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UFC 253 Where We Stand: Light Heavyweight

With the light heavyweight belt on the line this weekend, we take a look at the state of the 205-pound division.

For the first time in nearly a decade, the light heavyweight division is set to have a champion not named Jon Jones or Daniel Cormier. With the former’s decision to move up to the heavyweight ranks and the latter’s retirement, the 205-pound landscape has never been more unpredictable. Granted, Jones’ last two title defenses against Thiago Santos and Dominick Reyes hinted at the evolution in the division’s new blood.

Reyes and Polish finisher Jan Blachowicz are set to fight for the vacant belt at UFC 253 on Fight Island this weekend, but there are plenty of light heavyweights looking to make their case to compete for gold sooner rather than later, as well as a new wave of lethal up-and-comers bringing a new spice to the weight class. With that in mind, we take a dive into the top of the rankings before the belt is claimed. 

Champion: Vacant

1) Dominick Reyes

(12-1, 7 KOs, 2 Submissions)
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision loss vs Jon Jones (2/8/2020)
Next fight: vs Jan Blachowicz @ UFC 253 (9/26/2020

BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 18: (L-R) Dominick Reyes punches Chris Weidman in their light heavyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at TD Garden on October 18, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)
BOSTON, MASSACHUSETTS - OCTOBER 18: (L-R) Dominick Reyes punches Chris Weidman in their light heavyweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at TD Garden on October 18, 2019 in Boston, Massachusetts. (Photo by Chris Unger/Zuffa LLC via Getty Images)

Outlook: Before his title shot at UFC 247, the general sense about Dominick Reyes was that he was a powerful, technically sound fighter but not one who could really challenge Jon Jones. Boy, were the doubters wrong. Reyes pushed Jones harder than anyone not named Alexander Gustafsson and left many believing he should’ve received the judges’ nod. That wasn’t reality, though, and Reyes was left wondering what was next and hoping for a rematch. What he got was a second shot at the belt and a chance to usher in the new era in the division, and based on his showing against Jones, Reyes showed he has the power, fight IQ and wrestling ability to take command in the Octagon against the very best to ever do it. Whether he builds on that performance or is discouraged by the result is yet to be seen, but Reyes is definitely a real problem for anyone in the division.

2) Thiago Santos

(21-7, 15 KOs, 1 Submission)
Last Fight: Split Decision Loss vs Jon Jones (7/6/2020)
Next fight: TBD

BELEM, BRAZIL - FEBRUARY 03:  (R-L) Thiago Santos of Brazil kicks Anthony Smith in their middleweight bout during the UFC Fight Night event at Mangueirinho Arena on February 03, 2018 in Belem, Brazil. (Photo by Buda Mendes/Zuffa LLC/Zuffa LLC via Getty Im

Outlook: One of the bigger sliding-door moments in recent UFC memory stems from Thiago Santos’ left knee exploding in the middle of his back-and-forth contest against Jon Jones at UFC 239. Despite the injury, Santos pushed Jones to a split decision and earned the ever dangerous “what if?” mantra around his title shot. But instead of a belt, Santos underwent surgery and more than a year of rehab. It was a derailing moment for the Brazilian, who had been on a three-fight winning streak after moving up from middleweight to 205 pounds. In his return to the Octagon, Santos was twice slated to fight Glover Texeira, but positive COVID tests have kept that bout from happening. At 36 years old, it’s not certain how much longer Santos has, but because he spent most of his UFC career at 185 pounds, he has plenty of options in terms of fights to take that could propel him back up to a title shot, including a TKO win over title challenger Jan Blachowicz. 

