When an athlete wins a championship, those watching from the stands tend to view the achievement as an arrival at the ultimate destination. Some champions themselves even see it that way. They’ve elevated themselves above the masses, and their reign on higher ground is what will define their legacy.
But a notable few athletes put a different meaning behind a championship. These elites see it as a launching pad.
In combat sports, there’s always something bigger out there. Bigger payday. Bigger fan base. Or a bigger challenge against a bigger opponent representing a bigger legacy.
Boxing has a long tradition of champions challenging weightier champions. There are many more weight classes in boxing than in MMA, some separated by just a few pounds, and there’s a far more extensive history to draw upon. I remember my grandfather regaling me with a tale from a century ago that had been passed down from his boxing fan elders, of Jack Dempsey winning the heavyweight championship by mauling Jess Willard, who outweighed him by something like 50 pounds. An extreme example, no doubt, but the story sticks in my memory.
In MMA, we see bouncing between weight classes all the time — but usually not by champions. Typically, fighters change things up when they’ve hit a dead end on the road to opportunity. They’ve lost a couple in a row in their natural weight class. They’re near the top but can’t get past the champ. They can’t make the weight. There’s usually a rude push from behind driving a fighter to a new division.
A far more glorious dynamic will be in play this weekend at UFC 284 when featherweight titlist Alexander Volkanovski steps up to challenge lightweight belt holder Islam Makhachev (10 p.m. ET Saturday on ESPN+ PPV). This is an MMA rarity, just the seventh instance of reigning UFC champions meeting in the Octagon.
This used to be even more of a rarity. In the promotion’s first 23 years of existence, there was just one champion-vs.-champion superfight. But in the past six years or so — perhaps significantly, this is the time since entertainment giant WME-IMG (now known as Endeavor) bought the UFC — there have been five more superfights, with another about to happen.
Here’s some history of smaller champs fighting bigger champs — how the fights came together, how they played out and what they meant in the long run.
BJ Penn vs. Georges St-Pierre
Welterweight championship, UFC 94, Jan. 31, 2009
Setting the scene: The UFC’s first champion-vs.-champion superfight was not genuinely breaking new ground, because it was a rematch. Penn and St-Pierre had met nearly three years earlier, when neither owned a belt, and St-Pierre eked out a split decision. And while that first bout also was at 170 pounds, the division later ruled by GSP, Penn was coming off a pair of light heavyweight fights and one at middleweight. Before that, he had briefly reigned at welterweight, dethroning Matt Hughes at UFC 46. So “The Prodigy” had been around. But now he was the man at 155 pounds and had his sights set on adding a second belt.
Sizing up the smaller fighter: “Jiu-jitsu is created where the small man can beat the big man,” Penn, a Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt, said before the fight. “I know something’s going to happen. The guy’s going to make a mistake and I’m going to get that armlock, I’m going to get that choke and it will be done.”
How it went: St-Pierre did not make a mistake, fall into an armlock or get caught in a choke. Instead, he used his welterweight brawn to brutalize Penn for four rounds before the smaller man’s cornermen mercifully ended the beatdown.
The takeaway: “After the second round, I was borderline knocked out,” Penn said in an interview on his website. “I don’t remember the third and fourth rounds.”
Several years later, Penn called for a third fight — this time in his domain. “Hey [Georges St-Pierre] if you can make 155 easily,” he tweeted, “I’m free in November and would love the opportunity to fight you at 155 pounds in New York.” St-Pierre declined, saying, “I fought him two times, and … I want to have a fight that people want to see me fight in, something that if I win, it would elevate me.”
Conor McGregor vs. Eddie Alvarez
Lightweight championship, UFC 205, Nov. 12, 2016
Setting the scene: McGregor became men’s featherweight champ in December 2015 with a stunning 13-second knockout of Jose Aldo, the 145-pound GOAT. McGregor then took advantage of his newly supercharged star power by cashing in with a pair of welterweight fights with needle mover Nate Diaz, losing the first and winning the rematch.
At that point, “The Notorious” saw an opportunity to enhance his legacy by doing something no one had successfully done before. He challenged Alvarez, owner of the lightweight strap. “Potential two-weight champion,” McGregor said. “Superfight. Champion versus champion. First time a champion has gone up. These are historic moments.”
