Paul Craig is very comfortable at middleweight, but he hasn’t fully shut the door on 205 pounds just yet.
On Saturday night, Craig made his middleweight debut, stopping Andre Muniz in the second round at UFC London. The victory stopped a two-fight losing streak for “Bearjew” and turned him into an immediate contender at 185 pounds, and according to Craig, the move down to middleweight was a long time coming.
“As a light heavyweight, we’ve always been, ‘Can we make middleweight? Is it something that’s achievable?’” Craig said Monday on The MMA Hour. “What we did was, we did the tests. We made sure it was possible to slim all the way down, and it worked. It’s been some adventure the last six months of my career, going from getting knocked out to rebuilding myself back up, to now becoming in the mix again at not only light heavyweight but middleweight now.”
A UFC fighter since 2016, Craig has spent the entirety of his career competing at 205 pounds, to mixed results. Though he currently has wins over several fighters in the UFC’s top 15 at light heavyweight — former champion Jamahal Hill and former title challenger Magomed Ankalaev among them — Craig also has a number of tough losses, including a first-round knockout loss to Johnny Walker in January that Craig says precipitated his move down.
“We went to the [UFC] P.I., because when I was across the octagon from Johnny Walker, I looked at him and was like, ‘Whoa, he’s a specimen, isn’t he?’” Craig said. “He’s a freak of nature. He’s an outlier in the division, because he’s really, really, tall, really athletic, and he hits like a train. So we had to reassess where we fitted in the division, light heavyweight, and one of the things we said was let’s see if it’s feasible to do middleweight. We went to the P.I., the guys ran all the tests — what they found was yes, we can make middleweight, and it’s going to be safe.”
Craig said after consulting with the UFC Performance Institute, he and his team did a test cut down to middleweight. Once that went well, it was all systems go for the drop down. And after working with the UFC P.I. and making the weight, Craig revealed there was an unexpected bonus to his new approach: He actually ended up even bigger than when he competed at 205 pounds.
“I was really, really skinny,” Craig said. “My cheekbones, you could have grated cheese on those things, but then a few hours later, it’s amazing what the body can do. Just after a couple of liters of water, following scientific basis through the support of the P.I. ... from that, we were a different animal come Saturday night, and we bounced back further than we did as a light heavyweight. Once we made the weight, I think we were 84.5 kg [186 pounds] on Friday morning, at the time of the fight we were 97 kg [213 pounds]. That’s heavier than what I was fighting Johnny Walker. I think I was 95kg [209 pounds] as a bounce back then. So you can see the benefits of doing it.
“It’s probably not the best thing to be doing at the age of 35, but you can understand why athletes do it, why guys make these huge cuts, because it’s a huge advantage, and it showed on Saturday.”
But despite the fact that he had a good weight cut down and looked as good as he ever has at the new weight class, Craig insists he’s not going to write off light heavyweight just yet.
“Although the great success was 185, I’ve still got victories over Jamahal Hill and Ankalaev, [Nikita] Krylov as well,” Craig said. “Some really, really tough names in that division. I can still hang with these guys. What was massive in this fight here was not only was it moving to 185, that played in a positive for me, but it was also the fact that I’ve now got a coach who is a phenom at striking. So he’s passed on this knowledge to me, and that was the reason why Paul was a much better version of himself. Paul can actually strike now. He looks a little bit more confident after six months of working with James [Doolan], so six months later, what’s he going to be like? What’s his skillset going to be like for striking and takedowns?
“The reason the takedowns were so effective against Andre Muniz was because I was able to set it up with strikes, rather than take a shot, a blind shot. That’s why I think 205 is still not done, because if I can do that at 185 with six months of coaching with James Doolan, what can we do with a year coaching with James Doolan, two years coaching with James Doolan?”
And so for the time being, Craig plans on being a dual-threat fighter for the UFC. Following his win over Muniz, Craig will likely end up ranked at 185 pounds, and he is still currently No. 9 in the promotions light heavyweight rankings, meaning there are no shortage of possible fights for him moving forward.
Craig is open to bouts in either division, so long as they fulfill his one criteria.
“It depends on the UFC,” Craig said. “If the UFC comes to me and says, ‘Paul, we’ve got a really nice fight for you at 205,’ and when I say a really nice fight, I don’t care about, ‘We’ve got an easy fight for you.’ That’s not what I’m about. I’m not interested in having easy fights. What I’m interested in is having fearful fights, fights that make you wake up at night and question if you’ve done enough. They’re the fights I want.”