I don’t want your money. You’re a moron, you don’t like fighting and you don’t appreciate great talent or heart if you didn’t like that flyweight fight. – UFC President Dana White
UFC’s men’s flyweight division may be facing its swan song this weekend. If TJ Dillashaw takes out new champ Henry Cejudo in Brooklyn, that is likely it for UFC’s 125-pound men. With Dillashaw already talking about challenging at 145 pounds and looking for big fights in the near future, it’s hard to see him continuing at the lighter weight and defending that title against the depleting list of ho-hum contenders. A GSP style win-and-vacate does the division no favors either.
UFC’s flyweight division was launched in 2012 with promises of increased speed and action to UFC cards. UFC had seen mild success introducing 135 and 145 divisions over the prior year. Featherweight champ Jose Aldo quickly established himself as an unstoppable force while bantamweight champion Dominick Cruz’s reign provided the perfect opportunity for a pay-per-view main event with popular star Urijah Faber. UFC 132 headlined by Cruz and Faber did about 350,000 buys, a number that would be considered an unqualified hit if it were to happen today.
Opening a 125-pound division would create an opportunity for some undersized bantamweights to shine in a weight class where they can be more competitive. Most notable in this category was Demetrious “Mighty Mouse” Johnson, who lost to Cruz by decision on a TV card in October 2011.
Johnson was a very good bantamweight but was clearly no match for Cruz, who had five inches in height and two inches in reach on Johnson. Johnson was soon selected along with Ian McCall, Yasuhiro Urushitani, and another of Cruz’s victims, Joseph Benavidez for a four-man tournament to crown UFC’s first flyweight champion. At the time, Benavidez may have been an even more promising contender than Johnson, with his only two losses coming to Cruz including an August 2010 WEC bantamweight title match.
The first two fights were held at a televised card from Sydney, Australia. It wasn’t exactly a blockbuster card, but both fights were part of the four-fight main card on a Friday night. Benavidez made easy work of Urushitani, while Johnson was announced to win a split-decision over McCall. It was soon learned, however, that there was an error in tabulating the scorecards and the fight was actually a draw. Had the scorecards been tabulated correctly when the fight ended, a fourth, sudden death round would have taken place. Instead, a rematch was booked for the following June. The mistake may have been a blessing in disguise for Johnson, who was mounted and being pounded on by McCall in the dying moments of the original fight. Johnson went on to win the rematch in a TV main event that garnered over one million viewers. The added spotlight seemed to have helped establish the new division.
With the finals set between Benavidez and Johnson, UFC opted to not hedge their bets and put them on the biggest stage they could, a pay-per-view main event. UFC 152: Benavidez vs. Johnson was booked for Sept. 22, 2012, from Toronto. Toronto seemed like a good fit for such a fight. Canadian fans were known to be avid, knowledgable and perhaps more forgiving than other audiences.
UFC made sure to lend support to Benavidez and Johnson, who had no track record on pay-per-view, with key fights between Rory MacDonald and BJ Penn, as well as Michael Bisping and Brian Stann. The Penn-MacDonald fight would have been the “real” main event, the fight that would be most likely to sell tickets and pay-per-views while Benavidez and Johnson would get top billing and thus get all of the praise or blame if the show succeeded or failed.
Bisping being Bisping
Bisping wasn’t keen on this arrangement. He didn’t feel that the “little flyweights” were worthy of a pay-per-view main event slot.
“In my opinion, and I think in most people’s, [Bisping vs. Stann] is the main event,” Bisping said during an appearance on Fuel TV. “This is the real main event. Two big hard hitting guys. No one cares about little flyweights, this is the real main event, this is the real big fight, tune in cause someone’s getting knocked out, ain’t going to be me though.”
This comment caused a bit of tension between Bisping and Benavidez. During a ticket on-sale press conference in Toronto, Benavidez did his best to deflect a question about Bisping’s comments and wrote it off as Bisping being Bisping.
“It’s Michael Bisping. Everyone pretty much expects something ridiculous to come out of his mouth,” Benavidez said at the press conference. To that, Bisping was quick to reply.
“Sorry, did you just say something? No one cares about the flyweights.”
With that, the stage was set, tickets went on sale for an event headlined by people that one of UFC’s biggest names said over and over again that no one cared about.
Ticket sales actually did OK and were only helped by the cancellation of UFC 151. The scheduled Jon Jones title defense against Dan Henderson was canceled and Jones was rebooked for UFC 152. First announced as against Lyoto Machida, then finally against Vitor Belfort. UFC 152 now had a “real” main event. Benavidez and Johnson were briskly pushed back to the co-main slot, which also meant that the pressure was off to draw on pay-per-view.
When fight night came, all of the attention was on Jones and Belfort. The Penn-MacDonald fight fell apart some time ago and the Bisping-Stann hype was a little flat because, for once, Bisping actually had respect for his opponent.
It was a healthy crowd of nearly 17,000 at the Air Canada Centre, and this writer was in the nosebleeds attending his first live UFC event. Canadian favorites such as Mitch Gagnon and Sean Pierson received strong reactions on the undercard. Cub Swanson opened up the pay-per-view main card in style with a vicious knockout of Charles Oliveira. Bisping and Stann had a decent, closely fought fight that Bisping won via decision.
Then it was time for the first of two championship fights on the card. Benavidez and Johnson took to the cage. The fight was competitive but underwhelming. The speed that was promised to come with flyweights was there, but it didn’t translate into excitement. It didn’t take long after the fight started for the typically forgiving Toronto fans to turn on the fight and the weight class. The chants could be heard loud and clear.
“F-ck this weight class.”
As if specifically instructed so by Michael Bisping, fans in the arena that night turned on, not a specific fight or fighter, but on an entire weight class. Ticket buying fans were protesting a number on a scale and anyone who dared to achieve it. It seemed that UFC fans had reached a low-end weight limit for what they were willing to accept, and it was exactly 135 pounds.
Johnson took the fight in a split decision. Our own Jamie Penick wasn’t thrilled with the fight or Johnson’s performance, writing “Johnson is going to be considered in the same vein as Dominick Cruz at 135 lbs., as a Champion who is good at avoiding what his opponents throw at him, but doesn’t do much damage of his own…It just wasn’t much fun to watch, and it’s not going to help the division draw going forward.”
‘Don’t ever buy another one’
So as quickly as the division was launched it had died. Fans and press alike were in agreement. UFC president Dana White though saw things differently. As he often does when faced with criticism of his product, White was quick to lash back at those who didn’t appreciate Benavidez vs. Johnson.
“Let me tell you what: If you didn’t like that flyweight fight, please, I’m begging you, don’t ever buy another UFC pay-per-view again. Don’t ever buy another one,” White said at the post-fight press conference.
They didn’t. While UFC 152 did about 450,000 buys on pay-per-view, almost entirely for the Jones-Belfort fight, future flyweight championship fights that headlined pay-per-views barely broke 100,000. White asked fans to stay away if they didn’t like the flyweights, and they listened.
NEXT: TJ DILLASHAW WANTS TO BE GREATEST OF ALL TIME, TYRON WOODLEY LOOKING TO MOVE UP TO MIDDLEWEIGHT
From bungled judges decisions to poor card placement, to lack of support from other fighters, and finally to name-calling towards fans who disliked a fight – UFC’s flyweight division didn’t stand a chance.
The flyweights might stick around after Cejudo vs. Dillashaw. Maybe one day they’ll even prosper. Most likely the division will slowly fade away one star at at time.