Double Champ Checklist: How to become the next DC, Nunes, Cejudo or McGregor

MMA is still a relatively new professional sport, but it has created plenty of historical moments, and the UFC, the sport’s most recognizable promotion, has developed countless stars.

Many fighters have built impressive records, highlight reels full of wild knockouts and crazy submissions and a few have entered the fraternity of UFC champions. But even among those who have reached the top of the mountain in their division, there is an even higher level of rare air that only a handful of fighters have ever reached.

“Champ-champ” status — owning titles in two divisions simultaneously.

According to former UFC double champion Daniel Cormier, winning even one UFC title is “nearly impossible”. In just over 30 years of the UFC hosting fight events, only 107 different fighters (not including the champions who have held a title more than once) have held a title in any of the promotion’s 12 weight classes. Of those 107 fighters, only seven have even challenged for a second belt. And of those seven fighters, only four (Cormier, Henry Cejudo, Conor McGregor and Amanda Nunes) have ever actually won.

“It takes world-class levels of commitment, skill, athleticism and even some luck,” Cormier told ESPN.

Yet, many UFC champs have called for their shot at a title holder in a different division — some have even been bold enough to do so before their first title defense. How, then, can we separate those who have earned the right to challenge for a second title from those who still have more work to do?

After surveying reigning champions, former champs and other UFC fighters, we’ve developed a proposal for “The Double Champ Checklist.”


Step one: Win the first title

Nobody wants to hear about your double champ aspirations if you have yet to earn your first title. It’s just that simple. But winning that first belt is no easy task.

“I know everyone wants to be a UFC champion, but there have been so few people to come through the sport and achieve that, so it’s not a given,” Cormier said. “Being a double champion is so rare that it can’t be the focus for a fighter early. It has to happen organically.”

To earn a title shot, a fighter must work their way up the division’s ranks, progressively taking on more challenging opponents while facing more pressure to win. And, in many cases, just winning isn’t even enough — plenty of fighters have piled up decision wins only to get passed over in favor of someone with fewer wins but more finishes or fights that are considered more entertaining.

Every fighter’s entry point in the UFC is different, though. Some fighters had to work their way up from the figurative bottom of the roster — like welterweight champion Leon Edwards — who made his first appearance in the Octagon in 2014 and compiled an impressive 11-2, 1 NC record before winning the title in 2022.

Other fighters, such as light heavyweight champ Alex Pereira, appeared to be fast-tracked to a title shot. Pereira joined the UFC after an extensive kickboxing career that featured a storied rivalry with then-middleweight champ Israel Adesanya. Because of the hype around a potential matchup in MMA between the two, after just three fights in the Octagon, Pereira got a title shot against Adesanya, which he won.

Ultimately, it doesn’t matter how you get the title. Just don’t let anyone hear you utter the words “double champ” without it.


Step two: Clear your division or Become a superstar

This is where we hit a fork in the road, but completing one of these options is necessary to earn a shot at a second gold strap. And though both of the paths are challenging, one is undoubtedly preferable. Here are the options: continually beat title challengers until you’ve gone through everyone or become an undeniable superstar.

Option A: Beat all challengers

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“Becoming a champ is nearly impossible, but clearing your division is even harder,” Cormier said.

Clearing out the division is the most common path. If claiming the throne is grueling, then maintaining your position there isn’t any easier. In some cases, beating fighters on the way up isn’t enough. Sometimes, you still have to take on foes you’ve already defeated en route to winning a title, and in rare situations, you could have to do that multiple times.

Just look at Brandon Moreno and Deiveson Figueiredo. Alexander Volkanovski and Max Holloway. Alexa Grasso and Valentina Shevchenko. We saw Moreno-Figueiredo four times. Volkanovski-Holloway squared off three times. And Grasso vs. Shevchenko 3 is expected to be booked following the conclusion of the upcoming season of “The Ultimate Fighter.”

Recently, there have been two champions who did clear their division and still didn’t get a shot at becoming a double champion, former welterweight champ Kamaru Usman and former men’s bantamweight champ Aljamain Sterling.

Usman had strung together the second-longest win streak in UFC history, which featured five title defenses before losing the title in 2022. Sterling had fought through the gauntlet in the promotion’s 135-pound division to win the title and had three successful title defenses before losing the belt last year. After losing their titles, both fighters decided to move up in weight.

“What Usman has done [five title defenses] is so difficult,” Cormier said. “I think the days of us seeing those long title runs is done. In today’s MMA, three title defenses is considered a successful title reign.”

Option B: Become the next Conor McGregor

Alternatively, the way to bypass everything mentioned in Option A is to be a generational superstar. Become such a big name and brand within the sport that it’s so financially beneficial for the promotion that they can’t afford not to give you that chance.

