No one knows for sure what the future holds for the men’s flyweight division in the UFC.
Back in November, long-time champion Demetrious Johnson was essentially traded to ONE Championship in exchange for unbeaten welterweight Ben Askren and a handful of competitors in the 125-pound weight class were released from their contracts. The whispers of the division being shuttered grew louder, but contradictory moves were being made at the same time.
The biggest of those was the announcement that the highly anticipated “Champion vs. Champion” clash between Henry Cejudo and TJ Dillashaw was indeed going to happen, but not at bantamweight where many people expected. Instead of Cejudo moving up to the 135-pound weight class to challenge for Dillashaw’s belt, the two-time titleholder would be heading down to flyweight in hopes of becoming the fourth fighter in UFC history to hold two championships simultaneously.
What made the decision to book the marquee bout, which headlines this weekend’s UFC on ESPN+ debut at Barclays Center in Brooklyn, New York, even more curious is that Dillashaw bragged about being paid “a f—load of money to kill the 125-[pound] division and collect a second belt.”
Dillashaw’s statement gives credence to the idea that the UFC will do away with the men’s side of the flyweight division in the near future, but it also calls into question the logic behind starting the 2019 campaign with a championship fight that could ultimately be meaningless in the grand scheme of things before too long.
Except there is another twist to this story, as Dillashaw’s championship challenge isn’t the only flyweight bout on this weekend’s fight card.
Three fights prior to the headlining pair stepping into the Octagon, Joseph Benavidez will square off with Dustin Ortiz. The former sits at No. 2 in the UFC Fighter Rankings, while the latter is stationed at No. 8. Both are coming off impressive stoppage victories. Both have been fixtures in the division since its inception. Whoever wins has a legitimate case for a title shot, but will there still be a title for them to challenge for six months from now?
No one can say for sure and UFC President Dana White has been reticent to lay out the promotion’s plans for regarding the future of the men’s half of the 125-pound weight class, but as the first event of the 2019 campaign draws closer with a flyweight title fight atop the marquee, there is a very real case to be made for keeping the division intact going forward.
First and foremost, the optics of disbanding a division shortly after having a championship fight in that weight class headline the first event in your brand new broadcast partnership are just weird.
Not bad, necessarily, just really odd because it didn’t have to be this way.
Cejudo immediately said he wanted to go up and challenge for the bantamweight title after wresting the flyweight strap away from Johnson at UFC 227, barely an hour before Dillashaw went out and cemented his place atop the division with a first-round knockout win over Cody Garbrandt.
The Olympic gold medalist has fought in the division before, it would still be a “Champion vs. Champion” clash and one athlete would still have the opportunity to join Conor McGregor, Daniel Cormier and Amanda Nunes as the only fighters to hold two title simultaneously, only it would be Cejudo instead of Dillashaw.
The winner would reign over a weight class that has never been healthier and kick off 2019 by earning a massive victory that puts him in a position to be a championship cornerstone for the promotion going forward.
Instead, Saturday’s main event feels ill conceived and comes with a far greater downside, regardless of what happens with the flyweight division going forward.
While the upside of a Dillashaw victory is that the former TUF finalist adds a second belt to his resume, which in theory would add to his star power and bolster the interest in future bantamweight title fights, a loss leaves the UFC with a sitting champion who just got beaten in a lighter weight class.
Even though Cejudo is a standout talent, such a result would take some of the shine off Dillashaw’s star and necessitate a rematch between the two, this time at bantamweight, with Dillashaw’s belt hanging in the balance.
Only that fight would be likely be less appealing given the outcome of their first encounter and it would cause further chaos within the division, as the contenders who currently stand at the ready would again be asked to put their championship dreams on hold as a newcomer enters their ranks and fights for the title right away.
Booking the fight at flyweight created a more treacherous road for the UFC to navigate over the next several months, but the obstacles it creates extend beyond just this fight and the division, giving even more credence to the argument for keeping the men’s side of the flyweight division operational going forward.
Dissolving the division does away with a championship belt and over the last several years, the UFC has shown an increasing desire to have two title fights on the majority of pay-per-view (PPV) events.
In 2017, seven of the 12 PPV events were initially booked with two or more championship fights, with that number growing to eight of the 13 PPV events in 2018. Given that two of last year’s PPVs were international events, which rarely feature multiple title fights, and one was the highly anticipated clash between Khabib Nurmagomedov and Conor McGregor, that means eight of the remaining 10 shows featured multiple title fights.
And those same trends appear to be holding true in early 2019 as well, with UFC 234 in Melbourne, Australia featuring a single championship bout, but the stacked return to Las Vegas a month later for UFC 235 tentatively booked to include both a light heavyweight and welterweight title fight.
Fans have become conditioned to expect massive fight cards on pay-per-view and in just a couple of years, twin championship bouts have gone from being a rarity to the norm. As such, why would the UFC opt to scrap an entire division, therefore giving itself one less championship belt to position on this year’s slate of pay-per-view shows?
While Johnson was never a draw and a flyweight championship fight would likely never be booked as the main event of a PPV going forward, it’s a perfect secondary title to affix to a fight card and the bouts have been largely entertaining for the last several years, even if fans continue to grouse about unknown challengers.
Not only that, but keeping belts in circulation and champions off the sidelines has been a chore over the last couple years, so the decision to willingly reduce that number by one doesn’t make a great deal of sense given recent PPV trends and the UFC continuing to maintain a torrid schedule in 2019.
Additionally, it’s not like there aren’t contenders ready to challenge for the flyweight title going forward and depending on how things shake out between Benavidez and Ortiz, the UFC will have the perfect dance partner in place for whoever emerges victorious in Saturday night’s main event.
Benavidez has a history with both Dillashaw and Cejudo, having trained with the former for several years at Team Alpha Male and beaten the latter in an ultra-close, thoroughly entertaining scrap three years ago after coaching against one another on Season 24 of The Ultimate Fighter.
If he beats Ortiz, it will be his second win in three months, eighth in his last nine starts, and elevate his record to 12-3 in the division, where two of those losses came in title fights against “Mighty Mouse.” With easy-to-promote ties to both members of this weekend’s championship bout, a victorious Benavidez would be an easy sell as a title contender and he’ll likely say as much on Saturday if he wins.
And if Ortiz beats him, the Tennessee native replaces the veteran contender as next in line by running his winning streak to four.
Rather than scrapping the division and taking the belt out of circulation, the UFC should book the winner of the first flyweight bout to hit the cage this weekend against the winner of the second later this year and keep the division alive.
As much as there have been several fighters released from their contracts, the core of the weight class remains in place and flyweight doesn’t need to be anything more than 20-25 fighters deep.
Maintaining a lighter roster where everyone is always two or three good wins away from title contention, similar to how things work at heavyweight, makes a lot of sense and keeps the focus on a core group of contenders while upping the importance of every single fight within the division.
The men’s flyweight division has only been around for six years and this year marks the first time since its inception that Johnson hasn’t started the year with the belt around his waist.
Instead of making 2019 the end of the line for the men’s 125-pound ranks, the UFC should use this year as an opportunity to revitalize the division going forward, starting with Saturday night’s event.