After Bellator 297 concluded on Friday night, Scott Coker made a statement about the state of the light heavyweight division across MMA.
"Vadim Nemkov, to me, is the best 205-pounder on the planet," proclaimed the Bellator MMA president. "In any MMA league, including the UFC's 205ers."
The fact that Coker said it wasn't entirely noteworthy, as it's common for a promotion's leader to speak highly of his top fighters. What was striking in his quote was how at ease he was in making the point.
To his credit, Nemkov made it easy for him to do so, as he once again looked excellent while defending his title against Yoel Romero, leaving Chicago with the Bellator strap around his waist.
But does Coker's statement deserve some debate? Of course it does.
Brett Okamoto, Marc Raimondi, Jeff Wagenheim and Eddie Maisonet took on the challenge to provide an answer to a simple question: Who is the best light heavyweight in the world?
Raimondi: Jiří Procházka
Jiri Prochazka stuns Glover Teixeira and the entire crowd with an incredible submission at UFC 275.
This was a tough choice. I don't remember the last time one division had this kind of argument about who the best is, across several promotions. But that's exactly why my vote goes to Procházka, who, hopefully, will return later this year from a bad shoulder injury. He has beaten some of the elite from different companies.
Procházka is no longer the UFC light heavyweight champion, but he was never beaten for the title. The injury forced him to relinquish it. Procházka stopped Glover Teixeira via fifth-round submission at UFC 275 in June 2022 to win the title in one of the best fights of that -- or any -- year. The Czech fighter never got the chance to defend the UFC belt, through no fault of his own. Some would say maybe his UFC résumé is a tad thin. He's only 3-0 in the promotion.
Let's rewind to Procházka's run before he signed with the UFC. Arguably the best win of his career came in 2015, against Nemkov under the Rizin banner in Japan. No one in Bellator can say they have beaten Nemkov; Procházka can. Procházka also has a 2018 first-round knockout win over Bruno Cappelozza, who went on to become the 2021 PFL heavyweight champion. Add in his win over Muhammad "King Mo" Lawal (who was at the end of his career when the fight happened, granted), and Procházka has beaten four former or current champions from major MMA promotions. Simply, no other contender for the best light heavyweight in the world can boast that.
It doesn't necessarily count toward his status as best in the world at 205 pounds, but Procházka, who trains (and fights) like a modern-day Bushido warrior, is still only 30 years old and one of the most exciting fighters in the world to watch. It has felt like a void without him in the UFC since his injury, and his return -- likely in a title fight with current UFC belt holder Jamahal Hill -- should be highly anticipated and action-packed.
Wagenheim: Vadim Nemkov
I believe Nemkov is the most complete fighter in a weight class filled with elites across promotions. There might be better 205-pound wrestlers (Corey Anderson) and better strikers (Procházka), but Nemkov masterfully puts together all the puzzle pieces. And no less potent than his physical proficiency is his mental and emotional approach. He never lost his poise during Friday's dominant win against the ghost of Yoel Romero, even when the challenger veered from passive to bizarre.
Yeah, I'm aware of Hill's recent dismissal of Nemkov as being "in the B league." And the UFC champ is not entirely wrong. His fight promotion has far more depth in every weight class than Bellator does. However, Bellator has a sprinkling of fighters who are every bit as good as the best the UFC has to offer. And Nemkov has defeated a couple of them, Anderson and Ryan Bader. The Bellator champ can hang with anyone.
I have previously argued for Procházka as the world's top light heavyweight, and that might still be the case. But he has been out of the Octagon for over a year with a serious shoulder injury. When he returns, will he be the same fighter? I'm taking a wait-and-see approach on Jiří and, at least for now, throwing my support behind the ever-evolving Nemkov.
Okamoto: Magomed Ankalaev
Jan Blachowicz and Magomed Ankalaev fight to a split draw in the main event of UFC 282.
I'm sure some will see this as an unorthodox pick, but honestly, it was a pretty easy call for me. Ankalaev's name doesn't have the same notoriety as the others -- but bottom line, I'm confident that oddsmakers would make him a betting favorite over any other light heavyweight in the world. And that confidence doesn't come from speculation. I spoke to a few people behind the scenes, and yeah, those in charge of actually setting wagering lines on these matchups still have a whole lot of love for Ankalaev.
