“He’s just too big for him,” “size will definitely be a factor,” “the key variable is the size difference.” These are all terms we have heard countless times leading up to fights. Fans and analysts alike talk about size being such a tremendous advantage. This idea is largely a myth and even though there is plenty of evidence, it’s hard for many to wrap their heads around the idea that size doesn’t matter.
Let’s start with the foundation of the sport. It was founded on the notion that a smaller fighter could defeat a much larger opponent using skill and technique. At UFC 1 in 1993, we witnessed Royce Gracie dispatch three bigger, stronger opponents in roughly five minutes of cage time. Obviously this is not a convincing argument that size isn’t an advantage since the skill gap has been closed over the past 25 years, but just keep this in mind as we explore this theory.
It actually took the UFC until 1997 to introduce weight classes. Before that time, you fought whomever was put in front of you, regardless of size. Let’s skip ahead to the current landscape of the sport, in which we have seen fighters sucking themselves dry to reach a lower weight class and achieve this mythical size advantage.
As recently as two weeks ago, we witnessed Darren Till, one of the biggest welterweights on the roster (and who could really be fighting at middleweight) get knocked out by former lightweight, Jorge Masvidal. Many may remember the video of Till passing out in an attempt to make weight when he fought Stephen Thompson. He still missed weight by three and a half pounds.
In January, Bantamweight Champion T.J. Dillishaw moved down to 125 lbs to face the champion Henry Cejudo. Dillishaw looked very dehydrated and depleted at the weigh-ins and was subsequently knocked out by Cejudo in 32 seconds. Many consider this to be a controversial stoppage, but it can be argued that the cut resulted in Dillishaw getting dropped so many times.
One theory behind the weight cut impacting one’s ability to take a punch is that the brain becomes dehydrated. Studies have shown that a dehydrated person will have difficulty with coordination, response times and complex problem-solving. It is still uncertain how long it takes to regain proper hydration in the brain, since the studies to do so would be considered unethical. To put it plainly, you can’t deprive a person of water and then strike them in the head for the sake of science. But what we have seen in the UFC suggests that there may be a very strong correlation between how much weight a fighter cuts and their ability to take a punch.
We have also seen success recently from fighters who decided to move up in weight because they were tired of depleting themselves before competition. This past weekend, former Lightweight Champion Anthony “Showtime” Pettis (who has fought as low as 145 lbs) moved up in weight to challenge perennial 170 lb contender Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson. Pettis was able to knock Thompson out with a punch at the end of the second round. Thompson, 57-0 as a kick boxer and 14-1-1 as a mixed martial artist, had never been knocked out in a fight. Pettis, at 22-8 in mixed martial arts, had never been known for the knockout power in his hands and hadn’t had a punching (T)KO since 2008.
Does Anthony Pettis knocking out Stephen Thompson prove that moving up in weight increases your punching power? Definitely not, but it’s something to consider. Let’s take a look at some other high-level examples of fighters who saw success by moving up a weight class in the past two years:
- Robert Whittaker moves from 170 lbs to 185 lbs, becomes the middleweight champion and is currently on a 9-fight win streak
- Daniel Cormier moves up to heavyweight and defeats Stipe Miocic for the heavyweight championship
- Thiago Santos moves from 185 lbs to 205 lbs and has knocked out two top-ten opponents
- Dustin Poirier has a record of 8-1-1 with six (T)KO’s since moving from 145 lbs to 155 lbs and will be fighting for the interim championship in April
You would be hard-pressed to find examples of fighters who move down in weight and find success comparable to these examples. When fighters do have success at a lower weight class, it’s usually because they were carrying extra body fat and got leaner and in better shape.
So again, can we say for sure that fighting at a higher weight class can improve performance, increase knockout power and result in championships? No. Can we say that moving down in weight will result in getting knocked out, losing fights and long-term damage to your brain? No, we can’t say any of that for sure either. But if you look at the results we have seen in the UFC, the risk/reward is something to consider carefully when choosing the right weight class.
For more thoughts and opinions on cutting weight and recent fights, check out the latest episode of the podcast: