A division hangs in the balance

June 06, 2019

The UFC’s flyweight division was dominated by a single name for years: Demerious Johnson.

Johnson became the UFC’s first 125-pound champion when he took a split decision victory over Joseph Benavidez. That was at UFC 152, in September 2012. He would hold the belt for 2,142 days. And he successfully defended his title 11 times.

Then came UFC 227 and Johnson’s rematch with Henry Cejudo.

It had taken Johnson less than three minutes to score a TKO over Cejudo in their first meeting, and he entered the Octagon as a heavy favorite. But Cejudo had improved over the two-year gap between fights. The two battled for five rounds before he managed to score a split decision upset victory to become only the second champion in the division’s history.

Cejudo is a fine division representative in his own right. The 32-year-old is a former Olympic freestyle wrestling gold medalist. And he has developed a dangerous striking game to round out his wrestling bona fides.

He’s also charismatic and can sell a fight. He’s also already defended the belt once, defeating then bantamweight champion TJ Dillashaw. That came after Dillashaw attempted to move down in weight and become a Conor McGregor-esque “champ champ.”

Cejudo (14-2) is now set for his own “champ champ” bid this Saturday. That’s when he faces Marlon Moraes (22-5-1) for the vacant bantamweight championship at UFC 238 in Chicago.

And this is the point where I tell you the UFC is considering closing the flyweight division entirely. It’s a story MMA fans have been hearing since arguably the greatest fighter in the world dominated the division for six years.

About that flyweight extinction

For much of the UFC’s history, flyweights have been consigned to the undercard. Even as Demetrious Johnson was establishing himself as the top pound-for-pound fighter in the world, his fights weren’t always main events.

Johnson picked up an early reputation as a “boring” fighter. Something that dogged him during his entire run in the UFC. For years, it seemed every Johnson fight week involved discussions about his “marketability” or his ability to sell a fight.

“It’s only the fans and uneducated fools out there that say, ‘Oh, you’re boring,’” Johnson said in 2015. “You can say so, but you just don’t understand what I’m doing. There’s a process going on with the technique I bring to the table.”

Once a fighter gains a label like “boring” in MMA it’s hard to shake. Fans and other fighters tend to latch on to it at the expense of reality.

Following a 2015 knockout win over Joby Sanchez, flyweight Geane Herrera said, “The man has earned his spot numerous times. All respect to him, but he’s very boring. He doesn’t generate that interest in people. Like I always say, it doesn’t matter how great of a fighter you are if nobody knows who you are or wants to watch you fight.”

That win was Herrera’s only win in the Octagon and he has not fought in the UFC since 2016, leaving with a 1-3 record.

Which goes to show a focus on “interest” isn’t always a focus on success.

Johnson, though?

Somehow it was getting overlooked that he scored two knockouts and five submissions across twelve title fights, before his loss to Cejudo.

A division dominated by a man carrying the “boring” label, is a division executives will struggle to love. And Johnson would eventually end up in a power struggle with UFC President Dana White.

This feud eventually led to a 2017 demand that Johnson fight Ray Borg. That was despite the champ feeling he had better options, and claiming that “UFC has failed to market and promote me appropriately.”

Johnson would also drop the bombshell the UFC president had threatened to simply do away with the entire flyweight division.

Borg, in response to the situation, played a familiar tune.

“The UFC is claiming they want to close the division because it doesn’t sell?” Borg said. “We haven’t had a chance to sell. D.J. has been the only face, and that’s why it hasn’t sold. He’s kind of held it back a little — and that’s not his fault. He’s a great fighter, but unfortunately he’s not what the fans are about right now. They’re bored.”

Johnson would face Borg in his next fight, scoring one of the most iconic and impressive submissions in UFC history at UFC 216 in October 2017.

Score one for the boring guy.

And now…

Johnson would drop the strap to Cejudo in his next fight and promptly be “traded” to Asian MMA promotion ONE Championship.

With the flyweight GOAT gone and Cejudo aiming for a fight with then bantamweight king  Dillashaw (which would happen, just at flyweight), reports surfaced the UFC would be eliminating the flyweight division by the end of 2018.

Cejudo is now battling for bantamweight gold against Moraes. It certainly feels as though a win there gives the champ new gold, and a potential reason to let the 125-pound title go. The division could go with it.

Several flyweights have already been jettisoned from the UFC roster. Others have been informed they should now consider themselves bantamweights.

With one significant exception.

Longtime UFC veteran Joseph Benavidez has been told his fight against Jussier Formiga later this month is a number one contender fight for the flyweight division. If the UFC is prepping the next challenger for Cejudo’s 125-pound gold, maybe there’s some hope left for the little guys.

Some hope, but not a lot.

“I know some other guys that were just called and were like ‘hey, you’re a ’35-pounder now,’” Benavidez admitted in an interview with MMAjunkie. “And they were just so happy to not get cut that they were just like ‘OK, I’ll do it,’ so that’s what it looks like. It’s clear as day, like, everything is getting dissolved, but it’s not over until it’s over. I’m sure everything is almost dead until it’s not. We’re doing everything we can to revive it but it definitely doesn’t look good.”


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