the better fighter and a more than worthy champion.
Former two-time heavyweight champion Randy Couture decided to move down in weight. That set up a fight with one of the UFC’s top fighters and fan favorite, Chuck Liddell.
The UFC 43 fight would be for the interim UFC light heavyweight championship. And, it would propel the winner into a unification bout with Ortiz.
Despite his status as an underdog, Couture beat the odds. He out-boxed Liddell before taking the fight to the mat. He scored a TKO via strikes from mount to become the first man in UFC history to hold titles in two different weight classes.
Couture went on to defeat Ortiz and unify the championships. Meanwhile Liddell represented the UFC in a tournament for the Japanese promotion PRIDE Fighting Championships. Liddell then returned from Japan and defeated Ortiz in a highly anticipated bout. Then he knocked out Vernon White to set up a rematch for Couture’s title.
Liddell scored a quick knockout in the rematch at UFC 52 to become champion.
Liddell and Couture would face off in one final contest for the belt at UFC 57. Liddell, again, scored a knockout, this time in the second round, to establish supremacy.
There were plenty of great fights and meaningful rivalries in the ensuing years. But the dominant rivalry in the modern era of the UFC is Jon Jones vs. Daniel Cormier.
Jones has proven himself the most dominant fighter in UFC history. But he has found himself in trouble for reasons relating to his personal life time and time again. Cormier meanwhile is a former Olympian with titles in multiple weight classes and a relaxed, charming personality.
Their different temperaments and high skill levels make them perfect foils.
The two men had a heated rivalry that boiled over at a media day event for their scheduled UFC 178 fight, leading to a wild brawl.
Jones was forced out of that bout due to injury. But the fight did happen at UFC 182. Jones won a unanimous decision in a Fight of the Night performance.
Unfortunately, Jones was stripped of the title after a felony hit-and-run incident months later.
While Jones was sidelined, Cormier won the light heavyweight title. He was then all set to defend that title against the returning Jones at UFC 200. Instead, Jones was pulled from the bout owing to a doping violation. Cormier then defeated UFC legend Anderson Silva on short notice.
The rematch did take place at UFC 214, with Jones winning by impressive third round knockout. But Jones being Jones, it was announced that he’d failed a drug test once again. The bout was overturned to a No Contest with Cormier retaining the championship.
Cormier defended the 205-pound title one more time before moving up to heavyweight where he became champion.
Despite Jones returning and becoming light heavyweight champion once again and Cormier having moved up to dominate another weight class, the two men seem destined for one last dance.
“There’s still a lot of interest in me fighting Daniel Cormier for some reason,” Jones told ESPN. “I don’t really know what it is. The first time I won by unanimous decision and the second time I won by knockout, so I don’t know why people want to see us fight again so bad. But, at heavyweight I guess that would add a few different factors. So yeah, if that’s the fight the world wants to see, I know one thing about the UFC, we give the fans what they want.”