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Henderson, Masvidal: Ahead of the Game, Proving Bigger is Better

A pair of lightweights-turned-welterweights headlining UFC Seoul are setting a new trend in MMA.
November 24, 2015, 7:44pm
Photo by Han Myung-Gu/Zuffa LLC

Looking in the rearview mirror, Benson Henderson is more than a visionary; he's a true trendsetter in mixed martial arts.

"Bendo," "Smooth," or whatever he goes by these days, is also probably enjoying some Korean snacks like sundae, japchae, dukboki on this fight week. But prior to February, when Henderson moved up to welterweight, culinary treats the week of a fight were never an option for the former lightweight champion, who previously embarked on a notoriously steep weight cut.

Even before the UFC introduced USADA and its comprehensive drug-testing program, which includes the current ban on IV rehydration, Henderson was already en route to 170-pounds. Done with extreme weight cuts and crash diets, Henderson paved the way for fighters who don't naturally fit in the sport's established weight classes, the "tweeners," caught in between divisions due their natural physiology.

Taking a Valentine's Day welterweight bout against Brandon Thatch in Colorado, Henderson conceded significant size, height, and reach to his much larger opponent. And while Hendo took some heavy shots early, he outlasted Thatch to score the submission win, proving size isn't everything.

Jorge Masvidal, who squares off against Henderson in this Saturday's UFC Seoul main event, also jumped up a weight class prior to the IV ban.

An outspoken fan of fast food and questionable nutrition practices, Masvidal looked impressive in his first bout at welterweight. Without the stress of his weight cut and excessive dehydration, Masvidal made his welterweight debut in July, unleashing heavy elbows to knock out Cezar Ferreira

Photo by Mitch Viquez/Zuffa LLC

In both of these cases, Henderson and Masvidal threw the established practice of fighting in the lightest division possible out the door. They were willing to trade size for speed, and power for comfort. But will other fighters follow suit and start jumping up divisions?

Traditionally in MMA, fighters have always pushed the limits of their body's ability to drop water weight prior to competition.

Athletes like light heavyweight Anthony Johnson, who previously fought at 170 pounds and former bantamweight champion Renan Barao, who is now reportedly on his way up to 145 pounds, both made careers out of drastic weight cuts. However, this extreme weight loss came with a price, as both fighters were beat to the punch by smaller competitors with bigger gas tanks in the cardiovascular department.

For a time, fighters could rely on power and quick knockouts to see them through big cuts; IV rehydration also helped their bodies restore water weight. But with the UFC and USADA implementing the ban on backstage IVs in October, competitors no longer had this last ditch cure all, and the writing seemed to be on the wall that dozens of fighters would start to move weight classes.

But what has happened since the ban?

In fact, very few athletes have switched divisions.

Featherweights Jose Aldo and Conor McGregor, both of whom have dreadful cuts down to 145 and previously used IVs, have not budged. And even The Ultimate Fighter season one winner Diego Sanchez, who previously fought at middleweight, welterweight, and lightweight, dropped yet another 10 pounds to take on Ricardo Lamas last week.

So what is really going on with Henderson and Masvidal and their pursuits at a higher weight class? How and when will their methods find resonance with their MMA fraternity brothers?

For that answer, it's best to look directly at UFC light heavyweight champion Daniel Cormier, who previously held titles at heavyweight.

A former Olympic wrestler at 96 kg (approximately 211 lbs.), Cormier experienced kidney failure during his cut for the 2008 Beijing games, prompting his decision to fight at heavyweight. And it was in this heavier division where Cormier showcased his speed and agility en route to the Strikeforce title.

At the time, and as recently as three years ago, it was rare to see a smaller competitor having success against bigger fighters, but Cormier was a natural, utilizing his kickboxing and footwork to maneuver around heavier men.

Cormier, of course, eventually made the move down to 205 – a decision that was prompted purely because his teammate and friend Cain Velasquez held the UFC title at the time – but the vision of him out boxing and out wrestling a much larger Josh Barnett in 2012, along with a massive takedown in the Strikeforce heavyweight Grand Prix finals, is enough to bring this story back to Henderson, who looked equally small compared to Thatch during their February affair.

In the early stages of the UFN 60 main event, Henderson absorbed some heavy damage from the 6-foot-2 Thatch. The bout appeared to clearly favor the bigger fighter, but as the fight progressed, Henderson was able to use his speed, wrestling, and grappling to slow Thatch. It also didn't hurt that Henderson has always been known as a cardio machine.

Eventually, Henderson would finish the fight via rear-naked choke. And after Rafael dos Anjos, a fighter who knocked Henderson out in 2014, captured the lightweight title in March, "Smooth" declared himself a true welterweight. With the lightweight title no longer an option, why even bother with the agony of weight cutting anyway?

Masvidal arrived at 170 pounds in an entirely different fashion …

Once a title contender to Gilbert Melendez's Strikeforce lightweight belt, Masvidal started hinting at moving up a weight class as far back as 2012. But when Strikeforce shuttered its doors and the UFC came calling, he was given an invitation to the big show, but only at 155 pounds.

"Gamebred" accepted the UFC's invitation and never once missed weight during his seven Octagon appearances at lightweight; however, once an opportunity came to move up, he did so, and looked impressive at a heavier weight.

Ironically, it was only during his first weigh-in attempt at 170 that Masvidal missed on the weigh-in scale. He would eventually make weight and finish Ferreira inside of a round. The move to welterweight was solidified that very first night, and Masvidal even went as far as to call out division stalwart Matt Brown.

He was eventually partnered with Henderson, and now the UFC has two former lightweights competing at 170 pounds. So who will be next to follow suit and bump up a division?

Two-time flyweight challenger John Dodson has already publically stated that he's done at 125 pounds and will move to bantamweight permanently. McGregor has also alluded that his move up to lightweight will happen sooner rather than later.

These few examples hardly represent the mass migration that many expected to take place following the October IV ban, but Saturday night could mark a turning point, after the world sees Henderson and Masvidal competing without the deterioration caused by dehydration.

And with extreme weight cutting still very much a hot topic in MMA, Saturday night's UFC Seoul headliner could very well be the beginning of a new trend.