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It has become in vogue to knock MMA’s larger weight classes in recent years and for a variety of reasons. For a long time, smaller fighters were underappreciated in mixed martial arts. It was hard not to champion their cause when the Ultimate Fighting Championship couldn’t even be bothered to maintain a lightweight division. World Extreme Cagefighting’s thrilling shows are still well remembered. As the volume of shows has whittled away the more casual base of MMA fans, the remaining avid observers are quick to extol the virtues of smaller, quicker fighters with greater stamina.
Bigger fighters, by contrast, are often easier to hate on. When a heavyweight fight goes the full 15 minutes or 25 minutes, the combatants are much more likely to become visibly fatigued because of the extra weight they are carrying. Regardless of which divisions tend to produce the most exciting fights on balance, it’s hard to dispute that the very worst UFC fights over the years have disproportionately come from the heavyweight division.
While the larger weight classes may not always have the most passionate cheerleaders, they retain a definite potency. That was evident again on Saturday at UFC on ESPN 3. As major MMA organizations have broadened their focus to a wider array of weight classes, heavyweights and light heavyweights take up a smaller percentage of cards. The event in Minneapolis featured five bouts at either light heavyweight or heavyweight. That doesn’t sound like all that much, but it’s actually quite a rarity. The last time that number was topped was 130 UFC shows ago at an event in Croatia in 2016.
Those five fights all ended via knockout, and four of them ended in the first round. Thanks in large part to that, UFC on ESPN 3 produced seven total knockouts. That number hasn’t been surpassed since UFC 218 in 2017. Meanwhile, the five first-round knockouts were the most since UFC 198 in 2016. The larger fighters were showcased more than they had been in years, and the card produced more explosive finishes than had been seen in years. That correlation is no coincidence. The extra power that larger fighters possess has always been the selling point for those divisions, from Joe Louis and Mike Tyson to Deontay Wilder. It is the major attribute in their favor when compared to the fluidity of movement you see in smaller competitors. UFC heavyweight fights are over twice as likely to end via knockout as male bantamweight or flyweight fights. With so many fights each week, sudden and impactful finishes stand out more than ever.
The excitement that comes with game-changing power was most evident in the UFC on ESPN 3 opener between Maurice Greene and Junior Albini. In the space of less than four minutes, Greene appeared to be on the verge of finishing Albini with strikes, only to have the Brazilian answer and put his counterpart in a world of trouble before Greene finally secured the finish with his show-closing offense. It was the perfect example of how there can be drama in every moment when each punch and kick has the ability to end the fight. Francis Ngannou’s quick stoppage of Junior dos Santos provided the biggest headline, but Greene-Albini epitomized the unpredictability that comes when large men trade blows.
In that sense, UFC on ESPN 3 was a tremendous advertisement for the UFC 239 pay-per-view this Saturday in Las Vegas. After all, this event is being sold more than anything else on the potential of knockout power. Jon Jones has pretty much every advantage conceivable over Thiago Santos in the light heavyweight title main event. He’s accumulated a much more impressive record while fighting a higher level of competition. He has a massive reach advantage and a clear grappling edge. He’s even younger than Santos despite having fought in the UFC five years longer.
Given all of these advantages possessed by Jones, the big selling point for fans who think Santos might make history and pull off the upset is the Brazilian’s remarkable power. With 11 knockouts in 13 UFC wins, Santos is one of the promotion’s most prolific finishers. That sort of power leaves little room for error in MMA, even among the best defensive fighters. It’s much harder to prevent all significant offense from getting through in MMA with so many more legal techniques and small gloves that don’t provide much of a defensive shell. That’s a problem when a fighter is matched with someone as dangerous as Santos.
UFC on ESPN 3 showed how quickly small errors can end fights with big, powerful combatants. The question is whether or not the same fate could befall the sport’s best active fighter at UFC 239. Jones has proven himself to be a cut above, not only offensively but defensively, so it will be a difficult task. Of course, trajectories of careers can be altered suddenly with one powerful punch, kick or knee. That’s part of the enduring appeal of weight divisions like the one in which Jones and Santos compete.
Todd Martin has written about mixed martial arts since 2002 for a variety of outlets, including CBSSports.com, SI.com, ESPN.com, the Los Angeles Times, MMApayout.com, Fight Magazine and Fighting Spirit Magazine. He has appeared on a number of radio stations, including ESPN affiliates in New York and Washington, D.C., and HDNet’s “Inside MMA” television show. In addition to his work at Sherdog.com, he does a weekly podcast with Wade Keller at PWTorch.com and blogs regularly at LaTimes.com. Todd received his BA from Vassar College in 2003 and JD from UCLA School of Law in 2007 and is a licensed attorney. He has covered UFC, Pride, Bellator, Affliction, IFL, WFA, Strikeforce, WEC and K-1 live events. He believes deeply in the power of MMA to heal the world and bring happiness to all of its people.