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MMA: Understanding Weight-Related Issues

Darren WongSenior Analyst IFebruary 16, 2011

MMA: Understanding Weight-Related Issues

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    There are few more talked about issues in MMA than those relating to weight and weight class.

    Consider the last few months and the surrounding narratives that people have developed:

    Georges St. Pierre moving up in weight class to fight Anderson Silva. How much bigger is Silva?

    Rich Franklin was too small for Forrest Griffin, and should drop down to 185.

    Rashad Evans would rather change weight class than fight Jon Jones. Is this a problem?

    Fedor Emelianenko was too small for Antonio Silva. Maybe he should drop down to 205.

    OR, maybe there should be a cruiserweight division.

    BJ Penn says that he's naturally somewhere between the lightweight and welterweight classes.

    Anderson Silva has had success in three weight classes over his career. What does that say about his pound-for-pound status?

    Fedor Emelianenko questions Alistair Overeem's recent weight gains.

     

    Often times, people will make statements like "Fedor's loss proves that there should be a cruiserweight division," without an understanding of the real issues at stake.

    In this article, I'll try to tackle some of the more relevant issues in discussions involving weight and weight class.

"Walking Weight" In MMA

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    Anderson Silva is said to walk around at something around 230 pounds, while Georges St. Pierre is said to walk around at about 190 pounds.

    Those numbers are the kind of thing that will make an uneducated MMA fan say that St. Pierre stands no chance against Silva because Silva is simply too big.

    There are many reasons why such a statement would be too big of an assumption.

    "Walking weight" is a very tricky thing to talk about, because it means different things for different fighters.

    Rampage Jackson can walk around at about 250 pounds when he's not training for a fight.  But he certainly isn't nearly that big when he's actually fighting.

    He loses a lot of fat during training camp, and by the time his training camp is done, he's more like a solid 225 pounds.

    Anderson Silva is similar to this, in that he allows himself to balloon up in weight when he's not training for a fight, but his fighting weight isn't nearly that high when he's fighting at middleweight. Some suggest that his weight when he's actually competing at middleweight is less than 200 pounds.

    Georges St. Pierre is on the other side of the spectrum.

    St. Pierre is in nearly peak shape even when he's not in training camp. He walks around at 190 pounds, and when he's fighting, he's stepping into the Octagon at about 190 pounds.

    So when it comes to actual fighting weight, St. Pierre might not really be that much smaller than Anderson Silva.

    More important than fighting weight are the stylistic advantages, and how they could potentially be affected by their physical dimensions.

    For example:

    Georges St. Pierre is usually able to control the range of his fights and set up takedowns with his jab. He's had a reach advantage over every single one of his previous opponents. How will his game be affected when he's facing a better striker who has a reach advantage?

    How big of a target will Silva's long legs be for St. Pierre's takedowns?

    How hard will it be for St. Pierre to deal with Silva's leggy guard game?

    There are other important questions, like how would increasing his weight affect St. Pierre's quickness and so forth, but in general, the questions of walking weight difference are always less important than questions about things like reach advantage, strength and actual lean fighting weight.

Why Is Rashad Evans Refusal To Fight Jon Jones A Potential Problem For The UFC?

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    Dana White tends to get mad when he hears that teammates won't fight each other. Most of the time, the anger at such sentiments is unjustified.

    For example, the fact that Evans wouldn't fight Jardine was hardly an issue post-TUF, because there were always many other appealing matchups, and later, Evans would prove himself to be a number of classes above Jardine.

    Even the much lamented AKA triumvirate of Jon Fitch, Josh Koscheck, and Mike Swick really has received more attention than it was ever worth.

    As long as St. Pierre was beating both Fitch and Koscheck, there is never really a need to have the two of them fight each other in the ultra-deep welterweight division. 

    Mike Swick is even less of an obstacle in this debate, because he hasn't been enough of a consistent performer for him to really rival his AKA teammates.

    The Jones/Evans situation itself has become an issue right now for the UFC because it is affecting current matchmaking with the possibility that Jones might win the title.

    The potential Jackson vs. Evans rematch cannot currently be made because if both Evans and Jones win their next fights, the most logical matchup becomes the only matchup that can't be made.

    So instead, Evans won't get a chance to fight in title eliminators against the most marketable contenders if Jones holds the belt, or is fighting for the belt.

    If Jones loses in his title fight, we're again in a relatively safe place, as there are enough good fights for both of them, as long one of them isn't reigning.

Alistair Overeem And His Dramatic Weight Gain

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    Much has been made of Alistair Overeem's weight gain as he blew up from being a stick-like 205 pounder to being a massive 260-pound heavyweight behemoth.

    Allegations of steroid use almost always follow.

