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The Ultimate Fighting Championship has for years made a concerted effort to try to direct its fighters towards their perceived optimal weight classes. That has usually meant moving them towards a lower division. Frankie Edgar was hugely successful at 155 pounds, but all it took was a pair of extremely close decisions for the lightweight title to justify a permanent move to featherweight. The flyweight division exists almost entirely as a showcase for fighters who have proven perfectly adept at bantamweight but may be a little better suited fighting at a slightly smaller weight. Kelvin Gastelum was given chance after chance to fight at welterweight, even as he missed weight three times in six fights (online betting).
UFC fights over the past decade have consistently been sold based on intrigue surrounding a move up or down in weight class. There’s the narrative that a fighter is moving up in weight so he’ll no longer need to deplete his body. He can fight at an optimal level without all the distraction and grind that comes from forcing a major weight cut. He’ll be quicker, too. Then there’s the other narrative that a fighter is moving down in weight class so he’ll be bigger, longer and won’t have to give up weight compared to his opponents. He won’t struggle just because his foes are larger. Sometimes, the same fighter will receive both stories, one when he moves up and the other when he moves down.
It’s not as if finding the right weight class isn’t a real issue. Weight does matter in MMA. However, there are pros and cons to being bigger or smaller, as the continual rotating narratives reflect. Moreover, these concerns developed during a time when the sport was in a different place. When the UFC and its fighters first became fixated on the proper weight classes, there were limited roster slots. Most fighters under contract were on the verge of a title shot if they could simply string together a few wins. As such, being in the optimal weight class mattered greatly because there tended to be sharks at the top and you could be matched against them in quick order.
The UFC today is a different animal. There are so many fighters under contract that there’s a much wider spectrum of competition. This means that there are plenty of fighters that a high-quality contender from a nearby weight class can defeat. It also means that an athlete can test the waters and see how he does against increasingly more challenging opposition. If it becomes apparent that a weight class isn’t right, the fighter’s going to figure it out before reaching the most destructive forces at the top. If the fighter isn’t championship level, it doesn’t matter much anyway. There are plenty of levels and matchups to be had.
Historically, the perception has been that fighters struggle when moving up in weight. However, recent results make the argument for greater weight class flexibility. Johny Hendricks was struggling at welterweight so expectations were low when he moved up to 185 pounds, but he did well in his middleweight debut. He was given a smaller middleweight in Hector Lombard to test the waters, a logical first move.
There was frustration when John Lineker missed weight at flyweight so often that he had to move to bantamweight because there was widespread skepticism over how he’d fare at 135 pounds. Four wins in a row and those concerns proved unfounded. Donald Cerrone likewise picked up four straight impressive victories moving up from lightweight to welterweight, and his momentum was cut off by another lightweight transplant in Jorge Masvidal. The latest example was Gastelum’s performance at UFC Fight Night 106 on Saturday om Fortaleza, Brazil, where he won his second straight via TKO at 185 pounds. There are few recent cautionary tales for fighters experimenting with competition at a higher weight class.
With this trend in mind, the UFC would benefit from more frequent weight switches in the years to come. If a fighter misses weight a few times or misses in a disconcerting manner, it isn’t worth continuing to play that dangerous game when it’s easy to test how that fighter will do at a higher weight class. With a number of fighters making that move successfully after struggling to cut at a lower weight, hopefully it creates the perception that moving up is an opportunity more than a punishment for failed weight cuts. Anthony Johnson can be the poster boy for that argument.
Moving up doesn’t have to be reserved for fighters struggling to make weight. If other fighters -- beyond those on the verge of getting cut or who have been blocked out of the title picture in their division -- want to experiment with cutting less weight, that’s a good thing. The sport would benefit if the weight-cutting arms race slowed down a little bit. It definitely won’t go away, but more fighters pushing in the other direction can create a counterculture to always cutting more weight. That would be good for the sport, and increasingly it has shown it can be good for the fighter, too.