The Good, The Bad, and The UFC: What's Right and What's Wrong With Each Division
The UFC’s various divisions are all great for one reason another. From dominant champions to big-money draws to ludicrously competitive divisions, there's a lot to like. But there's a lot that stinks. Delinquent G.O.A.T.S., toxic parity, and money fights, to name a few things.
Let’s take a spin on each – why it’s good and why it’s not so good.
What’s good – Every fight matters. If you’re in the top ten, you’ve got a shot at the top spot. Which means a hot streak can get you there and a cold streak doesn’t dampen your chances. It’s a little thing the NFL loves and it’s called parity.
All things seem to be equal in this division. Cat Zingano just lost to Juliana Pena at UFC 200 and it’s still entirely conceivable that a pair of solid wins gets her back on the doorstep. Meanwhile, Jessica Pena is only four fights into the UFC and is knocking on the door of a title shot. Miesha Tate may have just lost the belt, but she has a legitimate claim to a shot at any of the other ladies at the top. Holly Holm beat the Queen, Ronda Rousey. Amanda Nunes currently holds the title strap. At the top, everyone has a credible claim to title gold.
What’s bad – Parity is a loonie where one side is shiny and spotless and the other is worn and scratched. But it’s still worth that dollar. Maybe you like coins to have some weathered, seasoned look. There must be history there, many stories to be told. Or maybe you like your coins spotless and perfect.
In the case of the women’s BW division, the value of the loonie is how you look at it. With the fall of Rousey, the BW division has gone from a shiny coin to a weathered one. Initially, many observers thought that Holm would step up as the new division kingpin. They were wrong. Tate was able to capitalize on Holm’s mistakes – in a fight she was losing, no less – and snatch the belt away. That reign lasted only a few months as we all saw her knocked out by Nunes. Three fights, three title changes.
If you go back to how this all began, you’ll find the rub: Ronda Rousey lost. Rousey losing was an incredible moment in the narrative of the sport – but not for the division (or business - but that’s another story). Rousey was dominant. She made the division relevant. With the belt changing hands at such a pace, it’s fair to wonder if maybe it isn’t that the division is deep (i.e. parity) but that Rousey faced the one match-up in the division that would give her trouble in Holm.
The selling point of parity is that everyone can compete but also that an elite group will be contending against each other over stretches of time, thus creating rivalries and increasing the stakes. If Rousey returns, a Nunes, Tate, and Holm (add in Jessica Pena to the mix) round robin-like series (philosophically, not in practice) where the belt is constantly changing hands would be a great thing for the division. It would establish that where it matters – at the top – there are four legitimate champion-caliber fighters. Not just women who caught the right match-up on the right day.
Until then, it’s just a game of hot potato between fighters who haven’t established themselves the way Rousey has.
What’s good – Joanna Champion. Pretty simple. She has replaced Ronda Rousey as the face of women’s MMA, sliding nicely into her place as the most dominant female champion on the planet. She’s brash, tough, and unlike Rousey, a complete martial artist.
Watching a Joanna fight is what we think of with champions: she imposes her herself on her opposition, displaying her depth of skill, craft, and talent while gutting it out when matches get tight and the pressure is on. Her performance against Claudia Gadehla was a masterclass.
Did I mention how she’s the best thing in Women’s MMA?
What’s bad – Imagine the parity in Women’s Bantamweight was the result of a severe lack of contenders. Here you’ll find Women’s Straweight. It’s about as barren as any division in the UFC. That could be about to change, though, at least in the short term.
What’s good – There may not be a better fighter on the planet than Demetrious ‘Mighty Mouse’ Johnson. Some people may snort at that but those of you who do need to grow up. What Johnson lacks in size and bulk he makes up for in skill.
The critics initially discounted him because of his size. Then when they realized that was a poor argument to base greatness against (Barry Sanders wasn’t that big, Lionel Messi isn’t that big), his critics pointed to his lack of finishing ability. Johnson has since finished five of his last seven opponents. The only thing you can say about Johnson is that he doesn’t draw in box office numbers. And if that’s all you have on him, you’ve started actually paying attention.
