More than a decade ago, when the UFC only had five weight classes and far fewer total fighters, B.J. Penn would speak frequently about holding belts in multiple divisions simultaneously.
And at the same time, UFC president Dana White would shudder and say he wouldn’t allow it to happen.
Who didn’t love to see the small man dream, to shoot for a seemingly unattainable star? This is a guy who easily made lightweight moving up to light heavyweight to face future UFC champion Lyoto Machida.
When Conor McGregor said he wanted to move up to lightweight to challenge then-champion Rafael dos Anjos for that belt after knocking out Jose Aldo in 13 seconds at UFC 194, it evoked memories of Penn.
McGregor ultimately did move up and gain the lightweight title, resoundingly stopping Eddie Alvarez at UFC 205 on Nov. 12 to become the first fighter in the company’s history to hold two belts simultaneously.
But he never defended the featherweight belt, as he said he would, and on Saturday was stripped of his 145-pound title by the UFC.
If McGregor, who fights as regularly as any high-level star in the UFC’s history, couldn’t do it, who can? White, it turns out, was correct all those many years ago when he repeatedly shot down Penn’s request to challenge for multiple titles.
The UFC has become a big business in the last decade-plus since Penn dreamed of holding multiple belts simultaneously. That was evidenced loudly and clearly in July, when a company that was purchased off the scrap heap for $2 million in 2001 sold for $4.2 billion 15 years later.
With big money comes more people looking to get a piece of it. And from top to bottom, the talent at the highest level of mixed martial arts is better than it’s ever been.
A higher level of athlete is coming to the sport. There is better coaching, better training techniques, better understanding of nutrition and supplementation and better preparation.
Look at the lightweight division, which McGregor now rules, and consider how many fighters are good enough to win the belt. Alvarez and dos Anjos have already held it. Contenders Khabib Nurmagomedov and Tony Ferguson are clearly good enough. So, too, is Nate Diaz and Edson Barboza and so many others.
Will any of them ever hold the title? That remains to be seen. Odds are, most of them won’t. But there are so many talented enough to do so that it’s like running a gauntlet of executioners just to try to retain the title.
One bad night — even a good night with one little mistake — could cost a champion his or her belt in the modern UFC. The level of competition is that good.
To go one step beyond what McGregor did and not only win a second belt but then defend both at least once is mind-bogglingly difficult.
Who could possibly do it? Well, to start with, let’s look at flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson, who is the pound-for-pound greatest fighter in the world.
Johnson has already fought at bantamweight and was beaten in 2011 in a very competitive fight by champion Dominic Cruz. If Cruz gets past Cody Garbrandt at UFC 207 and Johnson successfully defends his title Saturday in “The Ultimate Fighter Finale,” it would be possible they could meet in a super fight early next year.
Johnson is a vastly better fighter now than he was in 2011 when he first fought Cruz. At that point, Johnson had only recently become a full-time fighter.
It’s conceivable that Johnson could defeat Cruz at 135. To say otherwise would be disrespecting a man who very quietly is in the process of rewriting the UFC record book.
If Johnson wins on Saturday, which he’ll be massively favored to do, he’ll have nine consecutive successful title defenses, tying him with Georges St-Pierre for second behind Anderson Silva, who had 10 from 2007 through 2012.
One of Johnson’s stated goals is to break Silva’s record, so that would mean it’s unlikely he’d move up after Saturday’s bout to challenge Cruz. He’d probably attempt to make at least two more defenses at flyweight after Saturday before thinking of challenging the bantamweight champion.
A win Saturday would be his 11th consecutive victory, and move him another step closer to Silva’s mark of 16.
Going up in weight to fight bigger, stronger opponents doesn’t always work, but Johnson is special and could do it successfully. It’s going back down in weight that is difficult. Superstar boxer Roy Jones Jr. got much acclaim in 2003 when he moved up from light heavyweight to heavyweight to defeat John Ruiz and win the title.
But he went back to light heavyweight for his next fight and got a highly controversial decision over Antonio Tarver. Jones wasn’t nearly the same fighter in that bout that he’d been before, and he proved it then by losing three consecutive bouts.
Adding the 25-plus pounds it took to go from the boxing light heavyweight division’s limit of 175 to the heavyweight division’s minimum of 200 clearly took a toll on his body.
And while Johnson is younger now than Jones was in 2003 – Johnson is 30 now and Jones was 34 when he beat Ruiz – it’s no given that Johnson would be able to go back down and be the same fighter.
But beyond Johnson, who else could do it? Could McGregor go up to welterweight and win that title? It’s not out of the question, but those fighters are cutting weight from 190 or 200 to get to the welterweight limit of 170. McGregor walks around at about 170.
It would be asking an extraordinary amount of him to be able to deal with a fighter with that much of a size advantage. Diaz’s size caused McGregor problems in their two bouts, and Diaz has been a lightweight most of his career.
The difference between the weight classes in MMA is massive. The lightweight limit is 155, 15 below welterweight, which is 15 below middleweight’s 185. A middleweight who wanted to go up to challenge for the light heavyweight belt would have to jump 20 pounds to get to the 205-pound limit.
McGregor is so popular in large part because he’s a fighter through and through and is audacious enough to believe he can beat anyone put in front of him.
It was incredible to see McGregor challenge himself, and it was a feat probably not appreciated enough that he was able to move up and win a belt in another division.
It’s not going to become routine, however, particularly if we expect the champion to defend his belt in multiple weight classes.
White was correct so many years ago when he told Penn to focus on one class. And he was right now by stripping McGregor of the featherweight belt.
It’s a challenge that is intriguing but is all but impossible in practice.