He beat Jan Blachowicz in December, frankly. The judges scored that one a split draw, but in my opinion, they flat out got that wrong. Ankalaev could easily be the UFC's undisputed champ right now had that fight been scored better, and if he was, more observers would consider him the best. But the reality is that he's the same fighter whether there's a belt around his waist or not, and I see him as the best in his weight class.
Ankalaev is well rounded and he's matchup-proof. Styles make fights, but his style translates well against any fighter out there. I'm not saying it's by a landslide; Ankalaev certainly isn't head and shoulders above the rest of the division. That's one good thing about this division -- it's been competitive ever since Jon Jones left it. But I'm telling you: Vegas believes Ankalaev is a favorite against the rest of the division, and I'm not about to disagree.
Maisonet: Jamahal Hill
Jamahal Hill defeats Glover Teixeira in front of the Brazil crowd to win the UFC light heavyweight title.
All hail "Sweet Dreams."
The light heavyweight division used to be the one of glamour and star power in MMA, in which titans clashed for pound-for-pound supremacy. A weight class in which the elite needed to be referenced by one name: Bones. Wanderlei. Liddell. Tito. Rampage.
The 205-pound division is yearning for its next star, with names aplenty ready to claim the brass ring. Procházka looks like he could be an antagonist in a Jean-Claude Van Damme film. Nemkov, Fedor Emelianenko's protege, fights with robot-like efficiency as the top man in Bellator. Even Alex Pereira, the former UFC middleweight champion, seems poised to be ushered onto another fast track to a title fight at 205.
And yet, Hill is sitting right there, ready for fight fans to appreciate his body of work and what's yet to come.
Hill, who claimed the title from the legendary Teixeira, won said fight after taking it on short notice a month after Blachowicz and Ankalaev concluded in a split draw at UFC 282. Moreover, Hill's defeat of Teixeira wasn't as laborious and struggle-filled as Procházka's win over the Brazilian -- as the Czech fighter needed a miraculous submission late in the fifth to pull out a fight that was in the balance.
Hill and Procházka share similar physical attributes, as both are tall (6-3 vs. 6-4) and have tremendous reach (79 inches vs. 80 inches) compared to their opponents. Comparatively, Nemkov's reach is 76 inches. Anakalaev's is 75 inches.
Hill's resume is highlighted with finishes over notable names who stack up just as well as any contender on this list. His only career loss came against a submission specialist in Paul Craig, which carries no shame. What's more notable is that, at 32, he's been a professional for only six years. He got caught slipping against Craig in 2021, and in a title shot against a similarly qualified submission master like Teixeira, he stood his ground and came out victorious.
So who's the best at 205? I'll put my money behind arguably the most athletic fighter -- Hill earned a basketball scholarship to a Division II school in Michigan -- who has achieved plenty in the sport and still has room to grow.
Outside looking in
Andres Waters lists the light heavyweight fighters who could work their way into the conversation.
Alex Pereira: Though Pereira has only a small body of work in MMA to judge by, it doesn't make his resume any less impressive. The former kickboxing champion made the move over to mixed martial arts full time in 2021 and quickly rose to championship level -- beating former UFC middleweight champ Israel Adesanya for the title in only his fourth fight with the promotion. After going through two absolute battles against ESPN's former No. 1-ranked and current No.4-ranked pound-for-pound fighter, Pereira announced he would be moving up to 205 pounds. He has proved he has what it takes to compete with the very best in the sport. A win over Jan Blachowicz in his next fight at UFC 291 could be enough to bump him into the title picture in a new division.
Corey Anderson: Anderson has been a contender at 205 pounds in both UFC and now with Bellator, but he has yet to get over the hump. He has wins over Teixeira in 2018 and Bellator heavyweight champion Ryan Bader in 2021. And, most recently, he gave Nemkov his toughest fights in Bellator to date -- a fight that ended in a no contest at Bellator 277 and a majority decision loss at Bellator 288. Anderson managed to bounce back from those losses with a win over Phil Davis last weekend at Bellator 297. It's going to take some work to get back into the title picture, but if Anderson can keep winning, another shot at the belt could be in his future.
Jan Blachowicz: Despite his fight with Ankalaev ending in a majority draw, it certainly feels like Blachowicz came out on the wrong end of the judges' decision. Blachowicz, 40, is still on the short list of the very best fighters in the world at 205 pounds. A convincing win over Pereira next month at UFC 291 could be enough to place him right back at the front of the line to challenge for the UFC light heavyweight title.