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Who can deny the allure of cross-division fights?
Not only do we get to see fighters test their mettle against larger opponents -- or, in some cases, against fighters who are closer to being their own size -- but we also get to see another dimension of matchmaking possibilities. It’s great imaginative fodder, no doubt, but in practice it also tends to be pretty damn exciting. The list of greats who made names for themselves jumping around weight classes is exclusive and prestigious: Randy Couture, B.J. Penn, Anderson Silva, Dan Henderson and, more recently, Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Georges St. Pierre. These are some of the biggest names and most beloved characters in MMA history.
Not all cross-division fights are the same, though. The term “superfight,” which is increasingly becoming a played-out buzzword, tends to be reserved for champion-versus-champion showdowns. In the most legalistic definition of the term, there have only been three superfights in Ultimate Fighting Championship history: Penn vs. St. Pierre at UFC 94, McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 and Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic at UFC 226.
For the most part, each of those three fights was justifiable. Before UFC 94, Penn hadn’t exactly cleaned out the lightweight division, but he had won the welterweight title before, was on a three-fight winning streak and had utterly dominated Sean Sherk for the 155-pound crown. Meanwhile, St. Pierre had regained his welterweight strap by demolishing former champ Matt Hughes for the interim belt, avenged his surprise loss to Matt Serra to regain his undisputed status and threw in a solid title defense against Jon Fitch for good measure. There was a history to consider, too. Penn and St. Pierre had fought to a contentious split decision three years prior, as “Rush” walked away with the win, but as an unscathed Penn famously said: “After the fight, he went to the hospital. I went to a bar.”
McGregor-Alvarez was built on a flimsier meritocratic foundation, but it was still overall sensible. Neither champion had defended his belt, but McGregor had cleaned out the majority of the top featherweights en route to winning the title; and Alvarez had by then built one of the finest lightweight careers the sport had seen in terms of total accomplishment. McGregor was already the sport’s biggest star, and it was a fitting headliner for the first UFC card in New York.
The Cormier-Miocic fight was also justifiable. Cormier had defeated every notable light heavyweight not named Jon Jones and had significant success against top-tier heavyweights in Strikeforce. Miocic was on a six-fight streak that included a record-setting three UFC heavyweight title defenses. In lieu of both men embarking on rematch campaigns, the matchup made plenty of sense.
Now, however, we are getting closer and closer to an entirely unnecessary superfight between freshly minted flyweight champ Henry Cejudo and freshly fortified bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw. Don’t get me wrong. There’s nothing wrong with this fight in a vacuum. Cejudo is a tremendous fighter coming off the most significant win of his career, and Dillashaw is quickly proving himself as one of the pound-for-pound elites of the sport. It has the potential to be an exciting fight. It’s just not the right time.
With a new champion, the flyweight division is finally getting a breath of fresh air. The UFC should breathe deep. That’s no disrespect to former champ Demetrious Johnson, who is phenomenal and will almost certainly hold the UFC title defense record for the foreseeable future. With that said, turnover is good. The flyweight division has only been around for six years, and the type of dominance that “Mighty Mouse” displayed had the unfortunate side effect of making the division look stale.
Now, matchmaking is wide open. Surely nobody would complain if the Johnson-Cejudo rubber match gets booked; if defending a belt 11 times and then losing it via razor-thin split decision isn’t cause for an immediate rematch, I don’t know what is. If there is fear that “Mighty Mouse” will regain the belt and continue his reign of terror, then let Cejudo fight the winner of the Sergio Pettis-Jussier Formiga while Johnson rests up or takes a fight against someone in the middle of the top 10. It may not be fair, but if Dillashaw -- who lost his title to Dominick Cruz via split decision -- had to notch a few wins to get another crack at the title, then at least the precedent is there.
Speaking of Dillashaw, he has plenty of unfinished business at bantamweight. The rematch with Cruz looms, as does a rubber match with Raphael Assuncao or a fight against the surging Marlon Moraes. This is the most exciting the 135-pound weight class has ever been, so we might as well ride it out for a little bit before attempting divisional cross-pollination.
Then there is the business side of things. Penn-St. Pierre 2 and McGregor-Alvarez were both big-money cards that attracted a lot of casual eyeballs. Miocic-Cormier reportedly sold right under 400,000 pay-per-views, which looks bad given the historicity of the event, but in reality, it is slightly above average for both men individually. Does anyone think Cejudo-Dillashaw will be a bigger draw than Miocic-Cormier?
It’s fair to contend that the PPV buy rate means little from a fan perspective, and I generally agree with that. However, those numbers show how many people who don’t buy every UFC card will tune in. I find it hard to believe that anyone who wouldn’t otherwise watch Cejudo or Dillashaw defend their titles will open their wallets to watch them fight each other. Again, this means little to those of us who just want to watch good fights, but if there are other good fights we can get to before a champ-versus-champ superfight that’s unlikely to do big numbers, then what exactly are we doing here? This is to say nothing about how either division could be upended if someone misses weight, gets injured or, perhaps worse yet, a new simultaneous champ is crowned.
Ultimately, the most anticipated fights this year have mainly been between top contenders within the same divisions: Dustin Poirer vs. Justin Gaethje, Max Holloway vs. Brian Ortega, Khabib Nurmagomedov vs. Tony Ferguson, Nurmagomedov vs. McGregor and Yoel Romero vs. Robert Whittaker. Fans don’t need gimmicks to get excited; they just need great fights. When the conditions are right, nothing beats a superfight, but when it’s rushed, it just looks desperate.
Eric Stinton is a writer and a teacher from Kailua, Hawaii. He has been writing for Sherdog since 2014 and has published fiction, nonfiction and journalism in Bamboo Ridge, The Classical, Eastlit, Harvard Review Online, Honolulu Civil Beat and Vice, among others. He currently lives with his fiancée and dachshund in Seoul. You can find his work at ericstinton.com.