What’s bad – The division is thin and green. The further you get from the world average sizes of 5’7”, 150 lbs. the fewer talented fighters you’re going to find. Part of how Mighty Mouse his forged his legendary career is because he’s consistently fighting against outmatched competition (please don’t try to use that argument against him, as if dominating outmatched opponents isn’t what a great athlete is supposed to be doing).
Henry Cejudo, Kyoji Horiguchi, and Lois Smolka might be the only blue-chippers in the division – and Johnson pasted two of them. After Mighty Mouse is done, which could take a while, we better hope the rest of the roster rises accordingly or else we could be in for a game of musical chairs with the title strap.
What’s good – There are some real good times ahead. Bantamweight is the UFC’s fastest evolving division and has a handful of the finest blue chippers of any division: Cody Garbrandt, Thomas Almeida, Aljimain Sterling. Not to mention, former champ TJ Dillashaw is still young and ludicrously talented. These fighters are all excellent athletes and combine deep and nuanced skillsets to go with their personal styles.
This is a division that offers some truly exciting matchups in the near future. We already got Garbrandt and Almeida in a spectacular matchup. Imagine Sterling v. Almeida or Dillashaw v. Garbrandt. Not to mention the champion, Dominick Cruz, could face off against any of these guys (unless Bryan Carraway gets the next crack). These are the kind of fights that modern MMA is all about.
On top of that, we can’t ignore that Cruz is a helluva lot of fun to watch and listen to. Perhaps what’s good with this division is that it has the best commentator in the game. That honor certainly isn’t for Middleweight, where Michael Bisping comes off the Cockney version of Charles Barkley, decrying anything that isn’t an MMA stereotype. Cruz is a thoughtful analyst and can break down a fight in a way a screaming Joe Rogan never can (we still love you Joe!)
What’s bad – Some of those blue-chippers have seen their stock fall in their most recent outings. Granted, Almeida’s recent loss was to one of the other blue-chippers on the list, Cody Garbrandt, but a setback nonetheless. Sterling found himself beaten by Carraway. Even throw Michael McDonald into that list and you have a fifth young, very talented fighter who has suffered a recent setback.
While these fighters are all very exciting and ascending talents, they have to beat each other. That means that while the short term is going to be very exciting, we better hope they all maintain their excellence in spite of these likely setbacks. A division with these fighters rotating in and out, round-robin-style, could be fireworks.
What’s good – The top ten is a murderer’s row. There are a lot of good fighters who can…ok, ok, I’ll say it: Conor McGregor. That’s what you wanted to hear right? It’s true, it’s true! The biggest star in the business is the best damn thing at featherweight.
That is saying a lot, too. Because featherweight is fast becoming the most competitive division outside of Lightweight. McGregor lords over it hand and fist. His influence is so strong, Dana White basically told their loyal, one-time proclaimed P4P best Frankie Edgar to sit on the bench while McGregor did whatever he wants. For an old-school promoter who loves ‘guys that come to fight’, that has to be a tough pill to swallow. But McGregor draws so many eyeballs to the promotion and the Featherweight division, they’re making money hand over fist.
That said this division has some truly incredible talents. Jose Aldo is a legend. Edgar is, too. Chad Mendes may be going the way of his colleague, Urijah Faber, as the best fighter to never hold a belt, but he’s only earning that distinction because he’s really, really good. Max Holloway is surging up the ladder. Jeremy Stephens is a killer who fought at Lightweight. There is not a single easy fight out there in the top 10.
What’s bad – The most obvious thing is that its champion hasn’t defended his belt since winning it. Granted, he’s had bigger (read. more lucrative) fish to fry. But it undermines the division, regardless.
Outside of that, it’s hard to argue there’s much wrong. From a certain perspective, having Edgar as the world’s toughest gatekeeper is not such a good thing. Good luck to any of the ascending young fighters in this division – they only have to go through a former champion with a 19-5-1 record for a crack at either a legend with one loss to his name or the largest, most popular fighter in the division, let alone the world. Have fun.
