Why Do UFC Fighters Change Weight Classes? (7 Reasons)

In the dynamic world of the UFC, fighters often make strategic decisions to switch weight classes.

These changes are influenced by a variety of factors, from physical advantages to career longevity.

Understanding why and how these transitions occur provides insight into the multifaceted nature of professional fighting and the strategic thinking behind a fighter’s career path.

Let’s take a look.

Why Do UFC (MMA) Fighters Change Weight Classes?

Some UFC fighters change weight classes because they can’t handle the health issues caused by weight cutting or they continually miss weight and are forced by the UFC to change. Others may be struggling in their current weight class or are successful and seeking success in another weight class.

However, there are other reasons for such a change. Let’s take a look at all the reasons UFC fighters change weight class divisions.

1. Physical Advantages and Disadvantages

The decision to switch weight classes in the UFC is often influenced by a fighter’s physical characteristics and how they match up against their opponents, as well as strategic considerations based on these physical traits.

This can work in 2 ways: moving down a weight class due to being undersized, or moving up because of the detrimental effects of excessive weight cutting.

(1) Moving Down for Competitive Edge

Some fighters choose to move down a weight class when they find themselves undersized or at a physical disadvantage in their current division. 

This is particularly common among fighters who are naturally leaner or have a skinner frame, who are good strikers but are being outwrestled.

For instance, Kevin Holland moved from the middleweight class (185 lbs) to the welterweight division (170 lbs) because he struggled with grappling against shorter and stockier opponents with strong wrestling.

In a lower weight class, these fighters can leverage their former strengths, such as reach, speed, or agility, while at the same time reducing their weaknesses such as grappling as they’re now competing against similarly sized opponents.

Others with stronger wrestling or Bjj base may move down a weight class because they’re struggling to strike against taller opponents with better movement, technique, and range.

Additionally, this strategic shift allows them to exploit their refined skills, like superior striking or agility, against opponents who may not be accustomed to such tactics.

(2) Moving Up to Gain Strength

Conversely, other fighters opt to move up a weight class when they realize that cutting too much weight impacts their performance. 

Excessive weight cutting can lead to fighters feeling weakened and drained by the time they compete. By moving up a weight class and adding muscle mass, they can compete at a more natural and stronger weight. 

A notable example is Charles Oliveira, who, after a two-fight losing streak as a featherweight, bulked up and moved to the lightweight division where he became the UFC lightweight champion.

In these cases, even if the fighter might not have the height or reach advantage in the new division, the strategic benefit of increased strength and endurance often outweighs these factors, enabling them to handle opponents with different fighting styles more effectively.

2. Personal Health and Well-being

The process of weight cutting, involving rapid weight loss and dehydration, can pose serious health risks, including organ stress, hormonal imbalances, and impaired cognitive function. 

Fighters who find this process increasingly unsustainable or who have experienced health scares may opt to move to a higher weight class. 

This shift allows them to compete at a more natural body weight, reducing the immediate health risks and improving their overall quality of life both inside and outside the octagon.

3. Career Longevity

Fighters looking to extend their time in the sport recognize that frequent and intense weight cutting can have cumulative long-term effects on their bodies, potentially shortening their careers. 

By competing in a weight class that requires less drastic weight cuts, they can reduce the wear and tear on their bodies over time. 

This strategic move is about maintaining peak physical condition and performance levels for as long as possible, ensuring a longer and potentially more successful career in the UFC.

4. Marketability and Opportunities

Switching weight classes can also be a strategic move to gain more lucrative fights. 

Some fighters may find better opportunities for high-profile matches or more marketable matchups in a different weight class. This can lead to increased visibility and potentially higher earnings.

For example, Conor McGregor moved up to welterweight (170 lbs) from featherweight (145 lbs) because he knew that fighting Nate Diaz was a crowd-pleaser that’d bring in a lot of money.

5. Seeking New Challenges and Responding to Performance

UFC fighters often switch weight classes driven by a desire for new challenges or as a response to their recent performance trends. 

