I have received a strange amount of emails about moving up in weight the last couple weeks. The UFC must be doing a good job of marketing because this weight class fever traces straight back to them. Before June no one in MMA cared much about weight class movement. It was an oddity in MMA and showed no signs of changing. Then the UFC went crazy when Affliction appeared and scheduled a show on short notice with their top fighter Anderson Silva moving up a weight class. Fans were hooked on the idea.
BJ Penn is known to be a rebel of sorts. Seeing how much the fans took to Anderson Silva's weight class jump, Penn began pushing for a jump of his own to Welterweight to face Georges St-Pierre. In the weeks leading up to UFC 87, the possible Penn weight jump got more attention than St-Pierre's opponent, Jon Fitch. This has led to fans speculating on who will be the next to move up or down. Weight class movement is rare in MMA and it is possible this fever will pass as a fad. Fans are seeing it for the first time and interested simply because it is some thing relatively new. It is also possible we are entering a new phase for the growth of MMA. A phase that will push it to resemble it's ugly brother boxing.
Boxing is a mature sport. It has spent decades growing into what it is today. On the other hand, MMA is in its infancy. In twenty years it could be a completely different sport than it is today. The things happening now in low numbers may become the norms decades from now. Weight class movement is a likely future change.
Boxers begin at a young age. It is almost unheard of for a man in his early 20s to become a good or better professional. The sport is not designed to work like that. It grabs kids and teenagers and sets the fundamentals into their minds. It also begins while they are still growing physically. A skinny 15 year old will become a different boxer when his body fills out at 23. This is one reason weight class movement is ingrained in boxing. As you get older, you move up in weight classes until you stop growing.
MMA is different. It is a young sport and does not have as many kids and teenagers practicing for future professional careers. Think of it this way - when the top fighters of today were 14 years old, MMA did not even exist yet. Most were training by then in different MMA disciplines, but none were doing it with the expressed interest in fighting one day as a Mixed Martial Artist. They also were not exposed to MMA fights in their late teenage years. We never saw a 17 year old Chuck Liddell fighting in the Octagon as a lightweight.
The sport is changing now, though. Teenagers are beginning to dream about careers as MMA fighters and gyms are opening to train them. Five years from now it could be a common to see a 19 year old break in to the UFC at a lower weight class, before moving up as his body matures. It might even become the norm.
Another reason weight class movement is more common in boxing is because boxing has a limited supply of contenders. Boxing has more weight classes. The abundance of them waters down the talent in each. Think of it this way - in baseball, basketball, football, hockey the teams had more quality players decades ago because there were less teams. In boxing there are a ton of weight classes, so you rarely will have a time when several top boxers are in the same class. The lack of deep talent forces boxers to move up to face better opponents.
MMA does not have this issue. A low number of weight classes keeps fighters within them. First, the quality of opponents is very high. Unless you are a dominant champion like Anderson Silva, you will not need to find better opponents at a higher weight class. The other reason movement is low is because the weight classes are farther away in weight. If a UFC Middleweight wants to move to Light Heavyweight, they face a 20 lbs weight difference. A boxer moving up a class usually faces less than a 10 lbs difference. For any one who has cut weight or gained weight knows, that is a huge difference. In the coming years it is possible MMA will install more weight classes, which will make it easier for fighters to move up. The UFC is strongly against additional weight classes, but we all know how fast Dana White's mind can change. If they see an opportunity to make additional money with more weight classes, the UFC will adopt the new system.
The last reason weight class movement is different in boxing and MMA concerns training. Boxers train as individuals. It is rare for a boxing champion to train with other top fighters, even in different weight classes. MMA is completely the opposite. There is a team concept to MMA training. Every where you look top fighters train with other top fighters. It is not that they have to because of monetary reasons. Most top MMA fighters have enough money to hire a training staff and train on their own. They do not do it because it goes against the prevailing wisdom that you need other good fighters in your training camp. The amount of good MMA fighters remains low even with the boom of the last few years. Finding suitable sparring partners is difficult because if they are good, they are probably professional fighters. Boxing does not have this problem. It forces MMA fighters to band together and make each other better fighters. In the end it forges bonds, which stops fighters from moving up into a training partners weight class. Anderson Silva would be a top Light Heavyweight. He refuses to because his training partner Lyoto Machida is a contender at 205 lbs. It is possible the team training concept will hold on in MMA. It is also possible that with more training centers opening, it will allow more weight class movement because the concentration of fighters will not be as high. There will be a greater pool of gyms that spread out the fighters.
We are entering a fascinating time in the life of a sport. A diehard baseball fan would give any thing to be there when it started and see how things developed. As MMA fans, we have that opportunity and I am thankful for it.