Chances are you probably did a double-take when you saw Ben Rothwell and Alistair Overeem take center of the Octagon at UFC Fight Night 50 earlier this month. The heavyweight fighters, already gargantuan in size, seemed bigger. A lot bigger.
No, Rothwell and Overeem didn't balloon in size before this fight (Overeem actually came in smaller than he usually does). This Octagon was smaller—exactly five feet smaller.
Towering in at 6'4'' and hitting the scales just within heavyweight confines, you think they'd tell Rothwell that he was scheduled to fight in a smaller cage than usual. They didn't. Apparently, he didn't care.
That doesn't mean that other heavyweight fighters are OK with performing inside of the 25-foot cage. The Ultimate Fighter season 10 alum Matt Mitrione already has his hands full when taking on the 6'3'', 265-pound Derrick Lewis before he learned about the smaller cage. He wasn't pleased, he told reporters at the post-fight press conference:
I don’t like fighting in that small cage. I’d rather fight in a field than a phone booth. We’re big bodies. You take two steps and you’re fighting in the middle of it. For me, mobility’s a big part of my game—that, and being athletic. For me, it feels like every time I make a movement I’m a foot-and-a-half from one side of the cage or the other, so it’s more difficult.
Some like it. Some don't. Let's way out the pros with the cons.
Fighting inside of a smaller cage will doubtlessly increase the amount of the fan-friendly action that takes place inside of the Octagon. Fighters familiar with the typical 30-footer will no longer be afforded the luxury of circling their away from the type of bout most fans want to see. They'll either have to engage in a fight or expend an extensive amount of energy in trying to avoid one.
Save for a few wrestling faithful, watching one fighter lie on top of another for 15 minutes with minimal ground-and-pound isn't something that falls into the fan-friendly realm. A smaller cage affords stand-up fighters a greater chance to use the cage as part of their takedown defense, ultimately shielding our eyes from any more snoozers than we've already had to witness.
A smaller cage, while action-friendly, curbs strategy. Like Mitrione said, when a fighter relies a lot on his (or her) movement, fighting in a smaller cage suddenly becomes a hindrance upon the fighting style they've come to develop. Sure, you might mention that Dominick Cruz was able to hone his hit-me-if-you-can footwork inside of the 25-foot WEC Octagon before stepping foot in the 30-foot one, but he's a bantamweight—what about the bigger dudes?
While certain fighters will be able to use the cage as a crutch for their takedown defense deficiencies, they will only be able to benefit if they can capitalize by getting off of the cage. If not, you've essentially got another snooze-fest on your hands—except that this one is the vertical, clinch-against-the-fence kind (WARNING: these are no better than the horizontal kind).
Kristian Ibarra is a Featured Columnist at Bleacher Report. He also serves as the sports editor at San Diego State University's student-run newspaper, The Daily Aztec. Follow him on Twitter at @Kristian_Ibarra for all things MMA.