It’s now been 15 years since the final Pride 205-pound grand prix. It’s one of those sobering bits of trivia that makes you realize how screwy MMA’s inherent sense of time is, how this sport twists the temporal plane. These kinds of realizations can be helpful, though. Case in point: this Saturday night’s UFC main event is another reminder that 15 years may seem to pass in the blink of an eye, but it’s a damn long time, especially for MMA’s light heavyweight division.
Fifteen years plus a day from when Mauricio ‘Shogun Rua vaulted himself from the sport’s hottest prospect to bona fide MMA royalty in one evening, light heavyweight contenders Aleskandar Rakic and Anthony Smith will square off in Las Vegas. A 12-2 Austrian without much hype coming off a loss, facing a career journeyman whose surprise Cinderella run of 2017-18 seems to have come to an end … seems like the usual fodder that fans would complain about not being “main event quality” or simply its inability to rouse interest in a lethargic 205-pound division.
Maybe in some small way, such critics are right: a Rakic-Smith fight wouldn’t have passed muster for headliner status 15 years ago – hell, maybe not even five years ago – and certainly whatever happens inside the UFC APEX this weekend won’t hold a candle to what Shogun did a decade and a half earlier. That’s fine; Rakic-Smith isn’t designed to be a tribute to the monumental, milestone moment—moments, really—that night in Saitama, Japan. If anything, Saturday night’s feature fight is simply a sign of the times, another in what figures to be a long line of awkward growing pains as the 205-pound division recalibrates itself following Jon Jones’ near-decade reign of terror both in and out of cage.
A few weeks ago, I wrote about the strange reversal of fortunes for the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions in recent years, as 185 pounds is now among the most intriguing and electric weight classes in the sport after a lengthy tenure as one of MMA’s black sheep divisions, while the historically celebrated 205-pound division has been slowly, painfully moving into its post-Jones era without the expected star power to fill the void. No one knows when the next mega prospect will arrive on the scene and put the division on notice, the way Shogun and Jones did so dramatically, and that’s certainly not the kind of sudden fortune you can reliably bank on. Instead, all we can do as spectators is wait for promoters to put the pieces together as best they can fit them, let the fighters sort it out in the cage and follow the tracks to see who dares to step into ‘Jonny Bones’’ generational footsteps. That’s what Rakic-Smith is about.
Even with a roster full of elite, prime light heavyweights, it would be nearly impossible for the UFC to measure up to the multi-faceted spectacle of Pride Final Conflict 2005. We the UFC won’t be staging the semifinals and finals of a richly talented tournament in a single night any time soon, but that particular finale just had so damn much going on. One of the sport’s biggest stars, Wanderlei Silva, finally taking on archrival Ricardo Arona, the highest iteration of the Chute Boxe vs. Brazilian Top Team feud? Alistair Overeem, finally breaking out of his shell with back-to-back wins over Vitor Belfort and Igor Vovchanchyn, facing off with “Shogun”, whose tournament victories over Quinton “Rampage” Jackson and Antonio Rogerio Nogueira made him an immediate fan favorite? The prefight hypothesizing about what would happen if teammates Silva and Rua met in the finals, replete with second-hand stories knocking him out in the gym over ownership of a dog? When combined with the savagely anticipated Fedor Emelianenko-Mirko “CroCop” Filipovic heavyweight showdown, it is easily among the most feverishly anticipated card in MMA history, if not the absolute tops.
The swaggering cocksure Arona pulled off the upset over Silva. Rua escaped an early scare from Overeem’s vaunted guillotine choke to pound him out. Then, Shogun got revenge for Chute Boxe over Arona a few hours later with a missed stomp and a volley of brutal hammerfists to claim the grand prix championship and vault himself into rarified air with the finest fighters in the sport. The rest is history. But, that’s exactly what it is: history.
Yes, we can all pop in a DVD or log onto UFC Fight Pass and try to recapture the thrills and chills that went with “Shogun’s” coronation, or any other iconic MMA moments. There’s always a time and place for thoughtful nostalgia and frankly, watching old fights can be a surprising and edifying experience, seeing things you missed previously or completely considering an athlete or a fight in a new light – I recommend it. But, no matter our fondness of things past, we can’t dwell on them to such an extent that it robs us of whatever joy we can extract from the present.
No, Saturday night won’t give us our next 205-pound superstar, but you’re either mistaken or lying to act as if Rakic and Smith aren’t both entertaining fighters and a copacetic style matchup. Rakic is a diverse and dynamic striker with real poise and technique from range, whereas Smith really excels with gritty clinch tactics and surprisingly strong top game. Rakic’s loss to Volkan Oezdemir last December was his first loss in over eight years and it was a fight in which he deserved the close nod in; a win there would’ve had him in at least a title eliminator bout this time out. As for Smith, despite his 1-2 record over his last three bouts, remains a quaint curiosity due to his eye-opening mid-career breakout and ever-scrappy disposition. Hell, if not for adhering to his own code of fighting ethics and morality, he would’ve already been a UFC champion by now, as he could’ve easily opted to not continue in his title fight with Jones in March of last year after ‘Bones’ illegally kicked him while grounded.
The fact is, while it is far from the No. 1 spot in the division or a title like Pride grand prix champion, there is still legitimate stakes in a Rakic-Smith fight. Jones and Daniel Cormier are gone. We have no idea what the next step for Alexander Gustafsson is. With Jan Blachowicz-Domnick Reyes coming up in just four weeks time to determine the next UFC light heavyweight champion, there’s little in the way of a clear pecking order for contendership. Logically, the Sept. 12 bout between Brazilian Thiago Santos and Glover Teixeira seems like the most likely bout to cement the next challenger, given Teixeira May stoppage of Smith as well as Santos’ razor-thin decision loss to Jones in their title bout nearly 14 months ago. Beyond that, it’s slim pickings. Jiri Prochazka, who made an explosive statement in his UFC debut against the aforementioned Oezdemir in July, will be quickly moved along in that process and may even prove to be the next fight for the Rakic-Smith winner. Outside of Prochazka, it’ll be an exercise in time and patience to see how the likes of Magomed Ankalaev, Jimmy Crute, Jamahal Hill and Alonzo Menifield develop and whether or not they’ll ascend to legitimate contender status.
Rakic-Smith isn’t some sort of nadir for the light heavyweight division, a longstanding cash cow for the UFC’s business. It’s a necessary evil and even if the absence of Jones, Cormier and others make it seem as if the bar for 205-pound greatness has been drastically dropped to lower height, it still imbues fights like this – “main events” that seem like pairings of also-rans – with considerable consequence and importance. It’s only natural, especially on anniversary like this, that we dream about who might be the “next Shogun Rua” or “next Jon Jones”. Our more immediate reality, however, is simply “Who is next?” – period – and that’s a question.
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