    SBNation's Luke Thomas has said recently that after seeing Overeem in person that he's become more convinced that Overeem's physique is relatively proportional and possible without steroid use.

    Without being able to answer the question ultimately, there are some important things that are misunderstood when it comes to weight gains as it pertains to Overeem.

    The first thing that must be discussed is the actual numerical weight increase.

    When Overeem was fighting at 205 pounds, he was depleting himself to the point that he said he was urinating blood as a result of physical breakdown. 

    His actual weight when he was carrying a healthy amount of carbs, water and sodium during this point in time was probably closer to 225 pounds than 205 pounds, and he maintained a fighting weight of 205 pounds only through strict dieting.

    When considering those numbers, and the fact that Overeem had to diet just to stay at that low weight, it seems quite reasonable to think that Overeem could have easily gained weight just by eating more and not constantly focusing on making 205 pounds.

    With little effort, a guy who struggled to make 205 pounds could easily reach 240 pounds quite quickly with a few minor diet tweaks, in what would really only be a gain of only 15 pounds.

    If you've been discussing Overeem's weight increase on forums, you've likely heard bodybuilders say that a person can only gain a few pounds of muscle over a year without using steroids.

    This statement may apply to bodybuilders who have maxed out their size potential through bodybuilding, but it isn't true as a general rule, and pertains more specifically to muscle increases, rather than to weight increases.

    I have a friend who went from 135 pounds to 170 pounds in about two years. That's nearly a 26% increase in weight little over two years.

    At 135 pounds, he wasn't working out and was eating poorly. For him, gaining 35 pounds of healthy weight was a simple matter of eating right and lifting weights.

    For an athlete like Overeem, the situation is different.

    Assuming that his weight pre-dehyration was around 225 pounds for his last light-heavyweight fight in 2007, we're talking about a 35-pound (or 16%) weight increase over three years.

    Of course, we're not talking about somebody going from being sickly scrawny to being a normal healthy weight, when we talk about Overeem.

    On the other hand, we're talking about somebody who basically works out for a living and who can afford top-of-the-line supplements and the infamous horsemeat, which despite all the hilarity really is one of the most protein-rich meats commercially available, and goes great with a nice Bearnaise sauce.

    I have no true knowledge of Overeem's steroid use or lack thereof.

    What I can say is that I think a 6'5" man gaining roughly 35 to 40 pounds of muscle over three years isn't as far-fetched as you may have been led to believe.

The Need For A Cruiserweight Division In MMA

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    When Fedor Emelianenko lost to Antonio Silva, Fedor's apologists were quick to say that Fedor was simply too small for Silva, and further, that there should be a cruiserweight division in MMA.

    This kind of line of thinking brought me back to a few years ago when people were saying the same thing after Brock Lesnar defeated Randy Couture.

    The truth is the same then as it was now: there is no need for a cruiserweight division in MMA.

    There are many reasons why there is no need for a cruiserweight division, but I'll just reiterate a few of the best ones.

     

    1. The Historical Record

    Over the short history of MMA, the best heavyweights have rarely been the 265-pounders. As Jordan Breen mentioned on the Sherdog radio network yesterday, the two best historical heavyweights, Fedor and Minotauro Nogueira, were small heavyweights in their primes.

    The best heavyweight today, Cain Velasquez, is only an average-sized heavyweight at around 240 pounds.

    Fabricio Werdum fights best at around 240 pounds. When he fights at over 250 pounds, he gets knocked out by Junior Dos Santos.

     

    2. Obvious Physical Limitations

    The reason the best heavyweights aren't the 265-pounders may have something to do with the physical tradeoffs of being gigantic.

    Gigantic heavyweights like Shane Carwin usually don't have the cardio to keep up if a tough fight drags on past the seven-minute mark.

    Aside from cardio issues, other big heavyweights struggle with a lack of quickness on the feet and on the ground.

    Smaller heavyweights run the risk of being out-muscled, but they can reap big rewards from having better agility and endurance.

     

    3. Where 225 Pounders Can Fight

    If you're walking around at 225 pounds, or are a bit tubby at 230 pounds, you're well within the range of being able to cut to 205 pounds.

    Even welterweight fighters are often cutting 20 pounds to make the welterweight limit. A 20-pound cut for a 225-pounder is a much smaller cut proportionally.

    Randy Couture chose to fight at heavyweight because he had a better chance at beating Tim Sylvia than he thought he had at beating Liddell again. But he wasn't ever too big to be naturally fighting at 205 pounds.

    Fedor Emelianenko is fat at 230 pounds.  He could probably make 185 pounds if he trained and dieted. He'd be a small 205er.

     

    4. Who Could Make A Theoretical 235 Pound Weight Limit?

    Given that a 20-pound weight cut is fairly common and achievable, what heavyweights could make it?

