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UFC 196 McGregor vs Diaz: What happens when MMA champs change weight?

Before Conor McGregor moves up to Welterweight to challenge Nate Diaz this weekend, take a look at the history of other MMA champions who have tried to change divisions - to mixed results.

Kevork Djansezian/Getty Images

At UFC 196 this weekend, UFC Featherweight champion Conor McGregor moves up two weight classes to take on Nate Diaz. This idea of a champion moving to a new weight class is incredibly common in boxing - the soon to retire future Hall of Fame boxer Manny Pacquiao won major world titles in six different weight classes spanning from 112 to 154 pounds. But in MMA, it's a very rare phenomenon indeed, which is part of what makes McGregor's move so intriguing.

To get an idea of just how rare, here is a look at every MMA fighter who has changed weight classes while holding a major title. For the purposes of this article, major titles were defined as UFC, Pride, Bellator, WEC, and Strikeforce. Feel free to debate that list as you see fit. One last note - what we today call Light Heavyweight and Middleweight, Pride called Middleweight and Welterweight respectively. We'll use our more modern names for clarity. On to the list, which we present in order of their success and importance:

  • Dan Henderson - Hendo is the gold standard here, as he successfully made the move not once, but twice. First, while Pride Middleweight champion he jumped up to Light Heavyweight to take the belt from Wanderlei Silva and end Silva's 5+ year run, standing tall as a double champion when Pride closed their doors. He remains to this day the only man to hold major world titles in two different weight classes simultaneously. In case that wasn't enough, 4 years later while Strikeforce Light Heavyweight champion, he moved up to Heavyweight to KO the greatest HW of all time, Fedor Emelianenko. Very impressive Hendo.
  • Anderson Silva - During his legendary UFC Middleweight title run, he took three trips up to Light Heavyweight, going 3-0 and beating former world champion Forrest Griffin in one of the most lopsided beatdowns you will ever see at that high level of MMA. A Light Heavyweight title shot was discussed, but never materialized as the belt was held by his friend Lyoto Machida at the time.
  • B.J. Penn - One of the best examples of a champion willing to fight at any weight, Penn was never content to simply sit back and defend his belt. When he won the UFC Welterweight title from Matt Hughes, he promptly left the UFC and competed all over the scale, including all the way up at Heavyweight. His success in this journey was a mixed bag. Years later, he won the UFC Lightweight title, and promptly moved up to challenge UFC Welterweight champion Georges St. Pierre in what still stands as the only true UFC champion vs. UFC champion fight in company history (at least, until Rafael dos Anjos gets better). Penn lost the fight via stoppage.
  • Wanderlei Silva - Weight classes were never as important to Pride, and so during The Axe Murderer's lengthy Light Heavyweight run, he made a number of trips up to Heavyweight, culminating in a memorable Heavyweight GP run where he knocked out the notoriously iron chinned Kazuyuki Fujita, then was knocked out himself via Cro Cop head kick. Silva's final Heavyweight record during his title run: 1-2-1 (1 NC).
  • Jake Shields - When he left Strikeforce he was the Middleweight champion. He entered the UFC at Welterweight, won over Martin Kampmann, and challenged GSP for the WW title, where he lost a decision.
  • Gegard Mousasi - While holding the Strikeforce Light Heavyweight title, he popped up to Heavyweight for a fight at Dynamite!!, knocking out veteran Gary Goodridge in under 2 minutes before returning to 205.
  • Joe Riggs - Riggs left the WEC while their Middleweight champion, moved to the UFC and dropped down to Welterweight. He won his debut, then lost what should have been a title fight to Matt Hughes, but became non-title when Riggs failed to make weight.
  • James Irvin - Another WEC champ, Irvin left WEC while holding their Heavyweight title, and came in to the UFC as a Light Heavyweight. He had a highlight reel debut, but then lost his second fight to Stephan Bonnar and began jumping around organizations after that.

And now, the champions whose moves were ill-advised to say the least...

  • Murilo Bustamante - The UFC Middleweight champion moved to Pride and stepped up to Light Heavyweight in order to enter their Grand Prix. He went 0-2 in that tournament, and made the move back down not long after.
  • Scott Smith - One more from the WEC, Smith left as Light Heavyweight champion, came in as a Middleweight to the UFC, and immediately lost to David Terrell.
  • Joe Warren - The Bellator Featherweight champion entered a Bellator Bantamweight tournament in an effort to become the company's first two division champion. He was knocked out by Alexis Vila exactly 64 seconds into his Bantamweight run. (Though it must be noted that Warren would eventually win the Bellator Bantamweight title, so it worked out for him in the end.)
  • Alexander Shlemenko - The Bellator Middleweight champion was on an amazing 13 fight run when he chose to move up to Light Heavyweight to fight Tito Ortiz, riding a 1-7-1 streak at the time. Ortiz submitted him in one round. Shlemenko slinked back to Middleweight, where he promptly dropped his title, then followed that up with a failed test for steroids. It's hard to envision a move going more poorly.

So is Conor McGregor on his way to being the next Hendo, or the next Shlemenko? Find out at UFC 196 this Saturday.