Update: I wrote this before the UFC announced TJ-Cejudo for the Flyweight title, so who knows how much of this will be relevant down the line. There is a good chance that fight is the last in the division anyway, but who knows. But, I think a lot of it still has some bearing.
The news came down this week that the UFC is entirely dropping the flyweight division. Even though the writing had been on the wall for a while, certainly since the Demetrious Johnson/Ben Askren trade, it still came as a bit of a shock. Flyweight has always held a tenuous position in the UFC. The first ever flyweight fight ever in the history promotion, part of a 4 man tournament to crown the division’s first champion, ended in a draw. THE FIRST FIGHT almost killed the entire division. From that point on, things at 125 haven’t been great. Demetrious Johnson never became a star of any magnitude, blame who ever you want for that, but he just isn’t a star on any appreciable level. No flyweight fight ever set the world on fire, no flyweight set themselves up to be a perennial headliner, even on the Fight Pass level. It just hasn’t ever been a great division. But even if Flyweights, for the most part, have never drawn big ratings or buyrates, they still filled plenty of slots on cards and with the number of cards and the sheer amount of fights the UFC schedules in a given year, cutting an entire division, even flyweight, seemed unlikely. But, here we are, Flyweights will be a part of the UFC for roughly two months, some of them might move to 135, but the bulk of them will be left to look for work elsewhere, we’ve already started to see the cuts.
The thing is, this whole thing kind of happened before, when the UFC axed lightweight after UFC 49. They claimed nobody wanted to see small guys fight, that no body would pay to see those fighters, and so after a series of comical mishaps, they cut the division, only to bring it back some 18 months later. So, what can we learn from that period? What do we have to look forward to?
The thing that ultimately killed Lightweight in the UFC, is the same thing that almost killed the UFC’s Flyweight division in its infancy. A four man tournament with a draw. When Jens Pulver soundly beat BJ Penn at UFC 35 and summarily left with the title belt, the UFC was in a rough spot. The guy they wanted to build around, BJ Penn, had just lost to a guy who they couldn’t, or perhaps would rather not, pay. Without a champion, or even a bonafide contender, they set up a four man tournament — made up of BJ Penn, Din Thomas, Matt Serra, and Caol Uno — to crown a new champion. It was set up for BJ to win, that was made plain from the outset, and he did win it, except on the scorecards. BJ Penn beat Caol Uno in a close fight at UFC 41, everyone, except for two of the judges that night, knew it. But because fights come down to those 3 judges, the fight was scored a draw. The tournament to crown a new champion ended in a draw, a complete bust. And so, the UFC proceeded, booking Lightweight fights for a short time entirely for the purpose of booking fights. Without a title to build to, how meaningful can a fight be? What’s the point of a division without a championship? And so, with a sparse schedule, financial constraints, and no champion they cut the division entirely.
Although it wasn’t a draw, when Demetrious Johnson lost to Henry Cejudo, ending his streak of eleven consecutive title defenses, it had the same sort of effect. The title wasn’t left vacant, but the one thing that buoyed the division, DJ’s historic streak, was over. As loath as the UFC was to promote DJ, the one thing they did promote was that streak, the whole division centered around it. Who could beat DJ? Who would be the person to end Might Mouse’s streak? The built an entire season of The Ultimate Fighter around it, and even then they couldn’t find anyone to beat him. We found out, somewhat anticlimactically that the answer was Henry Cejudo, and the one storyline the division had going for it was over.
That isn’t to say that you can’t promote Henry Cejudo. Promoting a Latino Olympic Gold Medalist isn’t the hardest thing to do in the world, but why do it in a division that has so little else going for it, not to mention Cejudo’s checkered past with making the weight. Promoting Cejudo at 135 isn’t any harder than doing it at 125, in fact given the general perception of flyweight, it will probably be easier. When BJ Penn didn’t win the lightweight title, the UFC was more than happy to promote him at Welterweight, and the same goes with Cejudo, even if he actually won the title he was fighting for.
UPDATE: My read on the Cejudo-TJ fight at 125 is that it is an attempt to get two belts on TJ to promote him that way, and then to close the division right after that fight, so this could all still come to pass, but it is still very much up in the air, even more so than when I originally wrote this.
As for the rest of the division, the diaspora will be interesting. When the UFC killed Lightweight in 2004, Pride had already started promoting fights at 160 lbs, building much of their division on the back of an already sterling division in Shooto. You could draw parallels between that situation and Rizin’s current crop 125ers, it isn’t quite the same, Rizin still isn’t on the same level of Pride, but if Rizin wants to be the home of 125, they could very easily become that with the help oh Horoguchi and Tenshin Nasukawa. The same could apply to One Championship, after all they have Demetrious Johnson now and a preexisting division of their own.
The interesting thing that happened after the Uno-Penn debacle, and even before that when Pulver left after UFC 35, was that all of the sudden important fights were happening everywhere. Penn and Gomi fought in Hawaii on a show BJ’s brother promoted, Duane Ludwig became a top 5 lightweight after beating Jen Pulver on a UCC card in Montreal, guys like Yves Edwards had serious claims at being the best lightweight in the world despite not having any sort of meaningful title and fighting in MFC cards, it was a wild time. We could be in the midst of a similar era soon, the biggest fight at 125 in 2019 could take place on some regional MMA show, if Jussier Formiga fights Ray Borg on a Shooto Brazil card, it might be the biggest flyweight fight of the year, depending on what happens with Might Mouse in One. There is something cool about that, something novel about meaningful fights happening outside of the UFC, it hasn’t happened in a long time.
The downside here is that, more than likely, without the the UFC, flyweights, on average, stand to make less money and without the aspirations of a UFC run, the overall talent level at 125 will most likely drop. Look at something like women’s MMA, up until very recently, the talent level has been less than optimal, in the broad sense. There have always been great fighters, but today there is a lot more of them. Why? Because for a long time, the money wasn’t there and it takes a rare breed to get into prize fighting for something other than money. So, we’ll see what happens with 125. Will it flourish overseas or on a regional level? Will it see a talent exodus and shrivel? Let’s see how it plays out.