Multi-division success is a difficult achievement in the sport of Mixed Martial Arts (MMA). It can turn a very good fighter in to a legend. Naming the fighters that have had legitimate success in more than one division isn’t a trivia question that will cause any brain cramps. There have been so few that it is easy to list off the likes of B.J. Penn, Randy Couture, Daniel Cormier, Dan Henderson and Robbie Lawler. But to be good in multiple divisions, often times, a fighter is great in one. And therein lies the question. When it comes to legacy, is it better to be an all-time great and stalwart in one division, or be an all-timer because of being good in more than one?
Randy Couture and B.J. Penn are viewed by many fans as two of the greatest fighters of all-time. Part of their acclaim comes from having been a UFC world champion in two different divisions. It is part of the lore of their legend. Penn went up a weight class and tested himself against bigger and equally skilled fighters. Couture went down a weight-class to fight stars of the time like Chuck Liddell and Tito Ortiz. Then he went back up to heavyweight. And then he went down again.
The debate on who are some of the greatest fighters of all-time is constantly evolving.
But I digress because, without a doubt, both men were stronger at one weight-class than the other. B.J. Penn is arguably the greatest lightweight fighter ever. While Randy Couture is one of the very best heavyweights the sport has ever seen. Would their legacies have been better served by staying in one weight-class? If they had held the same championship for many years, or had multiples reigns with the same belt, would the narrative on their careers be looked at differently? In the end they took the risk and went to other divisions and lost. And rarely is either man mentioned in the conversation for being one of the best pound for pound fighters ever (part of that could be from them fighting well past their prime years and leaving a losing lasting memory).
The debate of who are some of the greatest fighters of all-time is constantly evolving. Though names like Anderson Silva, Georges St. Pierre and Jon Jones are often bandied about. And the way things are going for Demetrious Johnson, it won’t be long before his name is added to the mix as well. The interesting link between all four men is that they have primarily fought in just one division during their UFC careers. Well, you may say “What about Anderson at 205 and ‘Mighty Mouse’ at 135?”
And you would have a point, but Silva fought just twice at light heavyweight and 19 times at middleweight. He also hasn’t tested the waters outside of 185 lbs. since 2009. Johnson has fought three times at bantamweight in the UFC. Though we all know that was more due to a lack of the existence of his optimal weight-class–flyweight. Since then he has only fought at 125 lbs., with no signs of any change coming soon.
There is something about having long and dominant reigns in one division that builds an all-time resume. Silva held his title a few months short of seven years. St. Pierre’s second reign lasted more than five years. Jones had his belt for just shy of four years before his personal addictions defeated him. And Johnson is in year four of his current title reign at flyweight.
Yet, all four men hit a ceiling in their divisions. They had dominated and defeated the best the weight-class had to offer, leading to bouts that garnered far less interest with viewers. It often leads to fans and pundits alike calling for a division change. All four men have that in common as well. Fans wanted to see them move up and test if they could dominate in the same fashion at a higher weight. “Rush” and “The Spider” both heard cries from fans for a super-fight between the two, but it never occurred. “Bones” has mentioned several times an interest in moving to heavyweight. But at light heavyweight he still remains. Now with Johnson having thoroughly cleaned out his division (arguably more than once) there is a desire from observers to see him leave the place he has dominated on a historic level.
Great in one division or good in multiple, what matters more?
While these men had more superior reigns of terror in their careers than Penn, Couture or Henderson, the latter group seems more fondly remembered for their divisional travels. There is a special appreciation accumulated from fans for fighters that test themselves on levels that may be illogical at times.
Current featherweight champion Conor McGregor may be setting himself on the path to legendary status due to taking part in both strategies. An excellent run in one division while looking to fight as far as two weight-classes above his optimal one.
In the end it frequently comes down to what the fighter wants to do, and what means more to them during their careers. So with that in mind, I took to the universal communication machine that is Twitter. And I asked several fighters, “As a fighter, what would mean more to you. Being an all-timer in one division (with Johnson at 125 lbs. as an example) or an all-timer that tests other divisions (with Penn representing that side)?” Here are some of their answers:
Josh Thomson – Former Strikeforce Lightweight Champion and current Bellator 155 lb. contender
@CheapSeatsChat for DJ, it’s time be tested other div. not enough top talent for him at 125. I’d love to see him fight Dillashaw, Cruz, etc.
— Josh Thomson (@THEREALPUNK) May 19, 2016
Bubba Jenkins – NCAA Division I National Champion and Bellator featherweight contender
@CheapSeatsChat all-timer in anything or any weight would be amazing but different divisions shows more skill
— Bubba Jenkins (@BubbaJenkinsMMA) May 19, 2016
Roxanne Modafferi – Womens MMA pioneer and veteran of Strikeforce, UFC and Invicta FC
I used to want to beat everyone ever, but now I realize that the strength difference puts me at a disadv. So only 1 https://t.co/Y0M5PlPpBi
— Roxanne Modafferi (@Roxyfighter) May 20, 2016
Brandon Girtz – Bellator 155 lb. contender
All timer in 1 div is a great accomplishment, Being able to “Successfully” move in div’s is Legendary! #Penn https://t.co/rMm9XyNLxB
— Brandon Girtz (@brandongirtzmma) May 19, 2016
Jenkins is accurate that being an all-timer in anything is “amazing”, making this debate more fun conversation, than legacy defining. But the topic is still thought provoking nonetheless. So what do you prefer more? Dominance in one division throughout a career? Or showing you are and all-timer by traversing different divisions? Vote in the poll below.