Back in the golden/dark ages of MMA, the single-night tournament was the norm and the sport was promoted as a perpetual battle between different existing martial arts styles. Fighters, trained in disciplines both legitimate (Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu) and otherwise (Joe Son Do), showed up to the venues with their teams, prepared for their fights and then more or less got to it. There was no UFC Primetime to hype the fights, and there was very little in the way of pageantry before the actual bouts themselves. Most significant about those old days of MMA, though, was the lack of weight classes. Until UFC 12, for example, every one of that promotion’s events was held in the open-weight format, which sometimes led to fights featuring competitors separated by hundreds of pounds.

In the many years since, and at the insistence of the various state athletic commissions who began sanctioning MMA in the early part of the last decade, the UFC and its contemporaries have instituted a system of weight classes to competitively separate fighters based on their sizes. The world’s top promotion, for example, has eight men’s weight classes ranging from heavyweight (206-265 pounds) all the way down to flyweight (116-125 pounds), and fighters must step on the scale the day before their bouts to ensure they are within the weight constraints of their respective divisions.

The result has been eight great UFC champions and a number of fighters of all sizes ranked underneath them. The only time when the presence of weight classes can get a little tricky, however, is when it comes to ranking the fighters within them. As the UFC has grown, we’ve seen a handful of fighters change divisions mid-career. The reasons for such changes are varied. For some fighters, their natural weight classes were simply not present in the UFC when they broke into the promotion, so they were forced to compete at a heavier weight than normal. For others, they’ve found their initial weight classes to be poor competitive fits. Finally, there are those fighters who inexplicably change weight divisions after they’re given a random, questionably deserved title shot.

Whatever the reason for a change in weight class, the scenarios raise the question of whether it’s fair to rank fighters in their newly adopted weights before they fight, or if actual competition within the division is required before a ranking can be determined. MMA Corner Assistant Editor Rob Tatum and writer Eric Reinert debate the issue for the latest edition of Opposing Forces.

If the Shoe Fits: An Argument for Pre-Ranking Fighters in New Divisions—Eric Reinert

UFC fans have seen a number of fighters change weight classes in the midst of their promotional runs. Rich Franklin began his career in the UFC at light heavyweight before finding a longtime home at 185 pounds. Randy Couture and Dan Henderson have bounced between divisions for their entire careers. Kenny Florian began his UFC run as an undersized middleweight before progressing down each weight class below it until retiring as a featherweight.

In 2013, MMA fans will see two well-known fighters debut at new weight classes in the UFC. First, former UFC lightweight champion Frankie Edgar will drop to featherweight for the first time in his career tonight when he faces UFC 145-pound champion Jose Aldo. Then, in April, Chael Sonnen, late of the middleweight division, will make his UFC light heavyweight debut in a title bout against champion Jon Jones. Regardless of the fact that these two fighters are receiving immediate title shots in their divisional debuts, there is some contention as to where, if anywhere, these fighters should be ranked in their new weight classes.

For me, it’s simple: If I think a fighter could defeat the other ranked fighters in his new weight class, I’ll rank him above them. For example, I currently have Frankie Edgar ranked second in my featherweight rankings, despite his never having fought at 145. Why? Because I’m pretty certain that Edgar could defeat Chad Mendes, Pat Curran, Chan-Sung Jung and the rest of the other fighters in the featherweight top 10. He’s just that great of a fighter.

On the other hand, I don’t have Chael Sonnen ranked in my light heavyweight top 10, but it has nothing to do with the fact that he hasn’t fought at 205 in the UFC since 2005. I don’t believe Sonnen could defeat any of the other light heavyweights in my rankings (Dan Henderson, Lyoto Machida, Mauricio “Shogun” Rua and the like), so I don’t have him ranked. Now, Sonnen is at a bit of a disadvantage since he’s moving up a weight class to face a much larger fighter in Jones, whereas Edgar is debuting at what many have argued is his “natural size,” but that doesn’t change how I have (or haven’t) ranked him at 205.

