When a fighter is looking to reboot his career, he first looks to a change in weight class. It has more of a rejuvenating effect — at least in terms of fan and matchmaking perception — when mixed martial arts is concerned. Boxing weight classes are generally separated by only a few pounds, while MMA weight classes are separated by at least 10, and as much as 15, pounds. By somewhat reinventing his body, the MMA fighter can potentially kickstart his career… or end it prematurely.
With that in mind, here are three fighters who saw great success from a weight class change — and three who did not.
Anthony Johnson – Welterweight (170 pounds) to Light Heavyweight (205 pounds)
If Anthony Johnson were 350 pounds, he would still be a scary-looking dude. Preternaturally athletic and an explosive striker with stout takedown defense, he burst onto the scene in 2007 with a 13-second KO of Chad Reiner.
But in what would become a recurring theme of his early career, he missed weight by seven pounds for his next welterweight bout against Rich Clementine, where he was also submitted with a rear-naked choke. Subsequent KO wins followed over Kevin Burns, Luigi Fiorivanti, and Yoshiyuki Yoshida (in which Johnson also missed weight).
Eventually, he announced a move up to middleweight (185 pounds), and a fight was signed with perennial contender Vitor Belfort. Something, however, went horribly wrong with his weight cut — Johnson typically walked around at around 220 pounds — and Johnson weighed in at a whopping 197 pounds. He was fined, lost the fight to boot and was cut from the UFC.
After a few fights in Titan FC and World Series of Fighting, Johnson reinvented himself at light-heavyweight, and even took a heavyweight decision over Andrei Arlovski. He returned to the UFC at 205 pounds, and has been an absolute wrecking machine ever since. Re-debuting with a decision over Phil Davis, Johnson recorded quick KOs over Antonio Rogerio Nogueira and Alexander Gustaffson, and nearly finished Daniel Cormier in a LHW title shot, in which he was later finished. Since then, he’s recorded three more knockout wins, probably on his way to a second title shot.
Randy Couture – Heavyweight (265 pounds max) to Light Heavyweight (205 pounds), and back again.
Randy Couture made his UFC debut in his mid-30s, an age at which most modern fighters begin to consider retirement. A big man but small by heavyweight standards, Couture rarely cut any weight at all, weighing in around the 220-pound mark for his fights, and capturing the UFC Heavyweight title. Grueling wins over Pedro Rizzo, however, plus losses to the much bigger Ricco Rodriguez and Josh Barnett, necessitated a change. He dropped to 205 pounds, immediately capturing the light heavyweight title with a dominant victory over Chuck Liddell, before defending that belt against Tito Ortiz. A freak injury loss to Vitor Belfort followed, quickly avenged, but two more losses to a prime Chuck Liddell forced Couture into retirement.
About one year later, the UFC heavyweight division was stagnant, held hostage by boring wall of meat named Tim Sylvia. Couture and his former bosses shrugged their shoulders, figured “Why not,” and signed Couture to fight the 6’8’’ Sylvia for the heavyweight title. It was like watching a bear play with his salmon, but never quite eating it. Couture dominated Sylvia, and went on to defend his title against a then-frightening Gabriel Gonzaga.
Couture would lose the title after that to Brock Lesnar, where it became apparent why he’d left the division so long ago. He bounced between weight classes for his next few fights, taking wins over Brandon Vera and Mark Coleman, before retiring after a loss to Lyoto Machida. Despite a loss count in the double digits, Couture remains only one of two fighters to ever hold titles in two different weight classes in the UFC.
Dustin Poirier – Featherweight (145 pounds) to Lightweight (155 pounds)
This is a bit of a deep cut, but Poirier has been on the cusp of title contention in two different divisions for a number of years now.
Starting off as a featherweight in the WEC, Poirier made his way to the UFC when it purchased the organization. He stepped in on short notice to face the then-No. 1 contender Josh Grispi, and surprised many by dominating the fight. After a series of impressive wins and only two losses (to Chan Sung Yung and Cub Swanson), Poirier was tapped to fight Connor MacGregor, back when he was just on the cusp of stardom. MacGregor finished Poirier in the first round, after which Poirier announced a move to lightweight, citing a tough cut to 145 pounds.
It was a good move. Poirier has won all of his fights since then, and a win over perennial contender Michael Johnson next month could net him a title shot.
Not So Much…
James Irvin – Light Heavyweight (205 pounds) to Middleweight (185 pounds)
James Irvin is one of the great could-have-beens in MMA history. Blessed with a naturally long frame, sinewy fast-twitch musculature, and a marketable look, Irvin was nonetheless an inconsistent fighter.
