Physics, fiscal matters fuel feather move
There was one catch, though -- he needed to shed 10 pounds to fight at featherweight.
"It wasn't like I wanted to go down there," Griffin said. "It was my third fight and it was a big opportunity, so I decided to take the risk of cutting weight.
"It paid off."
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Griffin stopped Faber -- his first loss in nine fights -- and made a name for himself. Then, Griffin quickly bulked back up to 155 pounds. Nearly six years after besting Faber, who went on to become one of mixed martial arts' first stars at 145 pounds, Griffin hopes featherweight will treat him equally well against Manny Gamburyan, yet another lightweight convert, on the undercard of UFC's debut at the Consol Energy Center in Pittsburgh.
"The reason I never stayed down there was it sucked to make the weight," said Griffin, a 27-year-old Californian. "If making 45s is miserable and my body can't compete at the high level, I'll go back to 55. I'm not running from any competition. I'm not going for an easy run at anything. I decided to challenge myself personally and professionally and be a professional athlete 365 days a year at the lighter weight."
Griffin's motivations are shared by enough fighters on the Versus-televised event -- which is headlined by Nate Marquardt, who after campaigning for years at middleweight will make the move to welterweight on Sunday -- that it's worth wondering if this is merely coincidence or the start of a larger trend.
Javier Vazquez joined the featherweight ranks in 2007, well before it was in vogue to do so, and finds the growing phalanx of dieting, weight-cutting lightweights "hysterical."
"In some ways it's a cry for help because some of these guys, there's no reason for it," Vazquez said. "I have all the respect in the world for Kenny Florian, but there was no reason he had to cut to 145.
"I think a lot of guys feel like it's a fresh start, like everything that happened at lightweight has been erased in their minds."
Florian, of course, looked great in his featherweight debut two weeks ago against Diego Nunes. A top-10 fighter at 155 pounds, Florian earned title shots in 2006 an 2009. But after Gray Maynard swamped Florian's chances at a third fight for the belt last year, the Boston-based UFC star made the move.
"It comes down to a matter of physics," Florian said. "Any time you get two objects going at each other, more often than not the heavier object is going to win out in that type of confrontation. So in this sport, when you're reaching the high levels, you need every advantage you can get. Sometimes that means going down to another weight class."
Moreover, as physically taxing as a large weight dump can be, Zuffa's absorption of the bantamweight and featherweight divisions into the UFC made the choice much less of a financial blow.
"I think the big things that were preventing a lot of guys from dropping weight was the exposure, the money, the sponsorship issues with going down and fighting in the WEC," Florian said. "But now with that weight class being in the UFC, getting the same attention, and having the same opportunities as far as money, it became a lot more attractive to a lot of guys who may have been in the middle of both those weight classes."
"Before, not a lot of guys would have wanted to drop down," Griffin said, "because they were taking themselves out of the big show or out of money, whatever it may be. Unfortunately, the little guy will never get paid as much as the big guys. There's definitely more money in the bigger weight classes."
Then there's the simple reality of hanging on long enough to get paid -- period. Like Griffin, Joe Stevenson dropped his last three contests at 155, which in most cases is grounds for a pink slip from the UFC. Instead, with a fresh start, a fighter is conceivably a hot streak away from holding the featherweight belt.
“ Before, not a lot of guys would have wanted to drop down because they were taking themselves out of the big show or out of money, whatever it may be. ” -- Tyson Griffin, on the issues he had with fighting outside the UFC and in the right weight class
"[In] the 155-pound weight class after three losses, especially in such a stacked division, it was going to take eight wins in a row to get a title shot again," Stevenson said. "I'm really in this to win a title."
To varying degrees, any relevant fighter thinks the same.
"I just turned 29," said Stevenson, 44 fights into a career that began at the age of 16. "I'm fairly young and have never had surgery. I'm lucky and blessed. I'll be at 145 until I have the belt at 145. There's a hunger. Cutting and maintaining this weight is definitely a powerful motivation and made me hungry again."
"No," he answered. "I'm eating five meals a day, 1,500 calories, and drinking two gallons of water."
As Florian showed, the science of weight-cutting and nutrition has evolved to the point where a fighter who once campaigned at 185 pounds could make 145 for the first time despite turning 35 last month.
Vazquez is the same age as Florian and knows he could follow in the footsteps of Faber -- last year the "California Kid" began his own weight-cutting exodus and was quickly awarded with the right to challenge UFC bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz on July 2 in Las Vegas -- but Vazquez doesn't see the point. For a fighter whose idea of dieting "was not having Taco Bell the week of the weigh-ins," Vazquez suggested a size advantage won't make up for a deficiency of skills.
"Kenny is going to have the same problem with Chad Mendes that he had with Gray Maynard," Vazquez said. "I'm telling you, 100 percent. He might be a little bit taller, but it doesn't matter. If you can't stop a takedown, you can't stop a takedown. And in fact, when you get lower in weight, the guys are better technicians. The guys will transition from one move to another better. That's just the nature of wrestling.
"Could these guys make the weight? Yes, I'm sure they could. Should they make the weight? The same problems they had at 155 they'll have at 145."
Despite his protests, Vazquez is angling for the same thing as Florian, Griffin, Stevenson, Gamburyan and Marquardt.
It starts with discipline at the dinner table and a few more hard minutes in the sauna.
And, ideally, it ends with another chance.
Josh Gross covers MMA for ESPN.com. Follow him on Twitter at JoshGrossESPN.
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