In a little over two weeks’ time, the UFC will present its latest card live on Fox. Not that you’d know if you were a casual fan right now, as the show has got practically no publicity thus far, mainly due to the hoopla surrounding Chris Weidman’s upset victory over Anderson Silva and the potential rematch between the two in early 2014. Chances are if you have heard any talk about the Fox show, it’ll be about the intriguing Welterweight clash between veteran contender Jake Ellenberger and young gun Rory MacDonald. But the show, which takes place in Seattle, Washington, is notable for another, less impressive reason.
The main event, which sees John Moraga challenge Demetrious Johnson for the UFC World Flyweight Title, is the first time in the post-TUF era that a fighter (discounting those migrating from StrikeForce or PRIDE) has been granted a title shot without actually appearing prior to it in a televised UFC fight. Yep, you read that right – Moraga’s two UFC wins have come in the prestigious confines of the Facebook prelims. It’s Johnson’s second title defense – his first came on a previous Fox card in January against John Dodson – but have we really reached the point where Demetrious Johnson alone can be expected to draw viewers against a literally unknown opponent? I don’t think so. Really, what we have here is a sad indicator of where the Flyweight division is right now. Let’s look at some of the other evidence.
The Flyweight (125lbs) division was instituted into the UFC after some consideration in early 2012. The first fights announced were part of a mini-tournament to decide the first champion; former Bantamweight title challengers Demetrious Johnson and Joseph Benavidez would drop down in weight to face widely-recognized top ranked Flyweight Ian McCall and perennial Japanese contender Yasuhiro Urushitani respectively, in two of the four televised bouts on the UFC on FX card from Sydney, Australia, in March 2012. The tournament would not go without a hitch, as while Benavidez lived up to his part of the bargain by knocking Urushitani out in the second round, Johnson and McCall fought to a majority draw largely due to the work of an inept athletic commission (Zuffa had arranged for both fights to go to an extra, fourth round in the event of a draw, but the commissioner mis-calculated the judges scores and the fight was mistakenly announced as a win for Johnson. When the mistake was discovered it was too late) meaning the title fight would have to be delayed. Eventually, Johnson defeated McCall via decision in a rematch three months later, and then won the title with a razor-close split decision win over Benavidez three months after that. Since that time, the UFC has televised just three Flyweight fights on the main card of 25 shows. Those fights were a #1 Contender’s match between John Dodson and Jussier Formiga on UFC on FX 5, Johnson’s title match with Dodson on UFC on Fox 6, and a match between Joseph Benavidez and Ian McCall on UFC 156. Two more televised fights are coming up – Johnson’s title defense against Moraga and a fight on UFC 163 between John Lineker and Phil Harris, but on that same card Ian McCall is buried down on the Facebook prelims against Ilarde Santos.
Right now the UFC website lists just 14 fighters on their roster for the Flyweight division, one of whom (Santos) has yet to fight at that weight inside the UFC. Two fighters in the division – Yasuhiro Urushitani and Jared Papazian – were actually cut from the roster despite the list of fighters being so small. Meanwhile, outside the UFC, there are a large number of free agents just waiting for a shot at the big time. Names like Darrell Montague, Dustin Ortiz, Sergio Pettis, Joshua Sampo, Alexis Vila, Will Campuzano, Jose Maria Tome and Dileno Lopes immediately come to mind, while there are probably countless numbers of talented fighters at the weight fighting in Japan and Brazil right now. Compare this to the Women’s Bantamweight division, which was only instituted five months ago, and already has 13 fighters listed and has seen three main card bouts already with another two coming in the near future. You can also look back at the institution of the Featherweight and Bantamweight divisions, and how the UFC almost immediately began to push the top fighters at those weight classes into televised bouts – 2011 (the year the weight classes were introduced to the UFC) saw 21 televised bouts in either the 135lbs or 145lbs division. So it begs the question – why has the Flyweight division been treated so differently?
Well, the first thing worth mentioning is that the three divisions you can compare it to – Women’s Bantamweight, Bantamweight and Featherweight – practically came to the UFC fully-formed, as those divisions had been key parts of StrikeForce and WEC, two promotions that had well-established followings before being folded into the UFC. This meant that it was more a case of introducing already semi-well known fighters such as Urijah Faber, Miguel Torres, Dominick Cruz, Ronda Rousey and Miesha Tate to the UFC audience rather than having to build the division from the bottom up. For example, when Faber debuted in the Octagon it was treated like any major signing from outside the UFC would be – he was featured in a PPV semi-main event and was on the event poster. Even if casual fans who hadn’t followed the WEC hadn’t heard of him, a certain amount of fans would’ve been familiar with him and so that was enough. If the UFC were to sign Darrell Montague, a fighter who hovers around the top five/ten of the 125lbs division, there’s no way they’d risk a similar promotional debut as literally nobody outside of hardcore fans knows who he is. Sure, a similarly positioned fighter in Jussier Formiga did debut in a televised bout, but the hype coming in centered around his opponent, TUF winner John Dodson, and neither man made the event poster (somehow Justin Edwards and Josh Neer featured instead!).
