Throughout the history of professional mixed martial arts, fighters have tried to reinvent themselves by moving up or down a weight class or two, and the results have varied. On one end of the spectrum, guys like Kenny Florian, Urijah Faber and Frankie Edgar have dropped weight and experienced mixed results, with none earning a title in the process. On the other end, there’s Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz, examples of fighters who have managed to remain unbeaten and capture gold after dropping weight classes.

A knowledgeable fan could easily recognize that these fighters, with the exception of Florian, have all dwelled on the smaller end of their initial weight classes. Florian managed to compete as heavy as 185 pounds and as low as 145 pounds, at which he looked emaciated and slow. This brings up an interesting caveat of weight change. It’s not always a healthy decision for career or body.

Most fighters, especially at the highest levels, fight at their ideal weight. One exception is Anthony “Rumble” Johnson. Johnson made a habit out of missing weight at welterweight and middleweight, and his record suffered. However, once he hit light heavyweight and eventually heavyweight, he went 4-0 with three knockouts, proving that he was not at his ideal weight in his earlier fights. While it’s rare that a fighter is fighting too light, it’s not unusual to fight too heavy.

Frankie Edgar was a perennial lightweight, and despite his very impressive record in that division, after his second decision loss to Benson Henderson, he made the move down to featherweight. Although he lost his debut to champion Aldo, in his next fight, a unanimous decision win over up-and-comer Charles Oliveira, he looked great at 145 pounds.

Now, there’s an unlikely name to add to the list of fighters who have opted to shed a few more pounds and try their hand at a new weight class. Former UFC and Strikeforce heavyweight title contender and ex-King of the Cage heavyweight champ Paul “The Headhunter” Buentello is making that move, but his drop has been a lot more dramatic than any of the above-mentioned fighters, including Florian.

At 39 years old, Buentello is an old-school veteran of the sport. In 47 bouts over the course of 16 years, he has fought exclusively at heavyweight, often hovering right around the 265-pound limit. Buentello is a fighter’s fighter. Through all of those contests, he has only gone to decision eight times, and holds 19 knockout wins and nine submission victories. However, there’s one thing he hasn’t done in a decade and a half. He has never dropped a weight division—until now.

“I was training at [American Kickboxing Academy],” said Buentello in an exclusive interview with The MMA Corner. “I came back to Midland [Texas] a couple of times for my Russian fights. I had part of my camp here for my Russian fights and half of my camp here for IFC. It was one of those things with Brad Barnes and Bruno Bastos. I just had a good feel. Brad stepped up and said, ‘You’ve been talking, Paul, and you want to be at 205 [pounds]. If you want to do it, I’ll surround you with the right people.’

“So, I did my last couple days at AKA and came down here to Midland. I’ve been just focusing on my diet, and having a ringleader like Brad Barnes and having a mentor on the jiu-jitsu side, Bruno Bastos, you just can’t beat it. It was a good fit for doing half a camp for my last three fights, so why not do a full camp here? Now, look at me. I’m fighting at 205.”

That’s right. Tomorrow night, at Legacy Fighting Championship 22, live from Lubbock Civic Center in Lubbock, Texas, Buentello will be stepping into the cage for the 48th time in his long career, only this time as a light heavyweight, and he feels better than ever.

“Tonight, I was doing some drilling on the ground, doing some get-ups and doing some escapes, and it was like my flexibility just came out of nowhere,” Buentello explained. “I had the energy and the strength to pop up better. Let’s be honest, my gut wasn’t in the way for me to get up.

“It was pretty freaking exciting. Bruno was like, ‘Wow. Look at this guy!’ It was just so cool. My energy level’s really good, and my speed—the guy who was holding mitts for me today was like, ‘I’m trying to keep up with your angle cutting, but you’re cutting angles a lot smoother and a lot faster.’ He couldn’t keep up, and he kept apologizing. He was not turning fast enough with me. It was just a good day today.”

Buentello is entering the ring off a three-fight winning streak, something he hasn’t attained since 2007. Even approaching the milestone age of 40, he’s still learning and working on improving his game. The weight loss is just icing on the cake.

“I’m very freaking outrageously happy,” exclaimed Buentello. “I’m at this spot right now, and I can’t believe it. It’s probably the first time ever in my life that I’m walking around under 220. There was one week here, probably three or four weeks back, I was just stuck in the [230s], and I thought I would never get out of it. It was so mentally beating me up. And then, bam! I hit a breakthrough and the pounds started coming off. I never thought I would be this light.”

Where has this guy been? It’s such an energetic and inspiring turnaround for a guy who was coming off the roughest patch of his career only 17 months ago.

Until his second UFC run, Buentello’s career consisted of a series of four-plus-fight winning streaks, an amazing 16-3 run, and epic battles in the UFC, Strikeforce and Affliction. In 2009, he returned to the Octagon, marking the beginning of a 2-5 run that included five decisions, which is uncharacteristic of “The Headhunter.”

