Alistair Overeem, Demetrious Johnson, and why changing weight classes never really helps

Jared Wickerham

In the entire history of MMA only two fighters' legacies have ever definitively benefited from a change in weight class.

I'm hoping, when you read that sub-header, that a thousand counter examples spring to mind. If for no other reason than so the framing of my argument seems more necessary and less self indulgent. To put it simply, when I say that Alistair Overeem and Demetrious Johnson are the only fighters to ever show direct evidence of being helped by changing weight classes I'm using a couple of very specific criteria and dismissing a couple of very general arguments.

The first thing I want to say is that I'm not including any change in weight class from the first three years of a fighter's career. The reasoning behind this should be obvious; there are too many factors in the developmental years of a fighter's life to pin any specific success to a change in weight class. Many fighters in that time are moving on to bigger, more professional camps, getting in better shape, or merely becoming more skilled martial artists. To say that a fighter in those first few years owes his success to any one change is too broad a brush stroke for the picture I'm intending to paint. What does this mean practically, it means that I'm not including Dominick Cruz in this discussion. Nor am I including Mike Brown, whose only two losses at lightweight occurred in his first three years as a pro. It also arguably removes Chael Sonnen who's debut came in 1997, but who didn't start fighting in earnest until 2002.

The second guideline I've laid down for this theory is that this is a macro level argument. This is not a fight-to-fight, day-to-day examination of whether a fighter looked better at this weight against this opponent than he did at that weight against that opponent. This is a question of dramatic gains in achievement and long term results. Partially this is to cover a very real flaw in my part of this discussion, which is the truth that changing weight almost always results in one real advantage. The advantage of time and opportunity. For instance, this is my argument against Chael Sonnen who moved from light heavyweight to middleweight and back to light heavyweight. Discounting his 1997 debut, Chael spent a full three years as a decent LHW fighter. All his losses (with the exception of Terry Martin) came to quality opponents and he had some major victories over Renato Sobral and Jason Miller.

His move down in weight seemed to boost his career as he spent the better part of three years as the middleweight division's no. 2 fighter. However, consider that he has continued losing to top competition at middleweight, (including Jeremy Horn, Paulo Filho, and Demian Maia) and that his pinnacle achievement in each division has been the same, a UFC title shot. If he beats Rashad Evans, he will have secured two of the most impressive victories of his career at light heavyweight. It's difficult to argue that his career legacy has really been improved by his shift in weight. What it really bought him was time to improve at the sport's highest level. No doubt that time was of inestimable value to Chael personally, but it's hardly yielded the sort of long term results to be written in the annuls of history.

This is to try and bring in to sharp focus what I mean when I say macro-level analysis. Fighters fight for titles and title shots (and money). It should be said that, in the short term, T.J. Grant has seen a major boost in career success since dropping from welterweight to lightweight. He's currently undefeated in his new division and if he ever gets his shot at the lightweight title that in and of itself may represent a pinnacle that he was never close to achieving at 170 lbs. Of course, if he wins the title, he's one of the few successes, no question. If he fights, loses, and drops quietly away however, is he still a better lightweight than he was a welterweight? Probably, maybe. It's harder to tell... But that's a future argument, not a present one, and certainly not a past one.

All of this brings us to our successes. Alistair Overeem moved up to the Heavyweight division after eight years as a decent, but not great light heavyweight fighter. Between 2007 and 2011 he was arguably one of the top handful of heavyweights in the world, winning Strikeforce, Dream, and K-1 Grand Prix titles. More recently his production has started to fall off, and it could be reasonably argued that it's coincided with facing a level of competition comparable to his earlier (and less successful) career. But however you frame it, no matter what possibilities and criticisms you add or subtract, his late career renaissance was almost entirely tied up with a shift upwards in weight.

For Demetrious Johnson the subtext is even more obvious. He was a flyweight champion in waiting; a fighter without a true home who had spent the bulk of his career taking on bigger men. At bantamweight he seemed destined to be little more than a title challenger, but even if he loses the belt tomorrow he will have been a champion at flyweight. It's the sort of unabashed success story that every fighter looks for when they change weight classes, although in the case of Johnson it probably had more to do with an excess of opportunity than anything else. If Joseph Benavidez had won their flyweight title fight in 2012, I'd be writing this about him. Instead,he sits in exactly the same position he occupied at bantamweight; a hairsbreadth away from a title shot at all times. His extra weight cutting, his harder dieting, all gone to a move that may never gain him anything more than time.

And that's ultimately my point. In an entire sport, in a series of competitions that has hosted thousands upon thousands of athletes we find ourselves with just two men for whom a change in weight class was a clear answer to a problem. For all the others, it may have bought them time, and with time comes money and opportunity, but it has never really yielded results. So the next time you hear about one of your favorite fighters taking the jump in either direction, up or down, be wary of expectations. More likely than not they'll be the exact same fighter they always were just a few pounds bigger or smaller.

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