This decision can manifest in 2 primary scenarios:

(1) Pursuing New Heights

Successful fighters, especially those who’ve dominated their current division, may seek fresh challenges in a different weight class. 

This ambition is often fueled by the desire to test their skills against a new roster of opponents and to achieve unique milestones, such as becoming a two-division champion or even a simultaneous double champion. 

A prime example is Alexander Volkanovski’s attempt to become only the 5th UFC double champ, showcasing the aspiration to excel beyond current achievements.

(2) Reinvigorating Career Prospects

On the other hand, fighters who’ve experienced setbacks, such as consecutive losses or failed title attempts, might view a change in weight class as an opportunity to reset and revitalize their career. 

In a new weight class, they can leverage their experience while finding matchups that are more favorable or suited to their fighting style. 

This shift is less about seeking new heights and more about adapting to maintain relevance and competitiveness in the sport.

6. Natural Evolution of Physique

As UFC fighters progress through their careers, especially young fighters, natural changes in their body composition often occur, which can lead to a shift in weight classes.

This evolution is typically not a deliberate strategy but rather a response to the body’s natural progression due to aging, changes in training, or metabolic adjustments.

Here are a couple of examples:

Robert Whittaker: Whittaker began his UFC journey in the welterweight division. However, as he matured, maintaining the welterweight limit became increasingly challenging. 

His move to the middleweight division was a response to his body’s natural growth and development, leading to improved performances and eventually earning him the middleweight championship.

Dustin Poirier: Poirier’s move from featherweight to lightweight is another example of a fighter adapting to his body’s natural progression. 

As he grew and developed physically, the lightweight division became a more suitable and healthier option, allowing him to perform at his best without the extreme weight cuts.

7. UFC-Enforced Weight Class Switch Due to Repeated Weight Misses

In some cases, UFC fighters are forced by the UFC to switch weight classes as a result of repeatedly failing to make weight. It’s usually after the third strike.

The UFC has enforced such changes to ensure fair competition and fighter safety, as often these fighters are way too heavy for the weight class and are cutting obscene amounts of weight.

They also enforce it because fighters missing weight is unfair to the opponent who makes weight and now doesn’t have the opportunity to fight for their win payment or UFC bonus.

One example is Kelvin Gastelum, who was forced to move up to middleweight after missing the welterweight limit on multiple occasions. The final straw was his high-profile miss against Donald Cerrone before UFC 205 in 2016.

He spent the next 7 years in the middleweight division but recently returned to the welterweight division in December 2023. 

His move back was permitted by the UFC, likely considering his veteran status and the challenges he faced in the middleweight division.

Can UFC Fighters Change Weight Class?

Yes, UFC fighters can change weight classes. As independent contractors and not employees, they have the autonomy to negotiate a change to a new weight class division.

To switch weight classes, a UFC fighter typically needs to have a discussion with the UFC and negotiate a fight in the new division, considering factors like health, competitiveness, and potential matchups.

Here’s how the process unfolds:

Process of Changing Weight Classes: The process involves open communication between the fighter, their management team, and the UFC. 

The fighter expresses their interest in moving to a different division and negotiates potential fights in the new class.

It’s important to note that while fighters are contracted for a set number of fights, they’re not restricted to a specific weight class, allowing for flexibility in their career trajectory.

Medical and Safety Considerations: Despite their independence, fighters must still adhere to UFC’s health and safety protocols. 

This includes medical evaluations to ensure that the weight change is safe and that the fighter can competently compete in the new division.

UFC’s Role: While fighters have the autonomy to propose a change, the final decision also involves the UFC’s assessment of the fighter’s suitability for the new weight class, including factors like health, potential matchups, and overall division dynamics.

In summary, changing weight classes is a viable option for UFC fighters, reflecting their status as independent contractors. 

This decision is made through a combination of personal choice, strategic planning, and negotiation with the UFC, ensuring alignment with both the fighter’s goals and the organization’s standards.

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