On Saturday night, in the co-main event of the UFC's latest trip to Brazil, former UFC light heavyweight champion and Pride Grand Prix winner Mauricio "Shogun" Rua once again set back the clock with an impressive knockout win. The recipient of The Brazilian's career-revivifying KO was the division's 12th-ranked fighter Gian Villante—certainly no world-beater, but a significant test to say the least.
With this latest win, Shogun extended his current win-streak to three. In the talent-starved light heavyweight division, streaks like this are becoming increasingly rare, and so suddenly, a 35-year-old Shogun looks like he could be a win or two away from another shot at gold.
While the idea of Shogun challenging for the UFC light heavyweight title in the twilight of his incredible career might be exciting to his throngs of diehard fans, the thought of the ever-deteriorating legend being locked in the cage with monsters like Daniel Cormier, Anthony "Rumble" Johnson and, god forbid, Jon Jones, is quickly sobering. Sure, anything is possible in MMA, but a fight with any of the aforementioned men is likely to be an absolute disaster for the Brazilian star. As such, any forward steps he takes in the light heavyweight rankings should be small ones. Really, it might not even be a bad idea to pit him against another lower-ranked fighter.
Let's take a look at some of his options.
Given that Shogun currently holds the number six spot in the light heavyweight rankings, a fight with the division's fourth ranked Jimi Manuwa (provided he gets past Corey Anderson next weekend) wouldn't technically be all that big of a step up after his knockout of Villante. And interestingly enough, Manuwa is actually older than Shogun at 37. All that said, Manuwa has been in far fewer wars than Shogun has. He's experienced less concussions, and gone under the knife fewer times. As such, he is a fresher, faster, and probably more powerful man than Shogun is, and so this fight quickly becomes unappealing for the exact same reason that it's unappealing to imagine Shogun against Rumble, Cormier or Jones. Once again, as the old adage suggests, anything is possible in MMA. But the chances of this one ending with a severe concussion for Shogun seem quite high, and at this stage, we just don't need to see that. So let's take a trip down the light heavyweight rankings.
Though Blachowicz is undeniably dangerous—he did give Alexander Gustafsson a run for his money back in September—he's the kind of opponent that seems like a fair test for Shogun at this stage. As the UFC's 14th-ranked light heavyweight fighter, he's actually stationed lower than Villante in the division. Yet that could actually be a problem too. While we don't want to dump Shogun into the cage with somebody that's going to damage his body or brain permanently, there's also no sense in coddling him. Though he is a shadow of the fighter he once was, he is still a legend, and as he showed against Villante, a fighter that is capable of winning against strong opposition. So, perhaps there's a more compelling option somewhere between Blachowicz and Manuwa in the light heavyweight rankings.
Ah, Volkan Oezdemir: a striking specialist with an impressive, but not jaw-dropping 13-1 overall record, fresh off a close but commendable decision defeat of Ovince St. Preux, and the UFC light heavyweight division's eighth-ranked fighter. Sounds like the perfect opponent for the version of Shogun we're dealing with in the year 2017, doesn't he? Well, he might be, but the glaring problem with Oezdemir as a potential Shogun opponent is that nobody really knows who he is. That's not a jab at him, it's a fact. He's fought once in the UFC, scoring a close decision win on over a struggling foe. Declining or not, Shogun will always deserve an opponent with a name the fans recognize, and for the moment, Oezdemir is not that.
So, how about a drop to middleweight? In this division, intriguing battles with more size-appropriate fighters like Thales Leites, Sam Alvey and Uriah Hall could await, while a rubber with the returning Lyoto Machida and a fight with a fellow former light heavyweight champion Rashad Evans would also make compelling options. But we've been talking about a 185-pound Shogun for years. He didn't commit to the drop when he was a fresh-faced 28-year-old. He's probably not going to do it when he's a shopworn 35-year-old.
The moral here is that, with his latest knockout win, Shogun has opened the door to plenty of interesting matchup options. None of them really seem perfect, but all of them are interesting, and whoever he's matched up against next, we'll probably all tune to watch him attempt to turn back the clock yet again.