UFC Fighters Finding the Right Weight Class, and Who’s Next

The UFC saw a lot of changes in 2016. The impact of USADA, restructuring of the weigh-in process, and growing concern about fighter’s long-term health have all helped create a shift in the way fighters see weight cutting.

The long-held belief that fighting in the lowest weight class possible provides the most advantages inside the Octagon has seen it’s number of detractors grow in recent years. Last year saw the UFC change in many ways, and few impact the fighters more than the rules and regulations regarding weight.

Due to these changes, fighters are making tough decisions when it comes to what weight class they compete in.

Many factors play into which division a fighter is in, and the role of science and healthcare is growing. No longer are potentially dangerous weight-cuts necessary for fighters to feel like they’re competing at their highest level.

One of the first major changes in the UFC came in October of 2015. Following the UFC bringing on the U.S. Anti-Doping Agency (USADA), IV usage was banned in order to thwart usage of performance enhancing drugs. They also cite a lack of evidence regarding the difference in the quality of health when fighters rehydrate with an IV, compared to orally.

The California State Athletic Commission (CSAC) quickly followed suit, adopting the rule specifically for weight cutting. They even went so far as to ban severe dehydration as a weight cutting practice altogether. The rules went into effect March 1, with CSAC’s executive officer Andy Foster telling commissioners that dehydration and weight cutting are the biggest issues facing MMA today.

Knowledge and information on brain trauma is also growing. From football to soccer and boxing and more, MMA is among many sports confronted startling new, yet unsurprising, data. Also not surprising: the negative effects of partaking in MMA are exacerbated when fighters are dehydrated.

And how do fighters reach their lowest potential weight while still maintaining muscle? Severe dehydration.

Weigh-in during fight week comes the day before the fight, leading to numerous issues. The changes brought upon by the UFC throughout the last two years are aimed at reducing the dangerous effects of the weight cutting process. Beginning at UFC 199, fighters were given a window of time by the CSAC, a couple of hours in the late morning, to weigh-in. The move has been popular with fighters, making the cut easier to reach, and making the stay at the generally below-average weight no longer than it needs to be.

But there’s one way fighters can have more control over their weight cut than any dietician, or amount of discipline. Fighting in the right weight class, meaning the one in which the fighter is healthiest and therefore competing at their best, is the simplest answer.

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Yet, fighter health remains an inconsistent priority for many involved in MMA. The size advantages of being bigger than your opponents in the Octagon are a great motivator for these inconsistencies.

Last year saw several major fighters face issues related to weight cutting, shining a light on one of the scarier aspects of an already frightening sport. This, in a year which saw ONE Championship adopt a wave of new weight cutting rules following the death of Yang Jian Bing in 2015.

The most discussed case in the UFC currently is that of Cristiane “Cyborg” Justino. While her career in the world’s most popular MMA promotion has hit a snag with USADA, it’s her weight cutting that has been in the news. After fighting twice at 140 pounds for the UFC in 2016, Cyborg began to make noise about the difficulties, and results, of her incredibly unhealthy weight cut.

Pressured, and working toward a now-created women’s 145-pound belt in the UFC, Cyborg agreed to these fights in hopes of exactly what we’ll have to kick of pay-per-view festivities in 2017. Instead, that work went for naught, and Cyborg was physically unable to accept another unhealthy weight cut.

But, if the fight is at 145 pounds, why is the cut suddenly unhealthy? According to Cyborg, her most recent cuts were so severe that she suffered from depression, was anemic, and needed to take a full 12 weeks to recover, in order to again cut to 145-pounds.

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Cyborg’s future got a lot more cloudy following her potential USADA infraction, but her story’s sadness reaches another level when the cost of competing is raised from its already high mark.

Valerie Letourneau has also faced issues when it comes to cutting weight throughout her UFC career. Highlighting another issue the UFC will have to take on, eventually. The creation of the women’s flyweight division in the promotion is already being dismissed for 2017, and after a couple of tough cuts, missing weight, and even a 125-pound bout this year, Letourneau is in a tough spot.

The gaps between the strawweight and women’s bantamweight classes is an issue that, while now may not be the time to deal with it, sooner is preferred to later. The pool of fighters to draw from is growing, and the roadmaps to create the classes are there.

