Alexander Gustafsson fought Daniel Cormier for the light heavyweight belt on Saturday. A title fight is always the biggest moment for any fighter's career, but for the Swede in particular, there was a lot on the line.
The Cormier matchup was put together through convenience and popularity rather than through competitive worth. Gustafsson's last fight was a brutal knockout courtesy of Anthony Johnson. Gustafsson jumped the line for the fight against Cormier ahead of the far more deserving Ryan Bader, in part because people just care about the Swede more. He's the man who took the greatest fighter in the world to the brink, and Bader is a boring decision machine who got finished by Tito Ortiz and Glover Teixeira. Note: for
the angry Bader fans that one angry Bader fan out there reading this, this isn't talking about who these fighters are, but how they're perceived. Sorry, Ben.
If Jon Jones had still been the champion, Bader likely would have received the shot, but with Bones embroiled in his legal issues, the UFC was left with a 205lb division adrift without its figurehead. The UFC and its parent organization Zuffa have had their own legal and financial issues, and Jones represented a sizable loss of potential earnings. This was no time to be messing around with dangerous notions like merit, especially as Cormier isn't a Rousey or GSP who can carry off big numbers against uninspiring opposition. It was time to put fan-favorites together in fights that people wanted to see. Enter Gustafsson.
In taking the fight, his back was firmly against the wall. Most challengers in a title fight are riding a string of wins and a surge of momentum and confidence, and Gustafsson was not. He had talked about how he'd considered retiring after the Johnson loss. Throughout the Cormier fight he would glance over at his corner. There was an element of desperation in between rounds when they seemed to be trying to convince him that he could win.
It's a cliche that courage is not in the absence of fear but in overcoming it, but Gustafsson fought courageously. The fight was close and bloody, and both men were battered and torn at the end. Cormier won two clear rounds to Gustafsson's one, though, and this is invaluable in the subjective world of MMA decisions. Although both were exhausted, Cormier pushed through in the last round, just as Jones did when he fought the Swede.
Everything (or almost everything) Gustafsson might have feared, or forced to the back of his mind, has happened. He might be even more of a fan favorite than before, and the lingering idea that he might have just been an above-average fighter who caught a great one on an off day has disappeared. On the other hand, he's now stuck in a division where he's lost to all three of the top fighters. The title which was within his grasp is a long way away, likely behind a potential Jones return and a Bader title shot. There aren't many fresh fights for him in the division, aside from a faded and inactive Rashad Evans or Glover Teixeira.
I think he should move up to heavyweight.
Heavyweight is not a division which fighters move up to very often. I'm never sure why. I think it still maintains some semblance of being the biggest, baddest, best division around. Fighters themselves tend to put a lot of value on being bigger than each other.
It is the biggest, but is it the best and the baddest? Of the many transfers between heavyweight and light heavyweight, I struggle to think of any who have had more success at the lighter class.
Alistair Overeem was a violent, inconsistent glass cannon at light heavyweight, and became, after an initial period of success, considered much the same as a heavy. At one point he even stated that he thought 205 was the tougher division. Randy Couture could outsmart and grind down champions, but lacked the speed and physicality necessary for consistency at both heavyweight and 205. Brandon Vera's only marquee win was at heavyweight. Joey Beltran moved to LHW and eventually became a Mii down at middleweight, but again, any improved consistency eluded him.
A popular approach in social science is to look at twins to examine the effects of different environments, with genetics as a relative constant. Imagine if someone ran this experiment for MMA, with one twin in the light heavyweight class, and one in the heavyweight class, and one had by far the better career. Which one do you think it would be?
The greatest heavyweight of all time is a 205er with a belly.
If there's a potential reason why a light heavyweight wouldn't want to move up, it's in the sheer randomness of the higher class. Big, swinging fists which can end a fight instantly; the way that things like top control and cardio change with allometric scaling as the fighters get bigger.
Imagine there's a fighter whose place is naturally as somewhere around the #7 fighter in their division. Their odds of winning a fight against the others around them in their division might look like this:
Now imagine a #7 fighter at heavyweight:
The curve is flattened- they've got more of a chance of beating people who are much better than them, but they've got a much bigger chance of losing to people worse than them.
Fighters tend to think of themselves as belonging at one position: #1. Therefore this kind of randomness can only be a bad thing to them. Combine this with the fighter's natural belief in the overwhelming power of size, and you have a division that everyone avoids moving up to. No matter how bad it actually is.
Real and hidden advantages
In general advantages or disadvantages of going up or down a division tend to be overstated, and obscure what fighters are doing in their careers at the time. T J Grant and Alistair Overeem made weight class jumps which also coincided with leaps in stand-up technique. How much does that influence their immediate success? A change is also often a "marker" of a more disciplined approach. Nik Lentz was more successful as a featherweight than a lightweight, but his drop down also coincided with getting with a high-level camp and becoming serious about MMA.
At the other end of this spectrum, fighters often change weight classes at the tail ends of their careers. Desperate to maintain some kind of competitive advantage they drain themselves down for one last shot. There's often a sacrificial masochism to it. It's a way to hold onto waning physicality with bloody fingernails; cutting weight is the worst and most unpleasant part of MMA, and by bringing this suffering in on themselves, they'll be repaid somehow. Think BJ Penn, or Kenny Florian. It rarely goes well.
Gustafsson isn't at the end of his career unless he chooses to be (which is fine and a choice he's more than entitled to make). He's still relatively young, and as a young fighter he possesses the vital capacity for reinvention. To me this capacity to build a fresh story is the real benefit of switching weight classes.
People remember Dustin Poirier's loss to Conor McGregor because Conor McGregor Conor McGregor Conor McGregor, but Poirier's struggles against the Korean Zombie and Cub Swanson faded into the rear-view mirror with his lightweight rebirth. No-one thinks of Lorenz Larkin's dismal middleweight run.
Could Gustafsson make his own run at heavyweight? It's insane to suggest that he couldn't. Light heavyweight is shallow at the moment, but heavyweight is a puddle. An old puddle. Arlovski and Mir fought for what would have been the next shot at the gold if the fight hadn't been terrible. Dos Santos and Velasquez can't stay healthy. Stipe Miocic is Ryan Bader, more or less.
The benefit from a move to heavyweight goes beyond just another line to another belt. Fighters can feel trapped by the relentless grind and surge of the sport; losses can build up and bear down on their confidence. One of the most dangerous things to happen to any fighter is that they simply stop enjoying what they do, and that they fall into a grey cycle of training and fighting and training and fighting, chasing the brief euphoria of a win.
Although I'm advocating a switch, I'm not necessarily suggesting a permanent one. For a couple of fights at least, I think Gustafsson should fight some middle-to-upper level heavyweights. He can clear the cobwebs away, and decide whether this is somewhere that he wants to stay. On a more cynical level, it'll resonate with a public who love watching the David vs Goliath spectacle of someone going up in weight and specifically fighting against heavyweights. Gustafsson can get away from the pressures of weight cutting and away from his history for a while, and get some fresh air and fresh fights, because the light heavyweight division probably isn't going anywhere.