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Why elite UFC middleweights moving up to light heavyweight is an alarming trend

Elias Cepeda
Yahoo Sports Contributor
Ronaldo Souza reacts after losing to Jack Hermansson during their middleweight bout at UFC Fight Night at BB&T Center on April 27, 2019 in Sunrise, Florida. (Michael Reaves/Getty Images)

Elite UFC middleweights on losing streaks seem to be moving up to light heavyweight a lot, lately, and it’s concerning. It is true that for some of these guys, cutting down to the middleweight limit the day before fighting was its own type of danger (extreme dehydration immediately following months of calorie restriction and immediately preceding fighting is never healthy, though it’s the norm), and that is deserving of its own discussion.

What the correct move to make at any point of a career, to say nothing of during difficult times, is never easy to ascertain. These are complicated, multi-faceted decisions.

With that being said, middle-aged fighters getting stopped with increasing regularity at one weight class, then going up to take blows against larger men at a weight category a full 20 pounds heavier seems like an unlikely remedy. So far, it isn’t working out too well for its most high-profile proponents.

Former middleweight king Chris Weidman had lost four out of his last five fights, all by either TKO or KO, when he decided to move up to light heavyweight last month against rising contender Dominick Reyes. Weidman got knocked out inside the first round by the bigger man.

Former 185-pound world champ Luke Rockhold had lost two out of his last three at middleweight, both by stoppage, before moving up to light heavyweight this past summer against Jan Blachowicz, and getting stopped once more. On Saturday, Blachowicz welcomes another former middleweight great in Ronaldo “Jacare” Souza.

Souza, who turns 40 in a few weeks, has lost two out of his last three bouts at middleweight, and four of his last eight. He’s also sustained plenty of head trauma in the process, especially in his bouts against Yoel Romero and Robert Whitaker.

Now, Souza moves up to face Blachowicz himself. Weidman and Rockhold are not small men, but they both used their reach well at middleweight before suffering some tough losses, sustaining serious damage, and deciding to move up to 205 pounds.

Dominick Reyes rains hammer fists down on Chris Weidman moments before the fight was stopped in a light heavyweight bout during UFC Boston at TD Garden on Oct. 18, 2019. (Barry Chin/The Boston Globe via Getty Images)

Their moves weren’t without compelling rationale. Once a couple losses had put them out of the immediate title picture at middleweight, it might have seemed pointless to torture themselves to make that class’ weight limit when there are slower guys at a weight limit you might walk around close to, after all.

Add to that the health benefits of not having to restrict much-needed calories ahead of a bout and of going into a fight with more water in the body and surrounding the brain because they didn’t have to sweat out so many pounds during a weight cut to middleweight, and there are compelling and smart reasons for guys like that to move up in weight. Still, there are big risks and moving up in weight is no panacea.

One concern is that once the desire, the need, the dedication to do all the arduous — and even often unhealthy — things necessary to be the best or near it at middleweight including dieting and cutting big starts to dim, it might be time to go onto other things in life, not move up in weight. Cutting weight is not good for fighters, but the scorched earth desperation to do whatever it takes to be the best that is required to do it is needed to reach the heights fighters like we’re discussing here have hit.

Another problem is that a lot of light heavyweights aren’t as slow as they used to be. There are some freakishly athletic big men at light heavyweight, these days, and many of them are younger than these middleweights moving up, so they might have a bit more reaction time and speed in them at this point.

That quickness combined with increased size and power isn’t a good one for the brains of already grizzled veterans.

Souza and these other stellar middleweights who’ve moved up are all great fighters. They’re also all likely more skilled now than they’ve ever been before, with all their training and fight experience.

Still, being a lifelong warrior takes a toll, as does age. Fighting larger, harder-hitting opponents at a heavier weight class when you’ve already begun to struggle at a lower one might not be the best answer for guys like “Jacare.”

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