    Overeem is probably only about five pounds away from being able to make that limit.

    Carwin could, and probably should lose a few pounds, and could make that limit.

    Velasquez would hardly need to cut weight at all to make that limit.

    That would leave Antonio Silva and Brock Lesnar left alone to fight for the heavyweight title.

     

    5. Fedor Didn't Lose Because Antonio Silva Was Bigger

    To say that Fedor lost because of weight alone is ridiculous.

    Fedor lost because he was losing striking exchanges on the feet, has sub-par takedown defense, and didn't use the fundamental positional grappling moves that could have allowed him to fare better after Silva took him down. 

    As Josh Gross pointed out, a simple hip escape to regain half guard could have saved him a lot of damage.

Is BJ Penn Too Small For Welterweight But Too Big For Lightweight?

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    Lately, BJ Penn has started this idea that he's naturally too big for lightweight, yet he's probably a bit too small to be considered a natural welterweight.

    It's a potentially plausible idea, but it also makes a convenient excuse for his losses in either weight class, because on the one hand Georges St. Pierre was just too big, while on the other hand, the weight cut to 155 was just too tough against Frank Edgar.

    More than that, though, it's not as if Penn's losses were due strictly to size.

    Size certainly had something to do with Penn's loss to St. Pierre, but was that really the reason Penn lost to Edgar?

    Most people have rightly concluded that Penn's recent loss to Edgar had far more to do with Penn's apparent lack of strategy (and Edgar's fantastic performance) than it had to do with Penn being in the wrong weight class.

    This mentality applies to a lot more fighters than just BJ Penn.

    Diego Sanchez didn't lose at 170 just because he was too small, and he didn't lose to Penn at 155 because he was too big.

    Frank Mir didn't lose to Shane Carwin because he was too small. He lost to Carwin because he allowed Carwin to punch him repeatedly in the face.

    Fighters should recognize the real reasons why they lose fights rather than blaming losses on weight disadvantages.

The Value Of Success Across Multiple Weight Classes

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    Anderson has had success from welterweight all the way up to light heavyweight, against top 5 opposition in each of those divisions.

    Obviously there is a value to success in multiple divisions, but how much?

    While there are some cases where success in multiple weight classes is a notable achievement, most of the time, I think it's overrated.

    I personally focus on the rankings more than the weight class.

    Frank Edgar could be a natural 145-pounder but fights at 155, but should we really give him extra credit for fighting there when he clearly has advantages at 155 due to being lighter and quicker? I don't think so.

    The same goes for Randy Couture and Fedor Emelianenko at heavyweight.

    Nick Diaz has fought in three weight classes in recent history, racking up wins in each one. But when he's fighting mediocre opposition in each weight class, is that even as good as beating sterling competition in a single division as someone like Jon Fitch has done over the past three years? I don't think so.

    Joe Riggs has been a mediocre fighter from super heavyweight to welterweight. That doesn't make him a pound-for-pound great.

    When a fighter moves up in weight class, are their achievements in the higher weight class worth more? They shouldn't be.

    It's clear to me that Anderson Silva actually became a better fighter by moving up to 185 pounds, and also enjoyed a better stylistic advantage over the one weight class that isn't completely stacked with top-level wrestlers. 

    Likewise, St. Pierre may enjoy a similar advantage by moving up in weight class.  It would be a feather in his cap for certain, but unless he's beating Anderson Silva, I don't think a win over Yushin Okami means any more than his wins over the likes of Jon Fitch and Thiago Alves.

Jumping Weight Class Isnt Just About Weight

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    When you think of a fighter jumping up or down in weight class, you probably think of it in terms of gaining a strength or endurance advantage.

    These are far from the only reasons fighters change weight classes.

    Fighters will change weight classes in order to get easier title shots, to reinvent their public images, or to get involved in higher-profile fights.

    Rich Franklin moved back up to 205 pounds because the UFC didn't want him knocking off potential title challengers at 185, and if he stays at 205 pounds, it's because there are more marketable fights there for him.

    Aside from these more business-like moves, competitive reasons for switching weight classes still involves many more considerations aside from simply strength and endurance.

     

    Stylistic Advantage

    When considering switching weight classes, it should be just as important to think about style matchups as it is to think of strength advantages.

    Despite being perhaps more naturally suited for 170 pounds, many people feel that Jake Shields would have been better off to fight at 185 pounds because a potentially beneficial style matchup over Anderson Silva and a seemingly abysmal style matchup against St. Pierre.

    Any striker with poor takedown defense and a less than stellar bottom game in the neighborhood of 180 pounds would be wise to stick around at 185 pounds where there are fewer wrestlers than there are in the 170-pound division.

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