However, out of the 600-plus fighters the UFC has contracted, Conor McGregor is the only fighter to do this. Plenty of other stars have come through the Octagon, including Jon Jones, who is widely regarded as the best MMA fighter of all time. But even the MMA GOAT can’t compare to the stardom that the man known as “Notorious” has reached.

“Conor McGregor is the exception, not the rule,” Cormier said.

While McGregor’s level of success in and out of the Octagon is something all fighters aspire to reach, doing so can only happen organically. This may be a checklist for a path to double champion glory, but there is no direct path to becoming a global star.


Step three: Learn the landscape

Aside from wins and losses inside the Octagon, timing may be the biggest factor in determining if a champion gets a shot at a second title.

Is there a fight card that needs a big headliner? Is there a champion who makes for a compelling matchup? Is that champion available for a potential matchup? Is the matchup something that also makes sense from the UFC’s perspective? Those are just a few questions that need to be answered to understand the landscape before setting up such a rare opportunity.

When Cormier beat Stipe Miocic at UFC 226 to also claim the heavyweight title in 2018, Cormier said he was the beneficiary of filling a need for the UFC and the heavyweight division at the perfect time.

“Star power is overstated in MMA,” Cormier said. “In my case, I didn’t have this massive star power. I did well, but I wasn’t selling massive pay-per-views. A lot of [the making of the fight with Miocic] was about the value of the matchup.

“For me, it was an opportunity based on Stipe not having many options. I had fought Jon Jones and Alexander Gustafsson. I had just beaten Volkan Oezdemir. And Stripe had done the same thing. He had just beaten Francis Ngannou, who had essentially run through the division. So Miocic was lacking a challenger and I was in the right place at the right time. It just made sense.”

Cormier said two of the other double champs also benefited from similar situations. Henry Cejudo, who held the men’s flyweight and bantamweight titles from 2019 to 2020, was willing to fight a dangerous guy in Marlon Moraes for the then-vacant bantamweight title. And Amanda Nunes, who held the women’s bantamweight and featherweight titles from 2017 to 2021, went up to featherweight to take on Cris Cyborg for the then-vacant belt.

In the current era of MMA, the quality of the matchup when pairing two champions is more important to the UFC matchmakers than the individual stardom of the fighters. With the UFC lacking multiple fighters who could be considered global stars, outside of McGregor, Cormier said the next champion to challenge for a second belt will benefit from the matchup being so marketable that the UFC can’t pass it up.

Assessing the landscape is a unique process for each fighter, along with what adjustments would be necessary for them to make a move to compete in a new division. However, the first step is universal: identify a potential opponent.

To pick that opponent, a fighter must have an understanding of their body and their capabilities. Many fighters can’t add enough weight to move up to another division. And most fighters aren’t able to cut any more weight to make the limit at a lower division. Then, if that fighter can make weight, can they still compete at a championship level with how their body adjusts to being in a new division?


Step four: Call your shot

Like in step three, timing is equally important, but in this step, timing is all up to the individual fighter. Even if it’s not for a title — or a second title — when looking to get booked for a big fight, it’s all about strategy.

We’ve seen plenty of callouts that worked: Chael Sonnen’s postfight callout of Anderson Silva, Michael Chandler‘s call for a fight with McGregor at UFC 274, or even Merab Dvalishvili’s constant pestering of Sean O’Malley via social media to build public interest.

There have also been even more callouts that didn’t work. Consider Aljamain Sterling calling for a rematch with O’Malley using his phone while in the crowd at UFC 293 — it was not received well by MMA fans.

“When and how you call for your shot matters,” Cormier said. “Once you’ve done everything else, you just have to plant the seed. You can say it to the public, or you can just say it to [UFC CEO] Dana White or [UFC chief business officer] Hunter Campbell. You have to sell yourself and the matchup, it can’t be subtle. If the callout works, get ready to prepare for the hardest fight of your life.”


How do double champs affect the sport and those around it?

This idea of a checklist is only good if it makes sense to those who would have to abide by it when looking to challenge for a second title. However, some fighters and even a reigning champion wouldn’t mind it.

“I think [the opportunity to challenge for a title in another division] is situational,” O’Malley said to ESPN. “I don’t mind that as the rule, like ‘Hey, you can’t go up yet. You’ve got to defend the belt.’ Alright, let’s do it.”

While O’Malley said he wouldn’t mind a pre-established checklist as a barrier to entry for a second title shot, it is worth mentioning that he likely feels these opportunities are situational because he is just vying for a shot at UFC featherweight champion Ilia Topuria’s title after successfully defending his title over Marlon “Chito” Vera at UFC 299.