What’s good – This is the best division in the sport. It is loaded. There isn’t a lightweight fighter in the UFC that doesn’t bring serious ability to the table.
While some people may poin to how the belt never stays settled for very long, this isn’t a product of division’s like Men’s Heavyweight or Women’s Bantamweight. It’s because the margin for error is so high with each and every fight. A win only gets you so high up the ladder while a loss sets you back big-time.
Eddie Alvarez, the current UFC champion, was a champion in Bellator. Even so, it took him four fights in the UFC to get a crack at the belt. The man he bested, Rafael Dos Anjos, needed to go 10-1 – and five consecutive fights – to get his crack. Donald Cerrone needed an eight-fight win streak to get his shot. Many observers’ consensus number one contender, Khabib Nurmagamedov, has won all seven of his UFC contests – and might not even get a title shot. Not to mention, all of these guys have to expect their next fight could be against former champion Anthony Pettis or Edson Barboza.
Think about this: former champion Benson Henderson and former top-ten contender Josh Thomson left the UFC’s division within the last year – and the division is still loaded.
Having to describe just how competitive this division is leaves us no space to talk about how ridiculous the style-matchups are between these fighters. They are effective in every element of the game. What separate them competitively are in how they apply their skills stylistically. As in, does a fighter like to pressure or does he prefer to move and counter? That kind of depth in a matchup is what the future of the sport looks like.
What’s bad – I guess, if I had to reach here, it’s that the division is too competitive? I feel kinda dumb just suggesting it. Ok, ok, I take it back.
Here’s one: the division spits fighters out quick. Look at the list of former champions and how long they stuck around after losing their belt. It ain’t pretty. Three years ago, Frankie Edgar dropped to featherweight immediately following his rematch loss to Ben Henderson (granted, he’s found new life there, his second loss to Aldo, notwithstanding). Henderson made three defenses before losing the strap then struggled to a 2-2 record before jumping out of the weight class. Pettis managed one title defense before dropping the belt and hasn’t won since – so naturally, he’s leaving the division, too.
That doesn’t bode well for Rafael Dos Anjos. Or any future champions.
What’s good – Welterweight is terrifying place to fight if you don’t have a chin. There isn’t a division with a greater variety of styles and more depth of quality of strikers in the sport. The champ, Tyron Woodley, may just be the best speed/power striker in the game. Robbie Lawler is a masterful striker in the pocket, Stephen Thompson is an elite range striker, Johny Hendricks may hit the hardest, Carlos Condit is a maelstrom of striking techniques, Matt Brown, Rick Story, Dong Hyun Kim, Tarec Saffedine, Donald Cerrone, need I go on?
For the best in striking style matchups, welterweight is the palce to go. It’s no wonder a pure BJJ master like Demian Maia has found a way to the top, exploiting the overall metagame of the division.
What’s bad – I don’t think there is much bad about this division. Many decried Woodley’s win over Lawler – you won’t get too much debate from me – but that’s superficial. Woodley has long been ascending towards the mantle from his days in Strikeforce. He’s legit and has many years as champ or near that level ahead of him.
The loss of Rory MacDonald is a tough hit to the division, but someone would likely ascend to his place. And from a business standpoint, Demian Maia reign as champion would be death in every market (and on PPV) except Brazil.
So what’s bad are things yet to happen. So it could be much worse.
What’s good – No division boasts a plethora of unique stylistic veterans like Middleweight.
Jacare Souza, a long-traveled BJJ maestro. Michael Bisping, a classic British-style boxer. Luke ROckhold, the MMA equavieltn of a five-tool baseball player. Yoel Romero, a freak athlete with the best wrestling credentials in the sport. Chris Weidman, an perfect all-around fighter. Anderson Silva, the sport’s purest counter fighter.
What’s bad – This is the island of misfit toy and the rankings mean nothing.
