by Mick Hammond – MMAWeekly.com
At one time the 205lb division was the crowning jewel of the UFC. There was a mass of talent that easily filled PPVs and whenever there was a title match it easily brought in instant huge numbers. While the light-heavyweight division still remains a big money maker for the company, it has aged lately and is in need of young contenders to step up and become the core for future.

Current top stars in the division are in their mid-to-late 30’s and 40’s. While that may be good for the current state of the light-heavyweights, in a few years there is going to be a need for quality talent to take over those positions when the elder statesmen retire. That is why the match-up between Stephan Bonnar and James Irvin at the upcoming Ultimate Fight Night is so important.

Whoever wins this fight could see themselves an instant contender to the winner of Chuck Liddell and Randy Couture’s title fight in February. Almost more importantly, if both fight well and prove to be truly solid talent, it could further grant credibility to the 205lb weightclass for the UFC that has lost some momentum lately to Pride’s.

For Stephan Bonnar, proving himself has been a constant ever since he was part of the first ever group of fighters to compete on The Ultimate Fighter reality series. An unheard of reality event in the sport of MMA at the time, everyone wondered just how good the talent brought into the show and if they could prove to be legitimate fighters for the company.

Bonnar was no newbie to the sport when he was added to the cast. Already a veteran of eight bouts, many of which for the Ironheart Crown promotion, Stephan was one of the more experienced fighters heading into the show.

Already he had wins over future UFC fighter Terry Martin and MMA veteran Brian Ebersole, with his only loss coming to a then unknown Ryoto Machida (who would go on to defeat BJ Penn last year). He had faced some good opposition heading into the show, but just how good was Bonnar?

Aside from his wins over Martin and Ebersole, Bonnar’s remaining victories were over fighters with near or below .500 records. People knew he had the training, under Carlson Gracie, and that he had the skills to be good, but just how good was anyone’s guess going into the show.

After surviving the elimination rounds, Bonnar would make it to the finals of the 205lb division of the TV show. He would be matched up with Forrest Griffin, he himself a veteran of the fight game for many years. In a bout that would come to be a calling card type match for the UFC, the two battled it out over three brutal and bloody rounds, instantly becoming a classic.

In the end it would be Griffin that would win the match via close decision, but Bonnar had proved himself to be a marketable commodity, and the two together would be put onto the UFC roster and become inseparable in the marketing of the next generation of UFC talent.

Since the show Bonnar has fought once for the UFC, at the first Ultimate Fight Night last August, defeating fellow former TUF 1 fighter Sam Hogar by decision. While good enough to win all three rounds on all three judges’ scorecards, Bonnar failed to live up to the high expectations he had set in his bout with Griffin when he failed to finish an uninspired Hogar.

If Bonnar was to be truly tested and prove himself worthy to stand on the same level as top contenders Griffin and Renato “Babalu” Sobral, he would have to be more impressive against harder competition, and now he has that opportunity. At the next UFN Stephan will be matched up with another young fighter looking to prove that he deserves to be among the top challengers for Liddell’s crown, James “Sandman “Irvin.

While Stephan’s quest to become a legitimate contender has been played out in front of a television audience, James Irvin’s path to the top has been decidedly different. Originally a heavyweight, Irvin, a member of the Capital City Fighting Alliance, forged his reputation on the Californian fight circuit.

Debuting at Gladiator Challenge 16 in mid-2003, Irvin’s striking made him an instant fan favorite. During his first seven bouts, James finished off every opponent within the first round of action. Only once did he finish a fight by submission, all others he did with his striking, earning him the nickname of “Sandman” for his ability to put opponents to sleep.

While in the WEC organization it appeared as if Irvin was on a collision course with Mike Kyle for the company’s Heavyweight Championship. But after Kyle’s hopscotching between promotion, the fight was eventually slated to take place at UFC 51.

With both fighters being known for their heavy hands it didn’t take long for someone to get knocked out. But for the first time in his career it was Irvin, not his opponent that would be put to sleep. Just under two minutes into the fight Irvin was out on the canvas and his future in the UFC seemed uncertain.

After rebounding with a KO win over Doug Marshall for the WEC Heavyweight Championship in May, Irvin was invited back to the UFC in August. There he would face a fighter in common with his future opponent Bonnar, Terry Martin, this time at a new weight, 205lbs.

During the first round it appeared as if the strike-heavy Irvin was out of his element against the bulldozing takedown style of Martin. Throughout the first round James was on his back on the canvas, but never once did he allow Martin to seize advantage of the fight.

After the round ended a proper strategy was devised, allow Martin to shoot in and react, and it worked perfectly. Just seconds into the round Terry shot in as he had numerous times in the first round, but this time he was met with a wicked knee from Irvin. In one of the sickest knockouts in the UFC’s history, a thunderous crack reverberated throughout the arena as Martin’s head snapped back from Irvin’s knee and Terry fell back onto the canvas.

The Sandman had returned and was poised to now make a run at a new division. But in order to get in better position to go after a title, Irvin has to defeat Bonnar, a fighter who, on paper, poses stylistic problems that could make for a very interesting match-up.

Both fighters will throw and exchange standing, that much is known for sure. However while Bonnar has used his striking to set up his ground game, striking is Irvin’s forte, and with his immense power advantage it would seem that Stephan should wisely not try to trade with James.

So this fight may come down to the ground game. In his fight with Martin, Irvin was able to be taken down, however he showed an ability to avoid being ground ‘n pounded. If Bonnar is able to get the fight to the ground it is imperative that he work fast and set up a submission attempt, the one area of Irvin’s game that is an unknown factor.

If Bonnar is able to press the action into the third round it could also be a big advantage for him. He knows what it is like to work hard deep into a fight, whereas Irvin has never gone past the early moments of the second round. Whoever avoids the other’s strength for the first couple rounds and finishes hard in the third may just win this fight if no one can impose their will early.

For both these fighters and the UFC this is a big match. Each fighter is looking to set himself up for a possible title shot later in the year. For the organization this is important for their future as they look to have solid veteran fighters at the top of the division while bringing in even younger talent through TUF 3.

With so much on the line you know that both Bonnar and Irvin will look to impress and make their mark, and that could lead for this fight being most entertaining on a stacked card at Monday’s Ultimate Fight Night.