Watch out world, MMA is Darwinian.
When we talk about the evolution of mixed martial arts, it’s easy to point to a lot of the obvious advancements in the sport, rules, and athletes. Legal MMA events take place in almost every state in the country and around the globe with rules and weight classes that didn’t exist a decade ago. Evolution. MMA now features highly trained, well-rounded professional athletes who understand the need to become proficient in every aspect of the game. Evolution. But there is another aspect of the sport that has become a neon sign screaming EVOLUTION…
With few exceptions, fighters simply can’t get away with fighting above the weight class they truly belong in.
UFC 148, UFC on FUEL TV 4, and Strikeforce: Rockhold vs. Kennedy took place over an eight-day period in early July. Those three events saw six fighters drop down a weight class and win their debut in their newfound homes. Demian Maia, Aaron Simpson, and Nate Marquardt all dropped to welterweight and were all the better for it.
Maia took on Dong Hyun Kim and handed him a loss in 47 seconds. Talk all you want about Kim’s freak muscle spasm, but we finally saw the return of Maia, aggressively playing to his strengths on the ground from the opening bell, instead of the standup-centric Maia who went a mediocre 4-4 in his last eight fights at middleweight. Simpson dominated Kenny Robertson for his first welterweight victory, but the most impressive debut came courtesy of a TRT-free Nate Marquardt, who captured the vacant Strikeforce Welterweight Title by dominating previously undefeated Tyron Woodley.
That same Strikeforce event saw two newly minted middleweights roll to unanimous decisions over recognizable names, as Roger Gracie bested Keith Jardine with a dominant unanimous decision and Lorenz Larkin out-struck and bloodied Robbie Lawler from bell to bell. And just to show that even the little guys need to know when it’s time to get smaller, Chris Cariaso moved south to the UFC’s flyweight division and served notice that he’s going to be a player, scoring a clean sweep on all the judges’ cards as he dominated Josh Ferguson.
While these fighters figured out that modern MMA has come too far to compete out of your proper weight division, there are former champions—even legends—who grapple with whether they are in that select group who can successfully fight up a division or whether a drop down would create another title run.
Fedor Emelianenko ruled one of the most star-studded heavyweight divisions in MMA history when he could have cut to 205 pounds. He amassed an amazing 31-1 record from 2000 to 2009, beating one top-10 heavyweight after another before going 3-3 from 2010 to 2012, with his wins coming against fighters who aren’t ranked in the top 20. Frankie Edgar will once again walk into the cage at 155 pounds when he takes on UFC Lightweight Champion Benson Henderson at UFC 150, while New Jersey’s finest clearly can make 145 pounds with his eyes closed. Henderson’s size and athleticism contributed to a unanimous decision win, with two judges scoring it four rounds to one. My scorecard read the same way, and 80 percent of those polled online saw it for the new champ. If the rematch ends up the same—and I suspect it will—Edgar will have to determine if it’s time to come to grips with the same reality that six fighters did in July.
And last but not least, the fighter who Edgar dethroned for the title, BJ Penn, has decided to come out of retirement and fight Rory MacDonald at 170 pounds at UFC 152 in September. The former UFC Lightweight and Welterweight Champ took a fight against a top-five welterweight. Now, let me be crystal clear: BJ Penn is a Hall of Famer and one of the best lightweights in the history of MMA. But, since his return to the UFC against Georges St-Pierre at UFC 58, he is 1-4-1 at welterweight compared to 5-2 as a lightweight. I still believe Penn is a top five lightweight, and he may even be the second best welterweight in the world for one round, but anyone who watched his loss to Nick Diaz and his draw to Jon Fitch knows that he has a cardio issue at welterweight that disappears when those additional 15 pounds disappear. In other words, what BJ was able to get away with when he beat Matt Hughes for the welterweight title when they fought in 2004, he hasn’t been able to get away with as the sport and its athletes have moved forward.
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