UFC Welterweight Johny Hendricks

Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

Former welterweight champion Johny Hendricks is in a similar position to Letourneau. Losing all three of his fights in 2016, “Big Rig” missed weight in his last two bouts. He looked especially off leading up to his fight with Neil Magny at UFC 207. Days before the fight, Hendricks was “erratic” with reporters and looked to be suffering from the weight cut. After the fight, he vowed that he was done at 170-pounds.

He’s one of many fighters who would benefit from the creation of more divisions, particularly between welterweight & middleweight, and middleweight & light heavyweight. The 15-pound and 20-pound gaps, respectively, between weight classes do not give fighters of certain sizes many options.

The creation of more divisions is for another article, but their potential impact on weight cutting’s adverse effects is undeniable.

There have been numerous fighters working ahead of the curve, adjusting, and fighting in more natural weight classes. They’ve made the move up a weight class, and in their improved comfort and health, have also seen mostly positive results. When the potential risks of entering the Octagon can be reduced in any fashion, while there’s no reduction in perceived quality or results, everybody wins.

Welterweight contender Donald Cerrone is the most obvious example of 2016. The former lightweight made the move to 170-pounds and is among the top-tier in a division full of incredibly talented fighters. Going 4-0 since the move in January of 2016, “Cowboy” has earned Performance of the Night bonuses in three of those fights, and is currently the fifth-ranked welterweight in the UFC.

When the potential risks of entering the Octagon can be reduced in any fashion, while there’s no reduction in perceived quality or results, everybody wins.

Kelvin Gastelum has been attempting to force his welterweight career, and it looks as though it may be over. If that means that the 25-year-old focuses on work at the 185-pound weight class, we’re all for it. He’s missed weight at 170 three times in his UFC career, drawing the ire of Dana White, and holds a 2-0 record at middleweight.

The move seems like an obvious one, and while Gastelum may not prefer it, his future at 185-pounds is bright. Recording victories over the likes of Nate Marquardt and Tim Kennedy over the last two years is nothing to ignore.

Nobody is ignoring Conor McGregor’s weight cuts, or lack thereof, in 2016 as well. The 145-pound champion fought twice at welterweight and once at lightweight last year, shunning the physical stress caused by the cut leading up to fights. He’s since left (for now?) the featherweight division, and looks better than ever fighting at more comfortable weights.

Dustin Poirier’s return to lightweight in 2015 has worked out as well, going 4-1 since the move from featherweight. John Dodson’s return to bantamweight last year has also seen success. Although his record reads 1-1, Dodson looks great fighting at 135 and lost an impressive five-round split decision to top contender John Lineker in October.

Lineker’s own move to bantamweight has proven to be the correct decision. With a history of missing weight, the Brazilian’s 4-1 since his return to 135-pounds, and has only missed weight once (a good rate for Lineker). Although he’s coming off of a one-sided loss to TJ Dillashaw at UFC 207, Lineker still has plenty of intriguing fights waiting for him at bantamweight.

These results, along with the increase in attention being paid to the way in which fighters handle their bodies in and out of competition, will lead to more fighters fighting more natural weight classes.

Former light heavyweight champion Jon Jones isn’t shy about his aspirations at heavyweight and the move is one that he, and many more, are expecting. Of course, he’s got plenty of other issues to deal with. But when it comes to weight cutting, Jones won’t be stressing about it too much in the future.

Former middleweight champ Chris Weidman is another fighter who’s discussed moving up a weight class. The prospect of Weidman, who once cut 32-pounds in 10 days in order to fight Demian Maia on short notice, at 205 has us ready for new blood in a largely stagnant division.

It seems like Charles Oliveira could use a jump up in weight classes as well. Since debuting at featherweight in 2012, Oliveira is 7-5, with losses in three of his last four, missing weight in a third of his 12 fights. He’s fought at 155-pounds before, and at 5-foot-10-inches tall, he’s not exactly small for the division.

At some point in the near future, we expect these fighters to join the likes of Gastelum, Hendricks, and former lightweight champion Anthony Pettis in moving up divisions in 2017. Although Pettis’ stay at 145-pounds was short, we’re happy he’s returning to 155 next year.

Recently, fighters fighting in more natural divisions, with less difficult weight cuts, are showing it can be done without a reduction in performance quality. There are exceptions to everything, and trends that may not last. But we’re hoping fighters continue to move toward competing in classes more closely to their natural weights. With the UFC and USADA, athletic commissions, and fighters themselves taking more steps to control the amount of out-of-Octagon damage the fighters take, it looks like it will.

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