Sizing up the smaller fighter: “The only weight I give a f— about is the weight of the checks. And my checks are super-heavyweight,” McGregor had said in the lead-up to the first Diaz fight at UFC 196, reportedly the biggest-selling pay-per-view in the company’s history.
By the time McGregor got around to facing Alvarez, the checks were even bigger. And that remained the only size concern the Irishman had on his mind.
How it went: McGregor dropped Alvarez twice in the first round and finished him by TKO in the second, becoming the first fighter to reign in two UFC divisions simultaneously.
The takeaway: In the immediate aftermath inside the Octagon, McGregor was irritated. He was not satisfied with just his achievement. He also wanted his moment. So when he was awarded just one title belt, he saw an unprecedented opportunity slipping away. Someone had to run backstage and grab a second belt so McGregor could climb upon the cage for his photo op, a belt slung over each shoulder.
By the time he showed up at the postfight news conference, McGregor had moved on from talking just about making history. Now he wanted to talk about making money. WME-IMG had recently paid over $4 billion for the UFC, and the biggest star on the roster wanted his cut. “Where’s my equity? If I’m the one bringing this, they’ve got to come talk to me, that’s all I know,” McGregor said. “You want me to stick around and keep doing what I’m doing? I want what I deserve, what I’ve earned.”
McGregor would not compete again inside the Octagon for nearly two years after that fight and has been largely inactive recently. After another near two-year layoff, he is expected to return later this year after coaching on “The Ultimate Fighter.”
Daniel Cormier vs. Stipe Miocic
Heavyweight championship, UFC 220, July 7, 2018
Setting the scene: Cormier started his MMA career as a heavyweight, including a stint in Strikeforce, during which he won the 2012 Heavyweight Grand Prix. But the following year, he moved to the UFC and soon became a light heavyweight. Why? Because his friend and training partner, Cain Velasquez, was UFC heavyweight champ.
Cormier became the light heavyweight titlist in 2015, and three years later, with Velasquez no longer in possession of the big boy belt, the time was right for DC to go for champ-champ status against Miocic.
“This is the ultimate thing you can do in this sport,” Cormier said.
Sizing up the smaller fighter: “Smaller” wasn’t really the case here. Though Cormier had always weighed in the 230s during his early-career stint at heavyweight, for this fight he came in at 245 pounds, heavier than Miocic. But DC had to overcome an 8-inch reach disadvantage. He believed he could do that with speed and conditioning.
“I train like I’m fighting at 205,” Cormier said. “Heavyweights don’t train like that.”
How it went: In the final minute of Round 1, with the fighters in a clinch at the center of the cage, Cormier came around Miocic’s guard with a right hand that dropped him, making DC a knockout winner.
The takeaway: “I was a heavyweight for a long time and I left the division. I never knew what I could become. Tonight I got the answer,” Cormier said. “I’m a two-division champion, baby!”
He also was suddenly the target of long-ago former champ Brock Lesnar, who was in attendance in Las Vegas and came into the Octagon to challenge DC with a shove right out of the WWE playbook. But that bout never materialized, and Cormier instead went on to fight Miocic twice more, losing both.
Amanda Nunes vs. Cris Cyborg
Women’s featherweight championship, UFC 232, Dec. 29, 2018
Setting the scene: Nunes won the bantamweight title in 2016, and within the two years that followed, she defended her belt three times — including a 48-second knockout of Ronda Rousey and a second win over flyweight champ Valentina Shevchenko. How could Nunes top that?
She had an idea how. “There’s no question about it that I will become the greatest women’s fighter of all time when I beat Cyborg,” Nunes told Sporting News. “I’ll be the first woman to have two belts at the same time.”
Sizing up the smaller fighter: “If I’m Amanda, I’m not going to try to put on a lot of size,” Miesha Tate, the woman from whom Nunes had won the 135-pound title, said on her SiriusXM radio show. “I’m going to stick with what is working for me and try to rely on the speed and the fact that I have a slight reach advantage. I want to be the faster person to land the punches. She already hits hard enough to hurt people.”
