Some of the smartest fight people I know claim to have been unsurprised when Antonio Silva broke Fedor Emelianenko this past weekend and sent him out of the Strikeforce Heavyweight Grand Prix and into a thankfully brief retirement. This is the sort of thing you might dismiss lightly until you run through the numbers.
Going back to December 2006, a period covering seven fights against generally outclassed opponents, Emelianenko just wasn't performing well. He had outstruck his opponents by the bare margin of 46-45, attempted seven submissions to their five, and passed guard eight times while having his passed four times. By way of comparison, Jon Jones has outstruck opponents 202-97 in his last seven fights, 145-26 in his last five, while never facing a threat on the ground. Alistair Overeem, who has admittedly been facing the kind of competition you generally find on the shelf at the local grocer, has outstruck opponents 115-5 in his last seven bouts.
The still more significant number, though, was 50, which is the approximate number of pounds by which Silva outweighed Emelianenko. Every fight fan has in his or her mind the lessons Royce Gracie taught us all those years ago at the early UFC shows, and tends to think that technique can always make up for size and that weight doesn't matter all that much. The problem is that those lessons don't hold.
You can trace a reasonable history of the development of fighting just by tracking the number of weight classes UFC has promoted. In its earliest days, UFC tournaments were open-weight. In 1997, fighters were divided into two classes, those above and below 200 pounds. Before long, they were split into three classes. In 2001, two new classes were introduced, with what had been the middleweights becoming light heavies and what had been the lightweights becoming welterweights. The new lightweight class was promoted off and on and only became a UFC fixture in 2006, settling as a five-class structure that has now expanded with the absorption of the featherweight and bantamweight divisions of former sister promotion WEC.
Each change in this structure has essentially marked a new, more competitive era in fighting. When no one really knew what they were doing, there was no particular reason not to match Gracie with someone like Dan Severn, who weighed half again as much as he did. As the game evolved, fighters of different sizes had to be separated to ensure competitive fights.
This being so, the current weight classes were not brought down from mountains engraved on stone tablets. As Keith Kizer, head of the Nevada State Athletic Commission, has it, the limit at light heavyweight is 205 pounds mostly because that was Tito Ortiz's best fighting weight. Had the massive Ortiz, then UFC's most marketable star, been comfortable dropping another five pounds, it would have been the 200-pound class.
Which brings us around to Emelianenko's fight with Silva as an example of the increasing absurdity of the current setup. The two aren't fighting in the same division because anyone believes that a 230-pound man can do anything with a 285-pound man of anything near similar skill; they're doing so because of the traditional lack of big men who can do anything at all, and because that's how it's always been done.
The heavyweight class starts at 205 pounds and reaches up to 265, which is silly if you think about it at all. More than anything, this is a result of the lack of good, big fighters. Elite athletes of that size can usually make quite a bit more money by going into football or boxing than they can in MMA, and so there is good, objective reason to think that quality among heavyweights badly lags that in other divisions. For example, the percentage of fights that go to decision, a rough proxy for competitiveness, is a fair bit lower at 265 than in any other class. There is a reason why Matt Mitrione is a legitimate top 20 heavyweight despite not having been one of the top, say, 1,500 players in the NFL.
All of this being so, the caliber of heavyweight fighters is quickly increasing. Four years ago, an ancient Randy Couture was able to win a world title; he would not be a contender today. It may be true that when a division comprises a very few fighters as good as Emelianenko and Antonio Rodrigo Nogueira and a lot of slugs, size doesn't matter; when fighters outside the top 10 are as big and skilled as Silva has become, though, the idea of making bouts where one fighter outweighs the other by more than a fifth his body weight is increasingly sketchy.
To put this in perspective, a lot of insiders don't even think that the 10- to 15-pound gaps between the lower weight classes are a good idea. One trainer for a current UFC champion would prefer to see 7.5-pound differentials between the classes; another, who has trained several UFC champions, puts the introduction of new classes and same-day weigh-ins right behind judging reform as the biggest issues facing the sport. On a conference call held this week to promote his upcoming fight against Jon Fitch, B.J. Penn admitted that he isn't fighting at 155 pounds because he doesn't like to drop the weight and isn't sure it's healthy to do so -- and he is, in theory, as natural a lightweight as you'll find. (This point about health is one those who suggest Emelianenko should just drop to 205 pounds should keep in mind. Not everyone finds the idea of fasting and sweating off 20 pounds of water in the days leading up to a dangerous fight to be an obviously good idea.)
For his part, Kizer says this is up to promoters. "Nothing precludes that," he said of the introduction of new divisions. "There's nothing that stops it." As he points out, this is a way in which the lack of independent sanctioning bodies in fighting works as a double-edged sword. Such a body would likely have already introduced a class between 205 and 265 pounds, but its very existence would lead to fighters padding their records against stiffs, dodging tough matchups and so on, as we see in boxing. Ultimately, we'll see new classes when promoters think it a good idea to introduce them, and this will only happen if the general level of skill rises to the point where marketable smaller heavyweights are consistently losing to larger men for no reason other than size.
That point hasn't quite yet been reached, as anyone who saw Cain Velasquez tossing Brock Lesnar around could tell you, but it's daily getting nearer. Emelianenko's loss taught us a lot about his age, his increasingly antiquated technique, and how good Antonio Silva is. It should also have taught us something about how it isn't 1993 anymore. Size matters.