Is the flyweight division cursed?
Jordan Breen looks at the UFC’s 125 lb weight classes on both the men’s and women’s side, and their troubled histories.
UFC 238 was a spark for the flyweight division on both sides of the coin, men and women alike. Flyweight king Henry Cejudo became a simultaneous, two-division champion with a gutsy performance against Marlon Moraes—overcoming an early beating to stop the Brazilian in the third round. Meanwhile, flyweight queen Valentina Shevchenko tuned up maybe the most vicious knockout in high-level women’s MMA since Hisae Watanabe cranked Satoko Shinashi, head kicking Jessica Eye out cold in devastating fashion. Yet, why did I have to call it a “spark”? Why did it almost feel fulfilling when UFC big boss Dana White, an inveterate carnival barker, came out after the event and tried to assure us the men’s flyweight division wasn’t being erased?
Essentially, why is the flyweight division, for both men and women, seemingly cursed?
Even though Dana White affirmed that the men’s flyweight division was still going to be a part of the promotion, it’s awkward—as the promotion has pared the weightclass down to a dozen fighters over the last several months. It’s also hard to believe, with the UFC’s recent actions, that they won’t force Cejudo to reign as strictly a bantamweight champion. Especially given his past screw-ups making weight at 125 pounds. It’s not like talent isn’t available in the weight class, but the company is all too willing to let them walk. Hell, they ‘traded’ Demetrious Johnson, the best flyweight ever.
For men, the flyweight history is debilitated. The real start of the flyweight division is in 2003, when Shooto finally decided to crown a champion in their 123-pound class. Its famous Year End Show culminated with Mamoru Yamaguchi topping Yasuhiro Urushitani in a largely pedestrian bout. Due to Shooto’s strict rules, which allowed champions to fight in non-title fights (but would only green light a title fight if a particular contender reached the top of their rankings), Yamaguchi never won an actual title fight. He drew with Robson Moura in an awful bout, then drew with Shinichi Kojima in a more competitive contest. In a rematch, Kojima choked Yamaguchi out cold—but things didn’t exactly get hot from there.
Kojima had a string of non-title fights. He went all of 3-2-2 over his next seven matchups before being dominated by Jussier da Silva (one of the few flyweights still on UFC roster). Predictably, it wasn’t a Shooto title fight. In fact, at that point, the MMA media simply called him ‘Jucie Formiga.’ It was a formative upset. It changed how the flyweight division was working, but ultimately, just resulted in more, long-spanning chaos.
Da Silva chose to take his talents and undefeated record stateside, and landed with Tachi Palace Fights—where matchmaker Richard Goodman was keen to capitalize on a division that was being ignored by major promoters. When ‘Formiga’ showed up, he was upset by Ian McCall (who literally accepted the fight while he was recovering from a drug overdose). As the UFC was looking to open its flyweight division – can’t have too many titles when you think that’s what sells pay-per-views – they signed McCall and put him into their four-man flyweight tournament. And, wouldn’t you know it, his semifinal bout with Demetrious Johnson was judged a majority draw. But, the New South Wales Combat Sports Authority couldn’t do math, and incorrectly announced Johnson the winner. There was a ‘sudden death’ provision for the bout – that would have allowed a fourth round if judged a draw – but because of a couple people who can’t add, that never happened.
Johnson went on to win that tournament. He would go on to become the best flyweight ever. He lorded over the division and racked up 11 straight title defenses. Yet, the UFC consistently put him in inopportune, difficult situations that would make it hard for any fighter to draw money or eyeballs. Consequently, his entire six-year title reign wasn’t about whether he was the best fighter in MMA. It was a focused, pointed character assassination over why flyweights can’t draw money and why he hadn’t suddenly transformed from larva and turned into a box office butterfly. And, after UFC 227 last August – when he lost a questionable split decision to Cejudo – the UFC cleaved his contract and ‘traded’ him to One Championship. All the while, paring down the division and roundly releasing its flyweight talent.
Flyweight for women has been no less easy.
For years, the stalwart hallmark for women’s MMA was Smackgirl. In women’s MMA, there were almost never flyweight fights, and this even held true for Japanese promotion. Smackgirl had three champions in their “middleweight” division – 128 pounds – and none of them made a successful defense of their title. Laura D’Auguste gave up her title due to retirement, Hitomi Akano went a full year without making a defense, then Takayo Hashi beat her in a redemptive rematch before the promotion shuttered in 2008.
Stateside, the women’s MMA scene has always been focused on 115 and 135 pounds. For whatever reason, that’s just always where the talent has concentrated. Even in the United States – where promoters like Jeff Osborne sought to promote women’s MMA – for whatever reason, 125 pounds was seemingly an afterthought—apparently falling between weight classes that women were apt to compete at.
It seems that flyweight, man or woman, has always been MMA’s bastard division. The casual idea is “No one wants to watch little guys or women fight!” This notion is garbage. Fifteen years ago or so, the Manny Pacquiao-Marco Antonio Barrera-Erik Morales trinity was the only thing boxing had to sell tickets and draw eyeballs, and what weight range were they competing in? People just want to see great athletes. The idea that people don’t want to see, or won’t buy “small people” is a dead notion. I remember a time when MMA fans thought the idea of a 155-pound division was ridiculous. Because, of course, who would want to watch such small men? Did any part of Tony Ferguson busting Donald Cerrone up feel “small” to you? What is the most talented division in MMA, year over year? You get my point.
I don’t think there’s any one factor that accounts for this ideology, though. In America, for men, it took promoters time to realize how much talent was in this weight class, even if companies are screwing around with it now. For women, for whatever reason, it seems like promotions wanted to start with 115 and 135-pound divisions and never really grew out of that mold. For whatever reason, flyweight just slipped between the cracks. The question is if someone wants to rescue it.
“Obviously him winning had a lot to do with the division,” UFC President Dana White said to MMAJunkie after Cejudo’s impressive victory, discussing the flyweight division. “Did I say it’s going away? Did I say it’s leaving? I haven’t even talked about that division in months. Yes, it is confirmed.”
“I haven’t even talked about that division in months” alone is a quote that doesn’t allow people to invest much hope, especially when the company has less than a dozen flyweight men, but at least it’s a glimmer.
For women, things are more complicated. The weird, spurious nature of the division’s development after years of neglect has created an atmosphere where the three best flyweight women in the world are in three different promotions. Shevchenko is, at worst, one of the three best women in the world, pound-for-pound. Hell, she arguably beat Amanda Nunes last time out. Bellator MMA has Ilima-Lei Macfarlane, who is a spectacular submission artist and exciting as hell. And, Invicta Fighting Championships has veteran battler Vanessa Porto as their titlist. To my mind, there’s no dispute that Shevchenko is the best flyweight woman in the world, but the curious and fractured nature of how this division has developed has left her without the kind of competition we’d like to see out of an elite athlete. I mean, is beating Jessica Eye and probably next, Katlyn Chookagian, going to solidify your legacy?
There’s no easy solution. I mean, the UFC deleted the lightweight division while Pride was developing talent and having thrilling 160-pound fights, which shows how these things can go. Is the UFC really going to let Cejudo reign as a two-division champion after removing almost anyone he could fight? Can it find serviceable contenders for Shevchenko? Can Bellator actually turn Macfarlane into a star, instead of just relying on Pride and UFC retreads?
Who knows, but what history tells us is that flyweight, man or woman, is lost, vulnerable and prone to being cast over. We can only hope the future is better.