B.J. Penn built his legacy on multi-division success. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
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Forget the holidays. Go Big season has arrived. In the six weeks between Nov. 6 and Dec. 19, there are eight Ultimate Fighting Championship events in five different countries, and almost all of them are stacked with relevant, exciting matchups. On top of that, Bellator MMA has three shows in the same time frame, and the World Series of Fighting will throw in two of its own, as well. That means high-caliber fighting every weekend until Christmas, for an average of one fight card almost every three days.
The craziness doesn’t stop there. A total of eight world titles will be up for grabs -- five in the UFC, two in Bellator and another in WSOF; and according to Sherdog.com rankings, 35 of the top 100 fighters across each weight class will be fighting in this short duration, plus another seven top 15 fighters. I’m not going to bother inspecting the record books just yet, but I have a feeling this is an unprecedented period of MMA, in both the amount of fights and the concentration of upper-echelon talent.
It’s easy to get cynical or disinterested in this sport, but I don’t see how anyone could be short of schoolgirl-giddy in the coming weeks. We get a record-breaking ladies night in Australia at UFC 193, arguably the best main card of all-time at UFC 194 and two of the best fighters outside of the UFC throwing down at Bellator 145. When the least interesting event is a throwback eight-man tournament in WSOF, you know it’s going to be good. It’ll be hard to top this streak in the future, and there really isn’t anything to complain about ... but what’s the fun in not complaining?
Alas, I do have a bone to pick. Granted, it’s a small, nitpicky qualm and one that isn’t all that significant in the grand scheme of things, but as I sifted through the details of all 13 events, I couldn’t help but notice something missing. Coincidentally, this is also something that I believe the UFC can use to improve these kinds of hot streaks in the future, as well as generate more interest throughout the regular fight schedules. In other words, can we have more cross-division fights, please?
The few fighters who have either been able or allowed to move up and down weight classes have captured the imaginations of fans better than most. B.J. Penn, Randy Couture, Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson -- these are MMA Mount Rushmore types, mostly because of their multi-division exploits. No one encapsulates that captivating diapason quite like Penn, whose success well above his natural weight class has made him a legend beyond reproach in the eyes of his loyal fans.
Ironically, Penn may also be to blame for the UFC’s hesitance in allowing its stars to move around whimsically. His rematch with George St. Pierre at UFC 94 was such a lopsided affair that hardly any high-profile fighters have dipped their toes in other divisions since, outside of fighters who repeatedly failed to make weight. The ones who do bounce around often have to run through the rigors of “cleaning out their division” before getting the green light, which is understandable but unrealistic.
In this day and age, high-level MMA is far too competitive to expect anyone to completely dispose of all competition, especially given the UFC’s penchant for rematches. There will always be new up-and-comers who either deserve a title shot on their own or are close enough to net one around which the UFC’s powerful hype machine can create at least a modestly believable narrative. As the sport continues to grow and expand, the prospect of comprehensively dominant champions seems progressively less likely.
Let’s go back to the Penn-St. Pierre rematch, though. The event itself was big business, garnering close to a million pay-per-view buys. The concern, however, was that luster would be lost in the lightweight division afterward, since Penn was not at all competitive against the welterweight champion. However, the numbers don’t lie: the next event Penn headlined, UFC 101 against Kenny Florian, sold 850,000 PPVs and remains the highest-grossing card ever topped by a lightweight fight. His following headliners, against Diego Sanchez and Frankie Edgar, also did above-average PPV numbers, with 620,000 and 535,000 buys, respectively. As a bit of a moral victory for “The Prodigy,” his fight against Florian also outsold GSP’s first post-UFC 94 headliner.
The point: There is always fan interest in so-called cross division “super fights,” and even in the worst-case scenario of an absolute beatdown, history shows that it doesn’t necessarily matter. So why not have more?
There will inevitably be comparisons to the countless multi-division champions in boxing, but that’s not exactly apples-to-apples since boxing weight classes are much, much closer together. Still, nothing beats introducing fighters as champions wearing several belts, and more UFC fighters should get the chance to do exactly that.
Not only should champions be able to jump around and fight each other, but top 10 fighters should also be encouraged to do so. This will especially help out the thinner, more top-heavy divisions. Imagine Renan Barao jumping up to 145 pounds to fight the likes of Cub Swanson or Charles Oliviera, or Yoel Romero taking on Quinton Jackson. Flexible matchmaking like this opens up so many more dynamic possibilities.
From a promotional standpoint, it’s also a win-win. If contenders in one weight class beat big names from another weight class, it’s an easy sell to move them up in the rankings. For the fighters that lose, who cares? It either wasn’t in their natural weight class or it wasn’t against a divisional contender. It’s flimsy logic, no doubt, but that’s never stopped the UFC before, and at least in this case, we get more exciting fights. That’s why we all watch in the first place, right?
Ultimately, I can’t wait for these next few weeks. I usually hide behind my cynicism instead of getting my hopes up, but in this case, I feel like having high expectations is foolproof. Still, I have to think that a couple of super fights thrown in the mix would take Go Big season to the next level, as well as stir up more frenzied interest throughout the rest of the year. For the life of me, I can’t think of any reasons not to get more of them.