ROUNDTABLE: Booking out the UFC’s light heavyweight top ten with Jon Jones’ impending return

Ryan Bader

With Jon Jones returning to the fold, how would you book out Ryan Bader and the rest of the top ten at light heavyweight into 2016?

 

MICHAEL BANE, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR

There are currently four fights to make for Jon Jones when he comes back. The first, Daniel Cormier, will happen when Jones has his next fight. Booking the light heavyweight division should be done with the assumption that we need to set up the most interesting fights possible for Jones after he recaptures the title. After Cormier, there are three more logical opponents for Jones as he defends the belt in his second title reign: Ryan Bader, Anthony Johnson, and Alexander Gustafsson.

While some may debate Bader’s title-worthiness, the guy is riding a five-fight winning streak, and has taken down some legitimate top 10 light heavyweights in doing so. There isn’t a lot of depth in this division any more, and Jones has already defended against many of the other higher ranked contenders. By virtue of his recent wins, and by process of elimination, Bader is one of the few marginally new and semi-interesting fights to make. Bader is also pretty popular, and this fight could sell decently well. There’s a rematch/redemption story to pitch as Jones defeated Bader when they were both up-and-comers. You can also flash some video of Bader momentarily locking Jones in a (harmless) guillotine choke to make it appear like it’s going to be competitive.

The obvious downside of Bader is that it’s not likely to be competitive. He has only a slightly better chance of beating Jones as do any of the writers on this website. But it’s not like we’re picking anyone else to beat Jones either, so in a division void of challengers, he’s one of the better options. What I don’t do is book Bader against anybody that could beat him. No need to burn one of the few matches you can sell Jones with. Just let him sit, and give him the next shot against the winner (Jones) of the next title fight.

After that, we’ve got Johnson. Johnson presents an exciting challenge as he hits about as hard as anyone on the planet. His legitimate, one-punch knockout power could end Jones’ night if he were to connect. That match has lost a lot of luster since Cormier beat him for the title, but it’s definitely one of the more intriguing matches out there. You can argue that he deserves a shot over Bader, but it might look better for him if he rebounds more before getting a match for the belt again. I’d give him someone he should dispatch easily, and can showcase his power in doing so. Sorry Shogun Rua, you’ve got a world of pain headed your way. Rua is also coming off a win, and has some nice name value to add to the fight. I’d pit these two against each other in a striking affair that may not last a full 60 seconds.

Gustaffson’s claim to the Jones fight rests almost solely on his out-of-this-world performance against Jones in 2013. In what was one of the greatest title fights ever (the best I have seen), Gustafsson pushed Jones to the limit and made the former champion appear mortal for once. The amount of attrition shown by both fighters was insane, and you couldn’t have asked for more in a fight where the stakes were so high. Like Johnson, a fight with Gustafsson has also lost some appeal with the losses the Swede has experienced since his fight with Jones. A couple of wins could easily rehab him, and a Jones vs. Gustafsson rematch can sell. Schedule Gustafsson vs. Rashad Evans in a match he should win. If he does what he’s supposed to, give him another fight against a vet with some name recognition before the rematch with Jones. In the event Rashad isn’t ready, doesn’t want the fight, or just wants to retire, Ovince Saint Preux would be a solid matchup as well.

None of these names really scream “must see”, but this is really about as good as it’s going to get, barring some uber-talented newcomer bursting onto the scene. When we start talking about OSP, Patrick Cummins, or Jimi Manuwa getting a crack at the belt, it’s time for Jones to make the move up to heavyweight.

 

FRANK HYDEN, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR

I would book Bader vs. Anthony Johnson, the Glover Teixiera-Patrick Cummins winner vs. Alexander Gustafsson, and Ovince St. Preux vs. Rashad Evans. That’s about it in terms of fights of consequence right now. If Bader wins, he gets the next title shot. If Johnson wins, he gets the Jon Jones-Daniel Cormier loser. The problem is, Jones has already beaten most of these guys, and Cormier would beat most (if not all) of them as well, so it’s a little hard to book. I think you just let things play out a bit and hope someone emerges from the pack.

 

ERIC HOBAUGH, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR

Bader needs to fight Rumble Johnson no matter what his management team says. The Jones-Cormier fight is still months away, and the next fight for the winner is possibly a year off. The only other fighter with even a remote outside chance to beat the winner of Jones-Cormier is Gustafsson and he won’t fight again for at least 6 months. The rest of the pack is fighting to stay in the top 10 and none of them have any chance to win the title at 205 lbs as long as Jon Jones is around.

 

DAYNE FOX, MMATORCH CONTRIBUTOR

This is a tricky question. Bader is very much deserving of a title shot at this point, but we all know that isn’t going to happen with Jones coming back. Bader has been reluctant to face Rumble Johnson despite Rumble calling for the fight, and I can see where the UFC isn’t going to force the issue. Light heavyweight is so thin up top that I wouldn’t want to eliminate a potential worthy title challenger if I were the brass, and that is exactly what Johnson and Bader both represent. So I’m gonna do a bunch of thinking outside the box on this…

Most have been saying that Bader will end up facing Glover Teixeira, as it is expected that Teixeira will defeat Patrick Cummins at the next UFC event. How about matching Teixeira with Rumble instead? Teixeira would gain more by beating Rumble rather than beating Bader for a second time, which would allow him to reestablish himself as a contender. That would allow the UFC to keep two contenders, with Rumble having to work himself back into contention once again. As for Bader, there isn’t a real option that would make sense. So with the UFC constantly taking advantage of Shogun Rua’s name value, why not give Bader the chance to add the legend’s name to his list when Shogun is coming off of a victory? There isn’t much time left to take advantage of Shogun’s star power, so I think they’ll try to do that here. I acknowledge that Shogun has been more Hyde than Jekyll as of late, but when Shogun’s Jekyll side shows up there are few who can withstand his onslaught.

Perhaps more important than maintaining some viable contenders is rehabilitating Alexander Gustafsson, as Gus has now lost three of his last four. The UFC should do everything in their power to get Gus back on the winning track, even if it means giving him an obviously easy matchup. Then again, that might be happening thanks to a lack of viable options to give him a competitive fight. If Cummins falls short to Teixeira (which most expect), look for that fight to happen, as Cummins has proven that he doesn’t mind taking a fight that most expect him to lose. Rashad Evans and Ovince St. Preux are at different stages of their career, but also in a situation to prove that they are capable of facing and beating the elite of the division. As a result it makes a lot of sense to match them up and let the winner get an opportunity against the elite from there. That leaves only Jimi Manuwa and Rampage Jackson to round out the official UFC rankings. The problem is Rampage has to resolve his legal issues with Bellator, so his availability is a complete mystery. So how about pitting Manuwa with Lil’ Nog?
As a quick addendum, I think Corey Anderson will be breaking into the top 10 by the end of next year, but I don’t want to see the UFC rush him as he will be participating in only his eighth professional fight Nov. 7 against Fabio Maldonado. Rather than rush him into the top 10, I’d rather see him get one more fight against someone like Nikita Krylov before swimming with the sharks. He seems to be the lone prospect the UFC has that could develop into something, so I’d be very careful with him if I were the brass.

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