On the other hand, it makes sense that those who would be affected by the champion in their division challenging for, or — even worse for them — actually winning a second title. Megan Anderson, who challenged Nunes for her featherweight title at UFC 259 in 2021, knows all too well about how a champ-champ affects other ranked fighters in their division.

“It stalemates the divisions of both titleholders involved, ” Anderson said. “Just look at the state of the lightweight division. You have [Islam Makhahchev], that has both of his title defenses against a men’s featherweight. Nobody in the division.

“And look at how that affected the division, Justin Gaethje was supposed to be first in line for a shot, but because he wanted and needed to stay active, he took a dangerous fight against Max Holloway and lost. Now, Gaethje cost himself a shot at the title.”

While Anderson did get her shot at the featherweight title, during most of Nunes’ time on the UFC roster, she was defending her bantamweight belt. But Nunes did make back-to-back defenses of her 145-pound title in 2020 against Felicia Spencer and then against Anderson.

When Nunes made that second defense at 145 pounds, it ruffled some bantamweight contender feathers.

“Some bantamweight fighters felt that featherweights were taking away their shot at competing for a title,” Anderson said. “And one fighter even reached out to me personally, complaining that I was ‘delaying her chance’ to challenge for the bantamweight title.”

Vera and former lightweight champion Rafael Dos Anjos both feel that while there are circumstances when it makes sense for a champion to earn a shot at another title, some champions may view it as just an opportunity to take a big fight without the risk of losing their belt.

“I think that’s a way for you to fight, get another fight and still keep your belt,” Dos Anjos told ESPN. “It’s kind of safe, right? You get another fight, you get a good payday and get a chance of getting a new belt, but if you lose, you still have your belt.”

Vera agreed that taking a fight against another champ is safer than taking on a challenger within the division.

“I believe it’s less pressure when you’re not supposed to lose,” he told ESPN. “When the guy coming from the top five is hungry [and] really trying to kill you. That guy is a scary guy.”


Which fighters could challenge for double champ status next?

According to Cormier and Anderson, there aren’t many current champions who have already done enough during their title run to be clear candidates for a chance at another title, but a few names have piqued their interest: Edwards, O’Malley, Pereira and strawweight champion Zhang Weili. We could see them in the Octagon opposite another champion if they play their cards right.

Edwards: Of all the current champs, Edwards has the longest active title run. And, as mentioned earlier, he had to go through nearly everyone at the top of the division to get a title shot. Then, to get the belt, he had to beat Usman, widely considered one of the best welterweight fighters of all time. Plus, he’s a star in the U.K. Cormier and Anderson feel that Edwards could need a couple more defenses, but he’s close.

“Edwards could be due for an opportunity soon, but there are so many great matchups that can be made for him at welterweight,” Anderson said. “Shavkat Rakhmonov has been on a tear. Belal Muhammad is still waiting for his title fight. Plus there are up-and-coming contenders like Jack Della Maddalena and Ian Garry, who could put themselves in the title picture soon.”

O’Malley: He is one of the champs who has already called his shot at another champion. After his dominant unanimous decision win over “Chito” Vera at UFC 299, he called out featherweight champion Ilia Topuria. But O’Malley has no problem issuing out challenges for opponents who could make big fights, even if that means stepping into the boxing ring. O’Malley called out WBA lightweight champion Gervonta Davis last year.

“Suga” Sean is also a star among younger MMA fans. He has over 4 million followers on Instagram. With only one title defense, his callout of Topuria was a little overzealous, but the idea wasn’t outlandish.

Zhang: Ahead of UFC 300, Zhang Weili likely was first in line to get a shot at double champ status. Then, at UFC 300, Zhang successfully defended the strawweight title against Yan Xianon in the co-main event, winning by unanimous decision — but it was a poor showing for Zhang. After that performance, it seems that winning that fight won’t be enough to justify booking her to face another champ.

“One other thing to consider is the Grasso-Shevchenko logjam that’s already taking place at the top of the flyweight division, that is the only logical division for her to challenge,” Anderson said.

Pereira: With his jaw-dropping knockout of Jamahal Hill in his light heavyweight title defense in the main event, Pereira instantly elevated himself from star to superstar status. According to Cormier, Pereira could do something that would cement his legacy in MMA.

“Pereira has the potential to be a three-division champion if he moves up to heavyweight. That’s never been done in the UFC,” Cormier said. “His power translates so well. He has natural power in his punches and leg kicks that doesn’t leave because he moves in weight.”

Pereira also expressed interest in potentially moving up to heavyweight. The only problem is that there’s also a holdup atop the heavyweight division. Jones is expected to face Miocic when he returns from injury. And Tom Aspinall has the interim heavyweight title.

One final rule — and this is nonnegotiable — interim titles don’t qualify for double champ status.

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