But when he was on, he was on. He completely slept Terry Martin in an early UFC fight with a picture-perfect flying knee, and later recorded one of the fastest KOs in MMA history with a one-punch finish over Houston Alexander. After a loss to then-MW champion Anderson Silva, in which Irvin also tested positive for two different performance-enhancing drugs, Irvin dropped to middleweight.
It was terrifying. Irvin weighed in for his 185-pound debut against Alessio Sakara looking like Skeletor, if Skeletor had been living on a diet of celery and Clorox. He looked like a model at the “Bodies” exhibit. For the two minutes or so that the fight went on, Irvin was sluggish and spacey. It didn’t help his future prospects or reputation that the fight ended in the most anti-climactic way possible: when Sakara connected with a punch directly to Irvin’s eye, it was called due to injury.
After another loss, Irvin was bounced from the UFC. He has since recorded some wins and losses in smaller organizations, and is currently signed with Bellator… where his last two fights have been cancelled.
BJ Penn – All the weights. All of them.
BJ Penn occupies an utterly unique place in the pantheon of great mixed martial artists. A living legend, he is the only other fighter besides Randy Couture to hold UFC titles in two different weight classes (lightweight and welterweight). He achieved the rank of black belt in Brazilian jiu-jitsu after only three years of training (the average is 10 years), and yet became known as a KO artist.
His career, however, has been plagued by ill-conceived decision-making, a perceived lack of mental fortitude and an outlook seemingly void of any sense of limitation.
Penn burst on to the scene with quick KOs over Joey Gilbert, Din Thomas and Caol Uno, but, in what would become a theme, he was stoutly tested and came up short in a lightweight title shot against Jens Pulver.
Penn recorded several more wins, including one over future welterweight title holder Matt Serra, before fighting to a draw in a rematch with Uno. After a brief hiatus from the UFC, which included a win over lightweight great Takanori Gomi, Penn returned to the UFC, where he was granted an immediate welterweight title shot against Matt Hughes.
In what is still one of the biggest statistical upsets in history, Penn dominated and choked out Hughes in the first round. Of course, Penn would squander that fame and goodwill by immediately abandoning the title, signing with K-1 and embarking on a Sisyphean series of fights outside of his normal weight class, culminating with a loss to Lyoto Machida at light heavyweight.
Penn returned to the UFC in a title eliminator at welterweight against Georges St. Pierre, which he narrowly lost; when GSP pulled out of his upcoming fight against champion Matt Hughes, Penn was tapped to replace him. Penn dominated the first round, but tired in the second, allowing Hughes the TKO win. Penn finally returned to lightweight with a win over rival Jens Pulver, then captured the vacant title by defeating Joe Stevenson, then defended it against former champ Sean Sherk.
After that, it kind of fell apart. Penn was granted a welterweight title shot at Georges St. Pierre, but was finished in the fourth round. And though Penn returned to lightweight, defending his title twice more against Kenny Florian and Diego Sanchez, the writing was on the wall. He lost the belt to Frankie Edgar in a controversial decision, but was soundly beaten in a rematch. After a quick TKO win in a rubber match against Hughes, Penn has not recorded a victory since. He has since dropped to featherweight, and will probably get thoroughly throttled by Ricardo Lamas in a few weeks.
Connor MacGregor – Featherweight (145 pounds) to Welterweight (170 pounds)
Connor MacGregor. Hoo boy.
I won’t go into MacGregor’s bluster, his fame, his steadily rising star; I’ve written ad hominem about it before. But his trajectory eerily mirrors that of BJ Penn, and it’s worth noting.
MacGregor captured the interim featherweight title with a TKO win over Chad Mendes, then unified the belts with a 13-second KO over Jose Aldo. MacGregor was granted an immediate title shot at lightweight, but champion Rafael dos Anjos was injured. Enter Nate Diaz, a fight at welterweight, and… well, you’ve probably heard.
It wasn’t a lack of skill that netted MacGregor a loss against Diaz. He lit Diaz up in the first round, repeatedly scoring with his vaunted left hand. But he overreached, and continually tried to KO Diaz with one punch, which is a fool’s errand if ever there was one, and exhausted himself, leading to his submission loss.
MacGregor, of course, demanded a rematch at the same weight, despite it being north of each fighter’s optimal class. He avenged the loss, utilizing a much more disciplined game plan, but still looked overpowered and undersized. The conventional wisdom puts his ideal weight class in between, at lightweight, but if he sees success there, there is no telling what his ego might tell him he can do.