The StrikeForce merger may also be more responsible than you might think for the lack of Flyweight signings. Right now it’s a well-known fact that the UFC has a bloated roster, as evidenced by the amount of cuts that seem to be coming after each show. To date, since StrikeForce announced the closing of its doors, we’ve seen 44 fighters cross over with a further five having future fights and a couple more probably due to debut too. Throw in two lots of TUF casts (all of TUF 17’s fighters were given an opportunity in the UFC with more than half still on the roster; TUF Brazil 2’s cast are still debuting) and a handful of signed prospects and last-minute replacements, and the roster is definitely jam-packed, even taking into account the amount of shows they’re running these days. The thing is though – and don’t get me wrong here, I never like to see fighters lose their jobs – while I can understand Zuffa signing hot prospects like Brandon Thatch and Robert Drysdale, and I can even see why they’d keep prospects from TUF such as Santiago Ponzinibbio, Luiz Dutra Jr. and Tor Troeng, why are the likes of Lance Benoist (1-2 UFC), Nick Catone (3-4 UFC) and Jeremy Larsen (0-2 UFC) still on the roster, particularly in bloated divisions like 170lbs and 155lbs, while a potential contender like Darrell Montague sits waiting on the outside? It just doesn’t make sense to me.
Again, with the lack of televised bouts, a lot can be said for the StrikeForce merger being responsible. The merger has seen big name fighters who the UFC fanbase has been clamouring to see inside the Octagon for years finally make their debuts – men like Gegard Mousasi, Gilbert Melendez, Daniel Cormier and Ronaldo Souza – while great fighters who were formerly part of the UFC (Josh Thomson, Robbie Lawler, et al) have returned from long periods away. So naturally, those fights have been put onto the televised portion of the shows they’ve been on. However, this hasn’t affected the Women’s division, where you could argue that only Ronda Rousey (and perhaps Miesha Tate) was a “star” upon crossing over. Alexis Davis, Cat Zingano, Sara McMann and (upcoming) Liz Carmouche and Sarah Kaufman have all been given what you’d call feature bouts on cards, while Julie Kedzie and Amanda Nunes are on featured prelims on upcoming shows. Most strikingly, there hasn’t been a Women’s bout on the Facebook prelims to date. So why is this, when the Flyweight division struggles to even get a televised bout for one of its top stars in Ian McCall?
I think it comes down, unfortunately, to the quality of the champion. Ronda Rousey is a bonafide star – you seemingly can’t go to an MMA website these days without finding some sort of article about her, and without a previous UFC fight she managed to draw a very impressive number of PPV buys for UFC 157. Her fighting style is both unique and exciting and she hasn’t delivered a dull fight to date, and of course she has both the looks and personality to back everything up, having become one of the most quotable MMA fighters around these days since she burst onto the scene.
Demetrious Johnson, meanwhile? Don’t take this as me fighter bashing, but let’s be fair, he’s hardly the most marketable champion. His fights aren’t what you’d call dull as such, but the facts speak for themselves – in both his WEC and UFC runs the only man he’s finished was Damacio Page, and that was after a nasty groin strike left Page wide open and probably unfit to continue fighting. Now, as a huge fan of both GSP and Benson Henderson, I’m not one of those fans that absolutely abhors decisions and believes that only finishing an opponent matters. But while GSP and Bendo for the most part thoroughly dominate their opponents en route to victory, Mighty Mouse just doesn’t. In fact in both of his title bouts, the opponent – firstly Benavidez and then Dodson – has come much closer to finishing the fight than he has. Benavidez in particular you could argue did enough to win that decision, especially if you discount the hugely biased commentary from Joe Rogan that night. As for personality, well, I’ll be frank and say I can’t even remember the last time I heard an interview from Johnson, let alone some inflammatory trash-talk. Not that trash-talk is for everyone, but it’d be nice to hear him build a fight from time to time.
Which brings me back to where I began – John Moraga, the star of the Facebook prelims. What sort of chance does he have against the stifling game of Mighty Mouse? In all honesty, who knows? We know he has knockout power, as evidenced by his crushing win over Ulysses Gomez back in August 2012. We know he can stuff some takedowns as he did against Chris Cariaso at UFC 155 and we know he has a guillotine choke in his arsenal. And that’s about it, really. He hasn’t shown much personality or anything of the sort but I mean, he hasn’t really been given a chance given he’s been stuck on Facebook. But even so, I’ll go out on a limb and say it. The best possible thing to happen to the Flyweight division on July 27th would be for Moraga to upset the odds and capture the title. Why? Because even if he turns out to be a totally wooden, unmarketable guy, it opens up potential fights with Johnson’s victims Ian McCall, Joseph Benavidez and John Dodson – three men who ARE undoubtedly marketable and absolutely full of charisma. If Moraga wins then I’d fully expect those three to be given feature bouts in order to build to a possible title fight, in the same vein that we’ve seen Alexis Davis, Sara McMann and Cat Zingano given fights to build them up for a challenge against Rousey. And if one of those three (or even a contender such as Louis Gaudinot or John Lineker) were able to win the title then the sky may be the limit for the division.
In short, it is my opinion that in order for the Flyweight division to properly progress – barring a total personality or fight style change – Demetrious Johnson must lose. If I’m Darrell Montague or Will Campuzano or Joshua Sampo, my fingers are crossed that on July 27th, he does.
Until next time, it’s been emotional.
Scott Newman: NewmanMMA@gmail.com