mma / News

Goodbye to UFC’s Flyweight Division

November 14, 2018 | Posted by Dan Plunkett
Joseph Benavidez

The UFC at the tail-end of 2011 was a different promotion from the one we know today.

In August of that year, they had announced a groundbreaking seven-year television agreement with Fox, which promised to bring the sport closer to the mainstream and the organization to another level. The promotion’s debut show on Fox was a smash hit in the ratings, even if the 64 seconds of fighting it featured fell a bit flat.

One key aspect of the agreement is that it turned the UFC into even more of a content house. At the time of the agreement, Fox was still in the planning stages of a dedicated sports network to compete with ESPN (that network, Fox Sports 1, would eventually launch on August 17, 2013), and UFC content was to be a centerpiece of the channel.

In 2011, the UFC’s deal with Spike TV saw them run six events on the channel in 2011, in addition to two preliminary card bouts before thirteen pay-per-view events. The following year, the UFC presented seventeen events on Fox, FX, or Fuel TV, plus televised prelims for almost all cards (not just pay-per-view cards anymore), now showcasing four preliminary card bouts instead of two. By 2014, the UFC’s first full year on Fox Sports 1, the promotion aired twenty-one events on Fox or Fox Sports 1, plus the prelim fights, and then another twelve events exclusive to UFC Fight Pass.

In short, by the end of 2011, the UFC was a promotion with major expansion plans (many of the additional events were overseas shows aiming to boost the UFC’s presence in those markets) and many new hours of content to fill. That meant more fighters, more fights, and necessitated more headliners.

Having already brought over featherweights and bantamweights a year earlier, and with Ronda Rousey still months away from changing the minds of UFC brass about bringing female fighters into the fold, it was time for the male flyweights (125 pounds) to shine.

Zuffa, the parent company of the UFC, had flirted with flyweight in the past. In 2009, the WEC, the UFC’s sister organization that focused on smaller weight classes, announced intentions of introducing a flyweight division, but the plans never came to fruition. But when the UFC announced plans to create a flyweight division in late 2011, they already had the two best flyweights in the world on their roster.

Joseph Benavidez and Demetrious Johnson were title contenders at bantamweight, where their skill and quickness set them apart from other fighters, but ultimately, neither had the size to reach the very top of the division. Both were better suited for flyweight, but because the UFC didn’t have the division, and there were steep financial differences between the UFC and any other company promoting flyweight bouts, they competed at bantamweight. Benavidez had fallen short against bantamweight king Dominick Cruz in 2010, while Johnson lost to Cruz in October 2011. Benavidez and Johnson became the two favorites to rule the flyweight class from the moment the UFC announced the division.

The UFC created a four-man tournament to crown the first flyweight champion. In addition to Benavidez and Johnson, they brought in Yasuhiro Urushitani, Shooto’s bantamweight (their equivalent of flyweight) champion, and Ian McCall, who was generally ranked as the best active flyweight in the world. With semi-final matches set for a UFC card in Australia, Benavidez would fight Urushitani, while the UFC matched Johnson with McCall. The winner of each fight would go on to a fight to determine the inagural UFC flyweight champion. In the event of a draw in one of the semi-final bouts, the fight would continue into an overtime round.

Benavidez dispatched Urushitani without much issue, stopping him early in the second round. But before that fight, things were more interesting—and controversial—for the other semi-final bout.

It was a close fight. The first round was tough to call, the second went Johnson’s way, and then McCall dominated the third round, finishing on top of Johnson with a flurry that brought the crowd alive and threatened to stop the fight. In the cage, the fight was announced as a majority decision for Johnson. After both fighters returned to the locker room, an adding error was found on one judge’s scorecard. It had actually been a majority draw and the fight should have gone into an overtime round. McCall would have been a big favorite to win that extra round: Johnson was depleted in the third round, which he attributed to a bad weight cut.

Had the fight gone into the overtime round, it likely would have delayed Johnson’s ascension to the flyweight throne. Instead, he met McCall in a rematch three months later and took a unanimous decision to advance to the finals.

From here, the story of the flyweight division is essentially the story of Demetrious Johnson. With the exception of Cris Cyborg in the women’s featherweight division, no single fighter has defined their division as Demetrious Johnson did at flyweight. He was the division’s first king when it hit the international stage, sat the throne for six years, and barring an unforeseen reversal of plans, his exit from the UFC coincides with the division’s disbandment.

Everyone that follows MMA is familiar with the gist of the story of Johnson’s title reign: he was the division’s best fighter by a wide margin, but the UFC could not sell him. Even more remarkably, they couldn’t sell any of his opponents. There was no Chael Sonnen-type contender at flyweight willing to talk up a title match (if there had been, they’d likely have been fast-tracked to a title shot, considering the lack of lucrative options available).

The UFC attempted to follow traditional methods to boost Johnson’s profile, and by extension, the flyweight division’s profile. His first three title defenses headlined UFC on Fox cards, back at a time when that platform was considered very valuable. The first title defense, a very good fight against John Dodson, did strong viewership numbers, but that was largely due to established star Quinton “Rampage” Jackson competing in the co-main event. Viewership for Johnson’s next title defense tied for the lowest viewership in series history.

On pay-per-view, the returns were poorer. The Wrestling Observer Newsletter estimated Johnson’s first pay-per-view main event drew only 115,000, which at that time was the worst number the UFC had drawn on pay-per-view in nine years. As his dominance continued, Johnson’s drawing power remained stagnant.

The lack of compelling contenders (both in the cage and in terms of personality) caused the UFC to base a season of The Ultimate Fighter on finding Johnson’s next opponent. It was a nice thought to promote Johnson, but the reality show’s time as a viable promotional vehicle had long since evaporated. In the season finale, Johnson bested Tim Elliott a surprisingly entertaining fight, but didn’t gain much in terms of notoriety.

According to Dana White in 2017, the UFC had been thinking about closing the flyweight division since about 2014. The reasons the UFC added the division in the first place were no longer reasons for keeping it. The promotion had plenty of fighters, having added three full women’s divisions (and four women’s titles) since introducing flyweight. Going forward, they still have main event slots to fill, but no flyweights are drawing better than bottom-level numbers. In fact, only one UFC card has been headlined by a men’s flyweight bout that didn’t involve Demetrious Johnson.

Flyweight is not a division with an established star that will draw an audience, much less a burgeoning star that promises to one day draw an audience. That is why when the UFC agreed to trade Johnson to ONE Championship in exchange for welterweight Ben Askren, it was clear the flyweight division’s days were numbered.

The UFC has dropped a division before—they abandoned the lightweight division for a few years in the mid-2000s, eventually bringing it back in 2006, when they were ramping up their content offerings and had a potential star under contract (BJ Penn, although he was competing at welterweight at the time, he would eventually return to lightweight and become the division’s first established draw in the United States). The same reasoning likely won’t cause the UFC to return to flyweight. Most likely, the only thing that could bring it back after they shutter it for good is an established major star being unable to compete at bantamweight due to size.

As it stands, it appears the last flyweight bout in UFC history will be a good one. In January, bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw will move down in weight to fight flyweight champion Henry Cejudo, the man who upset Johnson to take the belt in August. When that fight concludes, unless plans change, it will be the end of flyweights in the UFC. The lineage of the flyweight championship is short, but rich. While holding that title, Demetrious Johnson established himself as one of the very best fighters of all time, forever imprinting his legacy, and the legacy of the UFC’s flyweight division, on the sport’s history.

Dan Plunkett has covered MMA for 411Mania since 2008. You can reach him by email at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @Dan_Plunkett.

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UFC, Dan Plunkett