More weight classes, more problems
Now that the UFC's most recent catchweight venture is over and the gushing praise for both Rich Franklin and Wanderlei Silva has begun, the inevitable question of whether the sport needs more weight classes has become a topic de rigueur in the mixed martial arts talkosphere.
The only surprising part of this development is that the question is worth considering because the ongoing expansion of the sport means it may have outgrown the spartan weight-class system that has been embraced by all but the most rogue promoters.
With a talent pool growing in step with the national debt and a scant nine weight classes that cover the expanse between flyweight and super heavyweight, rookie fighters have to make tough decisions about where they fit in. Meanwhile, a former champion such as Franklin has to campaign for divisions that can accommodate the tweeners who do not quite belong anywhere. Of course, just the fact that Franklin was a dominant middleweight champion before running nose-first into Anderson Silva's knees takes much of the populist gusto out of his sentiments. Sport is not tailored to everyone, and the unified weight classes are a reminder that an even playing field does not mean the playing field will tilt whenever one feels like taking a step to the side.
Sure, the current talk centers on the creation of a cruiserweight class to narrow the 20-pound gap between the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions, but the shock wave going down the weight ladder will hardly go unnoticed. It would not take long for the fighters who make Herculean weight cuts to compete at welterweight to go on the campaign trail for a custom-made home of their own. You could say this scenario merely indicates that a need for more weight classes exists. Yet that ignores the question of whether the self-centered concerns of a vocal minority carry more weight than the sport's need to steer clear of the alphabet-soup abyss that has become the norm in boxing.
One of the main draws of MMA is that the matchups that need to happen almost always do. You'll never get stuck waiting an extra year to see the MMA equivalent of a Kobe Bryant-LeBron James NBA Finals because of bad matchmaking. That logical matchmaking continuity, which makes super fights such regular occurrences, is something the sport cannot afford to lose. Spread out the world's top talent across 18 weight classes, and you'd be lucky to see anything resembling a super fight on the horizon.
That's not to say the concept of catchweight matches needs to go the way of the Sega Genesis. After all, I still like to dust off the old console and waste a day trying to break my high score on "Sonic the Hedgehog." Having a catchweight fight every now and then to create interesting matches -- or, ideally, a cross-division super fight between sitting champions -- does no harm and, as this past weekend proved, can create compelling clashes that we otherwise would never see. In other words, catchweights should be used to generate matches that fans are dying to see; they should not be used as permanent pacifiers for fighters who don't want to cut weight or deal with being second-best.
We must not ignore another nightmare scenario -- when a champion changes weight classes to avoid a troublesome contender -- that eventually could come home to roost again. Remember the migraines Tito Ortiz created when he ducked Chuck Liddell for nearly three years and successfully avoided defending his title against him? Imagine the same situation masked by the convenient excuse of jumping weight classes "for a new challenge." Throw in the prospect that allows fighters to try to rack up championships by jumping weight classes instead of meeting the deserving challengers within their current division, and you end up with the exact same Guernica that boxing is trying to escape.
You don't need promoter Don King or a dozen different sanctioning bodies to muck up MMA; just dilute your talent pool and watch fans get sick of dealing with cut-rate matches and egotistical athletes looking to manufacture legacies out of belts instead of wins. The vast majority of the current talent pool is a credit to the sport, but it takes only a couple of narcissists at the top of the totem pole and the right circumstances to send everything into a tailspin. The novelty of watching a guy hold up his weight in gold belts just isn't worth the headaches that go along with it.
That's really what it comes down to -- the gold belts. Take them out of the equation, and the whole catchweight system becomes something that appeals to fighting pride. No one -- save the most hardened mixed martial artist -- would risk his reputation by changing weight to take on a dangerous opponent for nothing more than bragging rights. Catchweight fights are supposed to be battles for bragging rights, not dry runs for new weight classes. After all, it's easy to scream about how great a cruiserweight class would be based on the Wanderlei Silva-Franklin dustup at UFC 99, but no one seems to consider how severely it would bleed out the talent from the middleweight and light heavyweight divisions.
Creating three divisions with kiddie-pool depth does not seem like the kind of move the UFC can afford right now, and the price certainly is not worth keeping a handful of fighters pacified. This might seem heavy-handed to some, but sports do not collapse overnight. Soccer alone has experienced multiple renaissances stateside, only to burn out like a boy band. Each time, death came slowly, thanks to mismanagement during the brief window the sport had to take its place on the Mount Rushmore of American athletics.
MMA, in general, and the UFC, in particular, have a similar opportunity right now, and costly mistakes are not something the sport can readily absorb like the NFL or NBA. A few wrong turns could lead us back to where we're watching shows held in Louisiana convention centers every six months. Nothing drives that image home quite like the end of the Kakutougi boom in Japan; a country that was once the hotbed of MMA has become a financial black hole for anyone trying to establish a foothold on that side of the Pacific, thanks to mismanagement so profound that it would make an economist's ears bleed.
If you honestly do not think the same could happen here, have fun watching Rome burn while you play your fiddle.
Tomas Rios is a contributor to Sherdog.com.