Also, in a strange way, thanks to Michael Bisping’s historic upset, it’s become the place where fantasy matchmaking is seriously in vogue. Dan Henderson gets a title shot? Really? In no other division would someone ranked outside the top ten get a crack. Yet here we are.
Maybe we shouldn't care. A way-passed-it Hendo starching Bisping would somehow make all his meritocracy talk seem a bit silly. Bisping beats Rockhold beats Hendo - everyone can beat everyone! No. The sport is chaotic enough. Spare us the embarrassment.
What’s good – On paper, this is the place to see those world-class athletes the world admires (moreso in North America): the 6’2”, 220 pounder with power, agility, and quickness.
This division also harbors Jon Jones, outside-the-cage troubles withstanding, is arguably the greatest there has ever been. His adversary, Daniel Cormier, can make a strong push to push into that argument should he make a run with Jones on the sidelines.
Outside of that, there's not much. Which is why...
What’s bad – What’s not? Start with the obvious: the clear-cut best fighter in the division – maybe ever – is not going to be around for a long time. Jon Jones’ USADA test has made sure of that.
If you think that isn’t all bad because it means we will finally have a form of clarity at the top for the first time in over a year, you would be wrong. Jones career success has become a poison in the waters. There has been so little turnover in the rankings underneath him since his reign began, what credible matchup is out there? For as long as Jones is gone, every title fight will lack credibility.
Six of the fighters in the top ten (and even worse, spots three through eight) have all been vanquished by Jones. Against Cormier, these fighters may offer a plethora of fresh matchups – but they are fighters who proved they couldn’t beat the man Cormier couldn’t beat.
That said, here’s what’s worse: the future is barren. You couldn’t even count the number of blue-chippers in this division on one finger. There ain’t any.
Take that one finger and run it down the list of the UFC’s top 15 and count the past-it names with careers closer to the end than the beginning. It’s frightening. Rashad Evans? Shogun Rua? Little Nog? Help.
Had Jones not put himself in line for a two year suspension, he would have cleaned out this division in a hurry.
As a side note, taking Anthony Johnson and his domestic violence history and Jones' many troubles, and you get two of the biggest screw ups in the sport in one division. Hell, they may fight each other soon! Wouldn't that be appropriate.
What’s good – This division benefits in the most cut-and-dry way imaginable: they big. The largest, strongest fighters on the roster don’t need much for fans to get excited about. Their physical traits all but guarantee most contest will end in a knockout.
The sheer variety in physical traits makes this division something unique. Some guys are tubby, some are ripped, and some are undersized. Some are slow and plodding strongmen while others are quick and agile as a lightweight. Alistair Overeem against Roy Nelson is as close as a UFC fight gets to seeing what real bar fight combatants on a Saturday night look like.
All this combines to make a great heavyweight feel like a lightweight knocking out someone above their weight class – epic.
What’s bad – This is a wafer thin division. The title changes hands often and the fighters tend to get hurt enough that interim belts are common. Rarely does a fighter stand out. Furthermore, Heavyweight is the least evolved division and most discipline-specific. You have your wrestlers who wrestle, your ground players who play on the ground, and your strikers who strike. It’s even easier to break it down than that. You’ve got shoot grapplers, kickboxers, top-game wrestlers, Brazilian jiu-jitsu practitioners, and so on. It’s as close to the early days of the UFC as it gets. To contrast, go down to Lightweight where every fighter has to be able to grapple effectively from a multitude of disciplines and strike from a multitude of disciplines – it might as well be a different sport.
Take Brock Lesnar as a test case: the wrestling specialist came back from four years off to take a decision win over a top five fighter in Mark Hunt at UFC 200. Lesnar barely threw on the feet and launched Hail Mary takedown attempts whenever Hunt closed the distance. That ain’t progress people.
Rhys Dowbiggin @Rdowb
Rhys has worked six years in the public relations industry rubbing shoulders with movie stars (who ignored him) to athletes (who tolerated him). He likes tiki-taka football, jelly beans, and arguing with Bruce about everything.