UFC’s weekend sent mixed messages regarding the future of the flyweight division.
While the company has not officially announced dropping the weight class, fighters have been cut from the division and told that was the reason. When asked, Dana White has certainly not denied the story, nor given any kind of supportive speech about how the story is made up and they are behind the division.
Yet, at the same time, the UFC debuted Kai Kara-France on Saturday, who came across like a potential star, particularly for the Australia/New Zealand market. On Friday, Joseph Benavidez, the No. 2 fighter in the division’s history behind Demetrious Johnson, scored a win, it looked like twice over Alex Perez, and then asked UFC not to abandon the division. He then asked for a title shot against the winner of the Jan. 26 fight between champion Henry Cejudo, defending the flyweight title against TJ Dillashaw.
There are solid arguments in both directions. From a sports standpoint, the more weight classes the better. From a simplicity and entertainment standpoint, the fewer championships, the more each championship means. But we may be long past that being an issue in an era where championships have already lost value from when the UFC shot to prominence with five weight divisions. And the reality is, not only are we now going back to that, the sport has evolved long past the point where we should.
The flyweights have never drawn big, even with a champion in Demetrious Johnson who was readily talked about for years as perhaps the best pound-for-pound fighter in the sport. Johnson was probably the most technically proficient all-around competitor in the history of the sport, but that didn’t make him a huge star to the general public. One can say the UFC didn’t promote Johnson well, but they gave him several FOX main events before the widest audience for him to showcase his talents, he was in a television commercial, and while White’s proclaiming guys as pound-for-pound best changes often, once Anderson Silva fell from his peak and Jon Jones fell into trouble, he pushed Johnson in that position more than anyone. The reality is that some people aren’t pay-per-view draws no matter how good they are.
At the same time, they often positioned major fights in the division in the prelims. Benavidez, the No. 3 ranked contender, was in the prelims on Friday rather than the main card, and aside from the Kamaru Usman vs. Rafael dos Anjos main event, there was nobody else on the show in the current championship picture. You would never see the No. 3 guy in a major division, who has a win over the current champion and who has coached TUF, in the prelims of what wasn’t even a strong show, and his fight wasn’t even the main match on the prelims.
The flyweight division has far more depth than the women’s flyweight division, which the company just started, let alone the featherweight division which doesn’t even have rankings and is champion, Cris Cyborg, thus far has only defended her title against bantamweights who are greatly outsized. Cyborg, however, has proven to be a drawing card, and there’s your answer. And perhaps women’s flyweight can capture the public’s interest with the Valentina Shevchenko vs. Joanna Jedrzejczyk title match, but up to this point the division hasn’t done so.
The timing is notable because Cejudo vs. Johnson II would have been the division’s biggest fight in its history. But UFC led Johnson go to ONE, the first time they’ve let a true all-time great walk away while still in his prime.
Benavidez was successful as a bantamweight, even getting a title shot at Dominick Cruz at one point. John Lineker and John Dodson have moved up from flyweight and done well. But most will be undersized, as a 10-pound differential means more with smaller weight classes.
But the decision certainly appears to have been made, based on the recent cuts, and can’t be announced because, for whatever reason, the decision was made to make Dillashaw vs. Cejudo a flyweight title fight rather than a bantamweight title fight. If Cejudo wins and the division is dropped, Cejudo ends up with no belt and the bantamweight contenders like Marlon Moraes, Dominick Cruz and Lineker end up in a holding pattern, while deserving flyweights like Benavidez and Jussier Formiga have to rebuild their careers while giving up significant size in most cases. And at the same time, they are still booking other flyweight fights.
But while the flyweights battle to avoid extinction, the last few two weeks of UFC have been headlined by the heavyweights. After some key fights in that division, let’s look at how Fortunes Changed for Five this past weekend.
JUNIOR DOS SANTOS – The former champion (20-5) stopped Tai Tuivasa to complete five fights in a row on the main card in Adelaide, Australia where the crowd favorite went down.
Dos Santos immediately called for Alistair Overeem (44-17), a rematch of a 2015 fight that Dos Santos was knocked out in. Dos Santos has only lost to the best in the business in his UFC run – Overeem, Stipe Miocic and Cain Velasquez twice.
With the heavyweight title in question given Daniel Cormier has been saying he would retire in March, Dos Santos is one of the names that should be figured into the title picture. Trying to avenge the loss to Miocic (18-3) and do a trilogy fight would seem to be an even better decision since a win over Miocic put greatly up Dos Santos’ odds of a title fight. If Cormier vacates the title, it’s also probably better to do a four-man tournament rather than one fight, and Dos Santos, Miocic, Francis Ngannou (12-3) and either Overeem or Cain Velasquez would be key names under consideration if that’s the route they decide to go in.
TAI TUIVASA – Tuivasa (8-1) suffered his first loss in a fight he had much success in early. Tuivasa has shown to be a charismatic fighter who usually has fan friendly performances. It’s almost a perfect match-up to face Derrick Lewis (21-6) next. Another good test that would give Tuivasa a shot to be back in the title mix would be facing Curtis Blaydes (10-2).
MAURICIO “SHOGUN” RUA – Rua (26-11), with 16 years in the sport, most of that time being highly ranked, has had his durability questioned with a number of losses in recent years. However, in his win over Tyson Pedro (7-3), Rua survived and recovered from a knee and uppercut combination that looked devastating. A good fight for the UFC to make next would be with Dominick Reyes (10-0). For Reyes, it’s a win over a major name that will put the biggest spotlight on him to this point.
Another direction would be to face the winner next week’s Jimi Manuwa (17-4) vs. Thiago Santos (19-6) fight.
JOSEPH BENAVIDEZ – Given that Benavidez has a decision win over the flyweight champion, Cejudo (13-2), and his last title shot was five years ago and he’s won seven of eight since, he seems more than deserving of a title shot. His lone loss was a close split decision to Sergio Pettis, who has since lost to Jussier Formiga, who Benavidez has a win over. If there is a flyweight division in 2019, he deserves the next shot at the Cejudo vs Dillashaw winner.
Benavidez will fight Deiveson Figueiredo (15-0) on Jan. 26 in a flyweight fight, which is yet another of UFC’s mixed messages on the division.
KAMARU USMAN- After a dominant win over Rafael dos Anjos, Usman (14-1), with nine straight UFC wins and 13 overall, is deserving of a welterweight title shot.
It really comes down to a decision between Usman and Colby Covington (14-1). Both have similar elite wins, decision wins over dos Anjos and Demian Maia. There is no wrong decision, but Covington’s status as an interim title holder may give him the edge. If that’s the case, Usman should face Stephen “Wonderboy” Thompson (14-3-1) for the next title shot.