“The one thing I’ve come to understand is that life is going to throw a lot of curveballs at you, but you’ve just got to keep coming forward,” explained Buentello. “I let stuff build up. You keep too much stuff on the mind, and I was just over-focusing everything.

“In the last three fights, I just went back to old school, like I used to. I just had fun with it and stayed focused. I got all the clutter out of my head and cleaned up the life. I had to get better with things, focus more, and have fun with life again. I think I got wrapped up in too much stuff.”

Buentello (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)

Now, Buentello is relaxed. He’s back on track with his winning ways.

Buentello looks to extend his streak at Legacy FC 22 against a familiar opponent, James McSweeney, an old training partner from his preparation for his final UFC appearance.

While training out of Grudge Training Center in Wheat Ridge, Colo., Buentello met McSweeney, a British fighter who was fresh off The Ultimate Fighter: Heavyweights. During the show, McSweeney competed on Rashad Evans’ team. Evans was still training out of Grudge at that time, so McSweeney started training there after the TUF finale. It was then that he crossed paths with Buentello.

“We sparred a couple times at Grudge before my [Cheick] Kongo fight, when I fought Kongo at UFC on Versus,” said Buentello. “That was the last time we sparred. He’s McSweeney, you know? I’ve been around him, and I’ve seen him fight. I saw his last few fights, and he’s looking good.”

McSweeney is an experienced fighter who’s 11-10 as a pro MMA fighter and was 1-3 as a professional kickboxer. In much the opposite fashion as Buentello, the Englishman’s career started off rocky at 4-8. However, in the last two years, he’s gone 7-2 with all nine fights ending in a finish.

When Buentello’s previously scheduled opponent, Marcus Sursa, was forced to withdraw, McSweeney stepped up to take his place.

“I think it’s a great match-up,” Buentello stated. “It’s the perfect match-up for me to make my debut at 205. I can’t complain. I can’t believe he even took the fight without knowing that he took the fight. I’m glad his manager said that he would take the fight in a heartbeat. It’s the perfect fit. The other guy that was in was a good fit, but this is an even better fit. He says—like everybody else says—that he’ll stand.

“When was the last time I’ve been submitted? If he can hold me down, that’s a whole different story, but I don’t think he’s going to hold me down. I don’t think he’s going to get close enough to even get a takedown. It’s going to be a stand-up fight. I’m going to keep it where I want it, and I might even take him down.”

Light, fast, and confident that his hand will be raised. That is a Buentello combination that nobody has ever seen, and just to think about it is frightening. However, McSweeney is going to get locked in a cage with that guy. It’s probably not the best course of action to be poking and prodding that beast, but he did it anyway.

McSweeney thinks he’s just going to walk right through Buentello, but the elder veteran has a completely different plan.

“It’s going to go easy,” explained Buentello. “I’m going to put the pace on him. He’s never felt the pressure I’m going to put on him. He’s going to make a mistake. His mistakes are going to be throwing the first punch, throwing the first kick, and I’m going to counter and put the first one on him. Every time he thinks about throwing a kick, he’s going to get hit. Every time he thinks about throwing a punch, he’s going to get hit. He’s going to get hit a lot.

“It’s not a nice thing for him to say it’s going to be an easy win. That’s no respect, right there. He’s going to have a fight on his ass. That’s all it is.”

Legacy FC 22 will air live on AXS TV. Buentello will be making history, fighting at light heavyweight for the first time in his career. And, although McSweeney may have had a rough start as a pro, he has been winning and will pose a great challenge for “The Headhunter” on Friday night.

Even at 39, Buentello isn’t done yet. In a way, he feels like a new man. He’s having fun again, but he also has a renewed sense of purpose. It’s that drive that propels him into the Legacy cage this weekend.

“Everybody’s seen my fights as a heavyweight. I’ve fought for every organization. I’ve fought for the title in two of the major organizations. I fought for a title in the UFC. It didn’t last long. I fought for Strikeforce, and didn’t have the best of luck, but I always fought at heavyweight. I’m making my move to 205. I’m a lot faster. I have knockout power in both hands—everybody knows that. I don’t just walk it, but I live by the name of ‘The Headhunter,’ and that’s what I go for. I get the knockout, I get the win, and it just goes to show people that, even at my age, at this point in my career, I can still make a big splash.”

Buentello would like to thank: Bruno Bastos, Brad Barnes, Bastos BJJ Midland, American Kickboxing Academy, Andy Fong, Albert Martinez, – “Go to their website or Facebook page to get a free signed poster,” Grips Athletics – “I’ve never had a gi until this year, and this is the only gi I would ever want to wear” and Knoxx Gear – “They’ve been with me since UFC 53.” Follow Paul on Twitter: @PaulBuentello

Top Photo: Paul Buentello (Dave Mandel/Sherdog)