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Heavy Lies the Light Heavyweight Crown of Rashad Evans

The next time Rashad Evans fights, he will have something to lose other than just his perfect record as a professional mixed martial artist.

Following his third round TKO victory over Forrest Griffin during the main event of Saturday’s UFC 92 event, Evans became the rightful owner of the most prestigious title in all of mixed martial arts. Yet part of the prestige factor behind the UFC’s 205 pound title has to do with the fact that it is a division that is overflowing with the world’s greatest light heavyweight fighters.

The fact is that there might be no crown heavier in MMA than the light heavyweight one currently being worn by Evans.

When Griffin suffered an upset knockout loss at the hands of Keith Jardine two years ago at UFC 66, the light heavyweight winner of the first season of The Ultimate Fighter practically had a nervous breakdown inside the cage. Yet following last night’s defeat in his first-ever defense of the UFC light heavyweight title, a cool and calm Griffin took the loss in stride.

While it’s nothing more than pure conjecture, perhaps Griffin was able to keep his emotions in check because he felt a slight sense of relief now that he will be able to return to the role of hunter as opposed to the role of the hunted?

The role of the hunted now will be played by Evans, the heavyweight winner from the second season of The Ultimate Fighter. Counted out at almost every turn in his UFC career, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Evans once again doubted by the critics.

Winning a title in MMA is one thing but holding onto it is a completely different achievement into itself. There will be no shortage of world class fighters in the UFC that will now attempt to make Evans’ reign as the promotion’s 205 pound king as brief as possible.

At the top of the list of light heavyweight assassins looking to pick Evans off is none other than former UFC light heavyweight champion Quinton “Rampage” Jackson. Jackson made everyone forget about his summer bout with delirium by avenging two previous losses to Wanderlei Silva courtesy of a big left hook at UFC 92 that floored “The Axe Murderer” during the fight’s first round.

While UFC President Dana White stopped short of guaranteeing Jackson the first crack at Evans during the post-fight press conference for UFC 92, he came pretty close.

“It does make sense for Rampage to get a title shot,” White informed the media in attendance. “There’s a lot for us to get back to the office and talk about.”

While Jackson wouldn’t mind a shot at becoming a two-time UFC light heavyweight champion, he also expressed an equally strong desire for redemption against Griffin.

“I’m ready to get my title back,” began Jackson. “Everybody wants to be the champion. Everyone wants to be the best. But to be quite honest, I’d rather go and fight Forrest. That’s the fight that haunts me when I go to sleep. I have nightmares about it. That’s the fight. I won the belt. I was the champion. But I’d like to get Forrest first, but it’s up to the UFC.”

It almost seems like a lock that Evans’ first defense will either be against Jackson or the winner of the January 31 light heavyweight clash between unbeaten Thiago Silva and the inconvenient truth, Lyoto Machida. That’s because Chuck Liddell lost to Evans as recently as September and has just one win in his last four fights. Meanwhile, Wanderlei Silva has lost four out of his last five. Jardine would normally be an option following is his UFC 89 win over Brandon Vera in October but as a teammate and friend of Evans, it’s a matchup that can never happen. And Jackson isn’t fighting Griffin, there is no way Griffin deserves an immediate rematch before Jackson gets his shot.

If the UFC gives Griffin to Jackson first, then the only other viable option might be to grant the first title shot at Evans to the winner of the Machida vs. Silvas. A Evans vs. Silva or Evans vs. Machida light heavyweight title fight has limited box office appeal but the UFC may find itself in a position where it has no other alternative than to schedule the match and pair it with a bigger main event.

While Machida and Thiago Silva have yet to break out as legitimate stars, they are already legitimate top ten light heavyweights who have the potential to end Evans’ title reign before it even gets a chance to start.

Silva is 13-0 overall and 4-0 in the UFC with wins over James Irvin, Tomasz Drwal, Houston Alexander, and Antonio Mendes. That’s hardly an impressive win resume but a win over Machida would certainly enhance his case. A former member of Chute Boxe who now trains out of American Top Team, Silva’s aggressive standup style and solid ground skills would make him a threat to Evans.

But the even bigger threat would be Machida, a 13-0 fighter who has a elusive defensive style that gives opponents absolute fits. Despite a well-earned reputation for being a boring fighter, Machida could force the UFC’s hand and earn a title shot if he improves his record inside the Octagon to 6-0 with a win at UFC 94.

With career wins over Stephan Bonnar, B.J. Penn, Rich Franklin, Kazuhiro Nakamura, Rameau Thierry Sokoudjou , and Tito Ortiz, the balance between sport and entertainment within the UFC could be compromised if Machida doesn’t get a title shot if he beats Silva.

With potential fights with Jackson, Machida, and Thiago Silva looming, there lies a second wave of potential challengers that Evans will have to face if he’s successful during the initial going. As it stands now, the UFC’s light heavyweight division is also home to Vera, Rich Franklin, Luiz Cane, and Mauricio “Shogun” Rua.

And we can’t overlook the possibility of a darkhorse candidate being enlisted to challenge Evans. If the UFC opts to make Jackson vs. Griffin II and determines that if can’t afford to match the winner of Silva vs. Machida against Evans, do not rule out the possibility of Randy Couture attempting to win the UFC light heavyweight title for a third time.

Couture will soon be busy filming a movie and has expressed no interest in cutting to light heavyweight again. However, an opportunistic Couture ended a one-year retirement in 2007 because he saw a heavyweight champion in Tim Sylvia that he perceived to be vulnerable.

If Couture happens to be one of Evans’ many doubters, the lure of furthering his legacy may be too much to resist. And while Couture is coming off a loss to Lesnar at heavyweight, the UFC might find the idea of a Evans vs. Couture fight to be very attractive, as it would provide a win-win scenario for the promotion. Having Couture as its light heavyweight champion would be great for business while a win over a legend would help Evans become an even bigger star.

Regardless of what direction the UFC chooses for Evans, the breadth of world class fighters at 205 could make his hold on the light heavyweight title a tenuous one.

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