I understand the need to exercise rankings fairness, and I don’t necessarily disagree with others who choose to wait until a fighter has competed in a weight class before ranking him there for that very reason. That said, though, once a fighter has announced his intention to fight in a new weight class, he deserves to be fairly compared to the others in that division. If that means he’s in the top 10 right off the bat, so be it. In our pound-for-pound rankings, we compare fighters from different divisions based on who we think would win in a fight between them. I’m simply applying that logic on a division-by-division basis.

Theory is One Thing, Evidence is Another—Rob Tatum

First thing’s first, if a fighter makes the top-10 rankings in any division, they’re a great fighter. By no means is this argument meant to demean or criticize fighters. However, it is about exposing holes in an imperfect system.

Don’t get me wrong, rankings are subjective. Any time that human input is involved, there will always be bias, error and in all likelihood, debate. Although Eric’s perspective is shared by many who cover the sport, they’re neglecting the single most important aspect of rankings: facts.

Argue as much as you’d like, but it’s very black and white for me. Until there is physical evidence of how a fighter performs in a new division, how can you predict what will happen when the cage door shuts? What if their conditioning suddenly becomes subpar? What if the additional weight cut makes their once great chin suspect? These unknowns apply to numerous aspects of MMA, including speed and strength.

Frankie Edgar is a great example of this. Sure, the former lightweight champion was always undersized competing at 155 pounds, but he did not cut any weight in that division. He always had a speed and conditioning advantage over his opponents, giving up both size and strength as a result. Now, in his new division at 145 pounds, all of that may change. Edgar will no longer be giving up size and strength, but he may no longer have the same speed and conditioning edge. Certainly his technique will carry over to his new weight class, but how can you expect the exact same fighter when so many things have changed? It’s far from an apples-to-apples comparison. While Edgar is clearly a top-five lightweight, until there is proof he will be successful at featherweight, ranking him in the weight class doesn’t hold any ground.

On the opposite end of the spectrum is Chael Sonnen. At middleweight, the fighter is a top-10 competitor. His size and strength allowed him to implement a dominant wrestling game over nearly every opponent. It’s been more than seven years since the Oregon fighter last fought at 205 pounds. More than half of his career losses came while competing at the heavier weight class, and it is flat out baffling that he’s choosing to return to the division. You can’t fault the fighter for accepting a title fight—deserving or not—but he was already planning to move up in weight before that. Much like Eric, I wouldn’t favor Sonnen against any of the light heavyweights currently in the top 10. But, should he fall short against current champion Jon Jones and decide to return to 185 pounds, I’d still classify him as a top-10 fighter based on his recent body of work within the division.

There are many cases outside of Edgar and Sonnen. Take hard-hitting light heavyweight James Irvin. The fighter looked sickly and lethargic in dropping down to 185 pounds, rather than his usual explosive self. Or consider recent lightweight title challenger Nate Diaz. The fighter went just 2-2 in his stint at welterweight, where he gave up both size and strength, and ultimately returned to 155 pounds and found success.

It’s not that fighters changing weight classes are always doomed for failure. Demetrious Johnson has looked amazing as a flyweight after challenging for the bantamweight title previously in his career. And as Eric mentioned, Rich Franklin had great success after changing divisions.

But the bottom line is that there are too many factors that determine how a change in weight class will affect a fighter’s performance. Ranking a fighter based on how you think they will perform after making a major change to their body is like putting your faith in snake oil. Wouldn’t you rather have hard evidence to show a fighter is still the same fighter they were previously?

Photo: Frankie Edgar (James Law/Heavy MMA)

About The Author

Eric Reinert
Staff Writer

Eric Reinert has been writing about mixed martial arts since 2010. Outside the world of caged combat, Eric has spent time as a news reporter, speechwriter, campaign strategist, tech support manager, landscaper and janitor. He lives in Madison, Wis.