When the sport first graced our airwaves, the most important fighter in the world was the winner of the UFC tournament. Then came the superfight winners, who usurped the tournament stars and became apex predators in the fistic food chain. With the introduction of weight classes came champs of varying tonnage, and when injuries threatened continuity, interim champs were crowned. But like passing fads lost in the ebb and flow of the tides of time, none of those kinds of fighters are really what matters in modern mixed martial arts. No, the most important fighters now are the Vitor Belforts and Daniel Cormiers, the Chael Sonnens and the Frankie Edgars. Today, it’s all about the two-division threat.
Like an ace fighter pilot who can also drive a tank, or a sniper who’s pretty damn handy rigging up blocks of C4 to blow a bridge, the two-division threat can fill in at the last-minute and be a legitimate threat to the champ, and four months later knock out a top contender in another division. A two-division threat can make clearer the muddy waters of a weight class, can nestle comfortably into a co-main event or go five hard rounds on an FX-broadcast UFC event. In an age when there are more cards and more slots to fill than ever – and an even greater need for legitimacy at the top of those cards – the two-division threat is worth far more than a champ who fights once a year due to injury or an interim champ that would rather wait for him. To promoters and fans alike, such a versatile fighter is worth more than his weight in gold.
In the last two years, we’ve seen Belfort lose convincingly to Anderson Silva and Jon Jones. However, his wins via exclamation point in non-championship bouts since then have made him more than relevant. The same can be said of Franklin and Wanderlei Silva, and Randy Couture when he still fought. But not everyone among fighters of this ilk even has experience competing in more than division. In the case of Cormier and Edgar – two men who are dominant but light in weight for the class they normally call home – it’s the mere idea that they’d be a force to be reckoned elsewhere that gives them value. If Cormier had never won the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix, or Edgar had never given Benson Henderson such a run for his money, would any care if they cut a few pounds and challenged the champ in the weight class below? Would anyone even let them have that championship fight?
A weight cut is, of course, not in the cards for everyone. Mixed martial arts historians may remember how bad Chris Brennan and James Irvin looked and performed when they sought success amongst the more diminutive fighters. And some – like former Strikeforce champ Gegard Mousasi, who fought at middleweight before going up to light-heavyweight – have said the cut is too much and please, don’t make them do that again because it sucks. That just makes the two-division threat that much more treasured. Not everyone can be like Belfort or Edgar or Couture, and that makes those kinds of fighters so very special.
A fighter I know worked his way up the local circuit by scrapping at heavyweight and then light-heavyweight, and when he began his UFC run, we talked of how he could even get down to middleweight and be viable there. Without question, some part of every fighter dreams of being champ, but if 20 years of MMA in the US has taught anyone anything, it’s to be pragmatic. There can only be so many people at the top of a weight class. Yet the number of slots for fighters who can be among the most dangerous in two divisions is much greater. With more abundant opportunities for those kinds of fighters, and the ultimate benefit they provide for their bosses… well, let’s just say that nowadays, being a two-division threat is where it’s at.