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3) Jan Blachowicz

(26-8, 7 KOs, 9 Submissions)
Last Fight: KO win vs Corey Anderson (2/15/2020)
Next fight: vs Dominick Reyes @ UFC 253 (9/26/2020)

SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 16: (L-R) Jan Blachowicz of Poland punches Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza of Brazil in their light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event at Ibirapuera Gymnasium on November 16, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Zuffa LLC)
SAO PAULO, BRAZIL - NOVEMBER 16: (L-R) Jan Blachowicz of Poland punches Ronaldo 'Jacare' Souza of Brazil in their light heavyweight fight during the UFC Fight Night event on November 16, 2019 in Sao Paulo, Brazil. (Photo by Alexandre Schneider/Zuffa LLC)

Outlook: For the better part of the last three years, Jan Blachowicz has lived as the dark horse in the light heavyweight division. Since October 2017, Blachowicz is 7-1 with four finishes over the likes of Luke Rockhold, Corey Anderson and Nikita Krylov. His momentum hit a bump when Thiago Santos beat him in a main event by TKO, but a pair of knockouts (Rockhold and Anderson) and a split decision win over Ronaldo Souza were quality enough to land him in contention for the vacant belt. At 37 years old, this could be Blachowicz’ one chance at the light heavyweight belt. He’s as dangerous as ever and there are still a lot of open matchups for him at 205 pounds, but his long road to the title culminates at UFC 253 against Reyes.

4) Glover Teixeira

(31-7, 18 KOs, 8 Submissions)
Last Fight: TKO win vs Anthony Smith (5/13/2020)
Next fight: TBD

Outlook: It’s undoubtedly wild to see Glover Texeira back in the top five at 40 years old and six years removed from his unsuccessful title shot against Jon Jones at UFC 172. But since January 2019, Teixeira is on a four-fight winning streak with submission wins over Karl Roberson and Ion Cutelaba and a brutal beatdown of Anthony Smith in May 2020. The crazier reality is that Teixeira is really only one or two wins from competing for the title again, and he was primed for that signature win when he was booked against Thiago Santos. COVID complications derailed that matchup, but make no mistake, Teixeira has seen it all and can mix it up anywhere a fight goes at an elite level.

FREE FIGHTS: Adesanya vs Gastelum | Costa vs Romero | Blachowicz vs Rockhold | Reyes vs Weidman

5) Aleskandar Rakic

(13-2, 9 KOs, 1 Submission)
Last Fight: Unanimous Decision win vs Anthony Smith (8/29/2020)
Next fight: TBD

Outlook: In a year full of Earth-shattering head kick knockouts, Aleskandar Rakic’s first-round finish of Jimi Manuwa in Sweden ranked among the top. It also announced Rakic as a problem in the light heavyweight division, punctuating an 11-fight winning streak. In his biggest test, he fought Volkan Oezdemir to a tough split decision loss, but he displayed a technical proficiency and patience that some of the best fighters possess. He showed it again in a three-round main event against Anthony Smith, essentially shutting “Lionheart” down for the entire fight. It wasn’t the most exciting affair and thus not the statement win Rakic needs to catapult himself into title contention, but he is certainly primed for it. With his long, rangy and strong frame, the 28-year-old Austrian is among the faces in the newer wave of light heavyweights looking to make noise.

In The Mix:  

Jiri Prochazka, Volkan Oezdemir, Anthony Smith

Outlook: If not for Khamzat Chimaev, Jiri Prochazka would’ve been the biggest discovery to UFC fans after the first stint on Fight Island when he halted Volkan Oezdemir with a flush right hand. Prochazka caught eyes with his quirky fighting style, and his 11-fight winning streak has him on the tip of the tongue when discussing new light heavyweight contenders. Oezdemir, to his credit, looked revitalized prior to dropping his contest with Prochazka. After suffering three straight losses, including a title bout against Daniel Cormier, Oezdemir bounced back with a commanding knockout win over Ilir Latifi and a hard-fought contest against Rakic. Oezdemir’s patient power makes him dangerous against anyone in the division, and his grappling continues to improve, as well, showing that there’s still plenty of time for the 31-year-old known as “No Time.” Anthony Smith, on the other hand, is in a bit of a tough spot. He, like Thiago Santos, went on a three-fight winning streak once he moved up from middleweight, and after a failed title shot against Jon Jones, he returned with a strong submission win over Alexander Gustafsson in enemy territory. He looked to build on that fight early against Glover Teixeira until Teixeira turned things around. Smith is a fighter’s fighter, though, and even though he dropped the follow up bout against Aleksandar Rakic, “Lionheart” earned his nickname and reputation for a reason.

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