Shark Tank: The Time Is Now For a 165-Pound Division

Editor’s note: The views and opinions expressed below are those of the author and do not necessarily reflect the views of Sherdog.com, its affiliates and sponsors or its parent company, Evolve Media.

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Jorge Masvidal may have been more than two years removed from his last victory when he marched into Darren Till’s backyard to throw hands, but he only needed eight minutes and some change to dispatch the former title challenger and make the welterweight title picture just that little bit muddier.

“Gamebred,” as in bred to complete the task when the odds are manifestly unfavorable. Though he stumbled against the likes of Demian Maia and Stephen Thompson in his most recent trips to the octagon, Masvidal exuded nothing but calm energy in the build up to his UFC London headliner. When the gate closed and the action picked up, his enthusiasm was palpable, and when it was all said and done he even managed to throw an extracurricular “three-piece and a soda” combo Leon Edwards’ way.

Masvidal cut his teeth fighting bare-knuckle in South Florida, and over the years has plied his trade is almost every major American promotion there is. A stint with Strikeforce where he challenged Gilbert Melendez for the lightweight strap? Check. A year over at BodogFIGHT back before Calvin Edward Ayre got indicted? Check. A scrap with Paul Daley in the now defunct Shark Fights? Check.

The dude has 46 fights and can’t stop himself from looking for more. In a sport where gimmicks and contrived drama abound, Masvidal -- from his wool hat, to his South Florida slang, to his infectious boredom with pre-fight media (“Yo, does anyone have the wi-fi password?”) -- oozes authenticity.

But Miami’s finest had been on the bench since November 2017. He struggled to find an opponent worth his time, and then embarked on a 13-week excursion where he competed on the Exatlon Estados Unidos reality series. Now he’s nominally in the conversation for a fight with newly crowned champion Kamaru Usman, but conventional wisdom dictates that former interim champion Colby Covington will be his first defense -- after “The Nigerian Nightmare” recovers from surgery for a double hernia.

By that time, equally meaningful timecards will have been punched by other welterweight elites. Case in point, Stephen Thompson fights this coming weekend, the same Stephen Thompson who took then-champion Tyron Woodley to a draw and a contentious decision in the space of four months and then glided past Masvidal in their scrap at UFC 217. If “Wonderboy” puts a whooping on former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis, who’s to say the people of South Carolina won’t start campaigning for him to get the next shot, banishing Masvidal back “into the mix?”

Or what about Birmingham’s Leon Edwards, the recipient of Masvidal’s combo deal? He’s now won seven in a row under the UFC banner and hasn’t missed a step since he fought Usman way back in December 2015 -- surely he’s only a fight or two away from title challenger status.

Or Argentina’s Santiago Ponzinibbio, who extended his own win streak to seven last November when he pulverized Neil Magny on home soil? What about Vincente Luque, who just won a “Fight of the Year” candidate opposite Bryan Barberena? “The Silent Assassin” has won eight of his last nine UFC fights, all via stoppage.

Depth of talent is a blessing in any weight class -- it's certainly preferable to the alternative -- but history shows us that it’s also an easy thing to squander when it’s not managed correctly.

The modus operandi of top contenders in recent years has been to lock down a top-5 ranking, and then only accept fights against similarly placed opponents. When you consider how many fights they need to win to secure said rankings, it’s an approach that’s hard to fault. But the consequence is that guys like Masvidal elect to remain on the shelf, waiting for an opportunity that may not materialize, while less scrupulous individuals like Colby Covington use controversy to keep their name in the headlines. Others, like Luque, are effectively forced to tread water by fighting prospects -- a lose-lose situation for everyone involved.

With 89 welterweights on a roster of 600, this holding pattern is unlikely to be disrupted organically. Though UFC president Dana White has remained defiant in the face of calls to split welterweight into two divisions -- a 175-pound division and a 165-pound division -- any rational assessment of the 170 pound weight class would conclude its assets aren’t being utilised effectively.

Having two divisions instead of one would give guys like Masvidal a clearer path towards title contention, whilst also giving the UFC the space to invest in long-game narratives like the one forming between Usman and Covington.

It would give the large numbers of “in-betweeners” in the crowded lightweight and welterweight divisions a home -- see the recently announced welterweight matchup at UFC Rochester between former lightweight champ Rafael dos Anjos and longtime lightweight contender Kevin Lee.

It would minimize the incentives for fighters to conceive of their rankings defensively, and remove the “last-resort” option of introducing an (interim) welterweight title.

It would raise the stakes and improve the product -- and has been supported by regulators for its potential to mitigate the prevalence of extreme weight cutting.

The time is now. What more is there to say?

Jacob Debets is a lawyer and writer from Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.
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