2016 is only a few days old, and already we are seeing the birth of what might become a new trend: fighters switching weight classes in pursuit of big fights and new career paths.
The biggest among them is Conor McGregor, the UFC featherweight champion who is likely to move up a division for a chance to capture the lightweight title and become the UFC's first-ever fighter to hold belts in simultaneous weight classes.
Update: It's official Conor McGregor is moving up in weight to challenge lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos. The fight is slated for UFC 197 is Las Vegas.
And then there is Donald Cerrone, who was recently turned away (in violent fashion) during his own attempt to win the lightweight title from champion Rafael dos Anjos. No longer content to sit around and play the rankings game, Cerrone has decided to move up to welterweight, where more fights and ostensibly more money await.
We've seen fighters changing weight classes before, but usually it's a last-ditch resort to stay in the world's biggest fight promotion after a lengthy losing streak. But with the USADA ban on IV usage, there is a chance we'll see more fighters follow Cerrone and McGregor in switching weight classes. Today, Bleacher Report lead writers Jonathan Snowden and Jeremy Botter come together to debate The Question: Will others follow McGregor, Cerrone in switching weight classes?
Jeremy: 2015 was something of a historic year in the career of Donald Cerrone, Jonathan, because he sat on the sidelines from May until December.
This is a man who has fought 19 times since making his debut in the UFC in 2011, which makes him as active as any fighter I've ever seen. He has never really cared about the title, instead preferring to fight as often as possible (and make as much money as possible in the process). But last year, he decided to be a bit more "normal" and wait around for a shot at the championship.
It didn't work out. Cerrone was crushed by Rafael dos Anjos and sent tumbling back down the lightweight ladder. Truth be told, that's probably just fine with Cerrone, who still managed to fight four times in 2015 even with his extended time away from the Octagon.
And then, in true Cerrone fashion, he accepted a fight with Tim Means on short notice. That's the Cowboy we know and love. And it isn't just a short-notice fight; Cerrone is moving up to welterweight to take it.
Maybe he'll stay there. Maybe he won't. He's a fighter who just wants to fight as often as possible, and if that means switching up weight classes to stay busy, then so be it.
All of this got me thinking: Should more fighters take this kind of approach? We've seen Benson Henderson do the same thing, and it makes sense. If a fighter isn't in title contention and doesn't plan on retiring, why not take whatever fight comes your way, even if it means fighting outside your normal weight class?
Jonathan: Cerrone is a throwback to the good old days of MMA. If it was 1999, he'd be right there with Jeremy Horn, one of the sport's pioneers who fought an amazing 21 times that year. He's a guy who likes fighting, likes staying active and is willing to take chances.
If you're the UFC, that's one of those good problems I hear so much about.
Cerrone will have a chance to step into the cage without obsessing over his every calorie, without a dangerous and self-destructive diet that has become MMA's new normal. And who knows? He might even be better at 170 pounds. It will be interesting to see.
Fans are so worried about divisional hierarchies and title belts that they lose track of what brought us all here in the first place—the joy of competition, the excitement of the fight and two athletes challenging each other to see who emerges from the flames, singed but victorious.
It's bad enough in some circles that I've seen people rejecting a potential bout between featherweight champion Conor McGregor and lightweight champion Rafael dos Anjos because it would create a logjam in their respective divisions. Can these people possibly be serious?
Combat sports are about creating the most appealing matchups, the kind that allow athletes to test themselves and, most importantly, to make money. Rankings and weight classes are tools to drive interest in a particular bout. But they aren't religion, and there is no orthodoxy that demands strict adherence to the whims of the C-level MMA media who create UFC's official rankings.
Jeremy: I read an interview earlier where UFC lightweight Ross Pearson said that McGregor isn't even a top-10 lightweight right now. I have seen some fans say that it's unfair for McGregor to be able to jump the pack and straight into a title shot against Dos Anjos.
And I just have to say: Are you kidding me? How dense do you have to be, and what world do you live in where McGregor isn't given an immediate shot if he decides to move up?
It all comes back to what mixed martial arts actually is. Yes, this is a sport, of sorts. But it will never be pure sport. It will always be about making the biggest promotional fights available. It is astounding to me that there are people out there who still haven't been able to grasp this, whether it's because they are dunderheads or because they have a deep hatred of McGregor and what he has been able to accomplish.
To me, fun fights are always going to win out. A year ago, I had an extended text conversation with UFC President Dana White where I tried to convince him to allow Cerrone to move up to welterweight and take a short-notice fight against Matt Brown, who'd recently seen his opponent pull out of a bout due to injury. White told me that Cerrone was too small and that Brown would "kill him."
But now, here we are, with Cerrone moving up to try his hand against Means and perhaps even other welterweights. And I'm just such a huge fan of the move. As you mentioned earlier, Cerrone won't have to worry about a weight cut, so he'll be fresher in the Octagon. I think there's something to that, and I'd like to see others do the same thing.
Jonathan: For boxing fans, it's a concept that's particularly hard to grasp. The idea that a great fighter in his prime wouldn't be able to compete successfully just because he stepped up a weight class is so absurd it's hardly worth commenting on.
McGregor is a great fighter. That's true whether he's an oversized 145-pounder or an average-sized lightweight. Why not maximize his potential, both as an athlete and a box-office attraction, by allowing him to conquer two weight classes?
There's this idea that fighters are on a rigid path, moving up and down the ladder with a title fight as the ultimate prize. That's only true for a handful of competitors. Even the best fighters will never compete for a championship. Most will never come close. That can't be what fighting is about.
Prize fighting is about you, an opponent and what happens when someone locks a cage door that separates fighters from civilized society. Reduced to their most primal instincts, fighters will succeed or fail based only on their own merits and how well they implement their training. It's a powerful thing, whether that fighter is a journeyman of no remarkable skill or the greatest fighter on the planet.
Being a champion is great—but it doesn't imbue a fighter with immortality. That requires a fighter to touch our souls, to speak to the human condition with fists rather than words, to stand tall in the face of danger with a smile and an unquenchable desire to impose your will on another.
Long after the Dave Mennes and Ricco Rodriguezs are long forgotten (despite their UFC gold) we'll remember Nick Diaz. We'll remember Mark Hunt. And we'll remember Cowboy Cerrone.
Stepping into the breach at 170 pounds isn't a mistake for Cerrone. It's what makes him who he is.
Jeremy Botter and Jonathan Snowden cover mixed martial arts for Bleacher Report.