How it went: Call her Mystic Miesha, because speed made the difference for Nunes. She and Cyborg traded punches right from the start, and Nunes’ shots found their target first. Cyborg went down, then went down again, and less than a minute in, Nunes connected with an overhand right that dropped Cyborg for good, handing her the first loss since her pro debut, 22 fights earlier in 2005.
The takeaway: “Nothing was going to stop me from what I wanted to do tonight,” Nunes said. “When she connected with a couple of punches, I just said, ‘I’m going to walk right through her.'”
That’s easier said than done against a powerhouse featherweight like Cyborg, but it’s precisely what Nunes did. Nunes thus became the third fighter to reign simultaneously in two divisions, and she would become the only one to defend both belts while a champ-champ.
Henry Cejudo vs. TJ Dillashaw
Men’s flyweight championship, UFC Fight Night, Jan. 19, 2019 (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Setting the scene: Call this one the flip side of all other superfights: This time, the bigger man was the challenger. That was different from the original plan, though, according to Cejudo. He said the UFC floated the idea of having him challenge Dillashaw, the bantamweight titlist. But Cejudo, embroiled in contract talks, opted to defend his 125-pound belt instead. Dillashaw then played into rumors that the UFC was about to get rid of the beleaguered flyweight division, saying he was being sent down to “kill the 125-pound division and collect a second belt.”
Dillashaw also had a historic achievement on his mind. “The long-term goal is to leave this sport as the greatest ever, doing things no one has done, eventually win three belts,” he said. “I know I can be a 125-pound champion, and I know I can move to 145 and beat [then champ] Max Holloway. I’m not looking past Henry, but I’m using him as a stepping stone to that.”
Sizing up the smaller fighter: “I’m showing you guys what a true flyweight looks like — not depleted, nice and strong, that’s getting ready to take over the world,” Cejudo said during fight week. “If you’ve never cut weight [to 125 pounds] — I know what it feels like to make that weight, any true flyweight knows exactly what it feels like to cut an extra 10 pounds. He’s going to feel it Saturday night, and I’m looking to expose him.”
How it went: Thirty-two seconds. That’s all it took for Cejudo to knock down Dillashaw twice and finish him with a speed-of-sound flurry of punches.
The takeaway: “I did it for the flyweights, man,” Cejudo said. “I hope I did enough to keep this weight division alive.”
He did, apparently, because the 125-pound division is flourishing these days. But it’s doing so in Cejudo’s absence. He moved up to bantamweight in his next fight, facing Marlon Moraes for the vacant belt — Dillashaw had been stripped and suspended after popping for PEDs following the Cejudo fight. Cejudo won the 135-pound title, defended it once and retired. He has been hinting at a comeback ever since, while Dillashaw retired this past December.
Israel Adesanya vs Jan Blachowicz
Light heavyweight championship, UFC 229, March 6, 2021 (Watch this fight on ESPN+)
Setting the scene: Adesanya, the middleweight champ, had been sparring verbally for quite some time with Jon Jones, who reigned at 205 pounds. It appeared that they were on a collision course, and despite Adesanya being undefeated and spectacular, that fight would have set out a daunting task in front of him. But then Jones relinquished the title to prepare for a move to heavyweight, Blachowicz won the vacant championship … and a superfight was born.
Sizing up the smaller fighter: Adesanya did not bulk up. On weigh-in day, he did not strip down to his skivvies, as fighters do. He kept his sweats on and tipped the scale 4½ pounds under the 205-pound limit for a title bout. Blachowicz weighed in at 205 on the button and said he expected to be 220 on fight night. Adesanya had a cornerman bring him a pizza.
How it went: Blachowicz was too big, too strong. After a couple of close rounds, Blachowicz seized control, getting a takedown in each of the final three rounds and controlling the fight on the canvas for extended periods. Adesanya never was close to being finished, but the judges’ decision was unanimous in favor of Blachowicz.
The takeaway: “That was just my legs being fatigued,” Adesanya said. “I knew what to do, and I was trying to do it. The size did play a factor, but my technique could have been a lot finer. It was like a bad day at the gym, except it was a bad day at the office tonight.”
Blachowicz saw things differently. “I knew I could take him down,” he said. “I am bigger and stronger a little bit.”