With WME-IMG cutting costs and making curious roster moves, Mookie Alexander asks if the UFC’s flyweight division is in jeopardy.
(Note: This article has been promoted back to the front page for June 10th, 2017, in light of some recent comments made by Dana White about the UFC considering closing down the flyweight division for three years.)
It’s been five years since the UFC debuted the flyweight division, which has been ruled by Demetrious Johnson from the day he won the four-man tournament final over Joseph Benavidez. Two more wins for Mighty Mouse will earn him the all-time record for most successful UFC title defenses and further cement his status as one of the greatest fighters in the sport’s history.
And yet, as is often noted, fan interest remains minimal. Johnson has repeatedly flopped on pay-per-view, and his recent win over Tim Elliott headlined a TUF Finale in front of 2,000 or so fans at the Palms Resort and Casino in Las Vegas, Nevada. It’s been easy to fixate on DJ’s popularity woes, but that particular talking point is part of a bigger picture issues for the whole of the division.
Pop quiz! How many flyweights are on the UFC roster right now? Surely there must be at least 30 signed to contracts, right? Well you’d be incorrect.
According to Zane Simon’s handy roster table, there are a grand total of 26 flyweights in the UFC (as of February 16th, 2017).
The only divisions with fewer fighters in the UFC are women’s bantamweight (23) and obviously women’s featherweight (3). Women’s strawweight has 34 fighters even though that division is less than three years old.
As for flyweight, expect to see that number lowered when you consider the following:
—Neil Seery’s next fight will be his last one.
—Ian McCall has repeatedly stated in interviews that he’s going to retire if he suffers another injury.
—John Moraga has lost three straight fights, so his position on the roster is tenuous at best.
—Kyoji Horiguchi is now a free agent, after “he’d received an offer and not found it acceptable.”
So you have two impending retirements, one fighter who will most likely be cut after piling up a series of losses, and one young, recent title challenger whom the UFC has decided is not worth the painstaking effort to offer up a better contract. The UFC is just a few weeks removed from dumping Ali Bagautinov and Zach Makovsky, both of whom were ranked fighters, but it’s not as if that holds any great deal of importance at 125. Very soon, if you’re #15 in the UFC’s official flyweight rankings, it’ll actually mean you’re literally the lowest-ranked fighter in the division.
It’s not just the paucity of talent that’s plaguing 125; the fighters aren’t even getting main events. Here’s the complete list of non-title flyweight bouts to headline UFC shows:
Demetrious Johnson vs. Ian McCall 2 (UFC on FX 3, June 2012)
Louis Smolka vs. Paddy Holohan (UFC Dublin, October 2015)
End of list. Did you think it would be that short? (Yeah, #phrasing)
Johnson vs. McCall 2 should’ve never happened in the first place, but a total failure by the local Athletic Commission in Sydney, Australia to accurately perform basic arithmetic meant that we were robbed of a sudden victory 4th round, and the rematch had to be made.
As for Smolka vs. Holohan, that fight wasn’t even the co-main event of the Dublin card, but due to the cancellation of the co-main between Stipe Miocic and Ben Rothwell, followed by the fight week scrapping of the main event between Dustin Poirier and Joseph Duffy, Smolka vs. Holohan was promoted to headliner status.
Both of these fights were three-rounders, DJ/McCall 2 by default as it was a tournament semifinal, while Smolka/Holohan was on such short notice that bumping it up to five rounds would’ve been unreasonable and impractical. If you’re so minded to believe these bouts being main events were due to extraordinary circumstances, the UFC has never staged a five-round non-title fight between two flyweights.
I did, admittedly, have a glimmer of hope when they created a 16-man tournament for TUF 24, with the winner — of course it had to be Tim Elliott, who’d already been cut by the UFC once before — getting a title shot against Mighty Mouse. Sixteen regional MMA flyweight champions all under one roof sounded like the perfect plan to significantly deepen the division’s depth at a relatively low cost. Only Elliott, Alexandre Pantoja, Eric Shelton, Matt Schnell, and Brandon Moreno were signed to UFC contracts, which is roughly just one-third of the entire TUF 24 cast. For the record, all of the TUF 20 strawweights received at least one UFC fight after the show was over.
The new owners are busy restructuring the UFC as they see fit, and evidently paring down the roster has extended to more established weight classes such as light heavyweight, but they’re also not the ones at fault for the mess that is flyweight. The fighters are unquestionably skilled, but they don’t sell, and through the years, there’s been very little evidence that the UFC is willing to promote them.
Having a 125 lbs weight class has benefited the likes of Mighty Mouse, Joseph Benavidez, and other former 135ers, but do these fighters financially benefit the UFC? That’s a question that’s surely on the mind of WME-IMG.
If you have a supremely dominant but unpopular champion, a lack of suitable title challengers, few fighters on the roster with more departures than additions, prospects who are rushed towards the front of the line due to a lack of depth, no “gatekeepers” to speak of, non-title challengers who aren’t considered good enough to headline even a throwaway UFC Fight Pass show, you cannot conceivably entertain the idea that flyweight is a healthy division. It’s intellectually dishonest to paint the state of flyweight in a positive light.
This doesn’t have to happen this year, or next year, but with the heavily emphasized mantra of “cut costs, maximize profits,” there’s a distinct possibility that the UFC will eliminate 125 altogether. From a business standpoint, their closest rivals are not likely to take advantage. Bellator MMA not only doesn’t have a flyweight division, but they instead have women’s flyweights. They have a scarcity of men’s bantamweights, so it’s not as if they’re any better at promoting the lighter weight divisions.
Johnson has stated that he wants to surpass Anderson Silva’s title defense record, and while he’s never committed to moving back to 135 for a superfight, it’s an option he’s exploring if the money is right (and it probably won’t be). Given the state of flyweight right now, returning to bantamweight may soon be the only option for him to continue fighting in the UFC.