They have waited their turn with persistent patience, many of them plying their trade for regional circuit pennies as they sought an opportunity no one seemed convinced would ever come their way. In a matter of days, the flyweights will finally arrive in the Ultimate Fighting Championship.
Score one for the little guy.
A four-man tournament to crown the promotion’s first flyweight champion will kick off at UFC on FX 2 “Alves vs. Kampmann” this Friday at the Allphones Arena in Sydney, Australia. There, a quartet of the sport’s best and brightest at 125 pounds will vie for the gold and the right to be remembered as the first man to summit the UFC’s flyweight mountain. The winner will be forever linked to the pioneering champions who went before him: Mark Coleman, Frank Shamrock, Dave Menne, Pat Miletich, Jens Pulver, Jose Aldo and Dominick Cruz.
With blinding speed and breathtaking skill as its hallmarks, the 125-pound division can only strengthen the UFC brand. Which man will be welcomed into the promotion’s pantheon of kings? Here is a look at the four mixed martial artists who answered the call on the Road to the UFC Flyweight Championship.
No one stands to gain more from the advent of the 125-pound class than Benavidez. Universally recognized as an elite bantamweight, he has already fought and lost to reigning champion Dominick Cruz twice. That leaves Benavidez in a state of limbo at 135 pounds, a fact which was only exacerbated by the arrival of Team Alpha Male stablemate and longtime mentor Urijah Faber. Benavidez will enter the four-man tournament as a healthy favorite, backed by a three-fight winning streak and previous victories over former WEC bantamweight champion Miguel Torres, 2007 Abu Dhabi Combat Club Submission Wrestling World Championships gold medalist Rani Yahya and well-traveled Brazilian jiu-jitsu black belt Jeff Curran. The skills of a prime 27-year-old figure to translate well to 125 pounds, where the San Antonio native could prove freakishly strong, as well. In short, this could be Benavidez’s doorway to superstardom.
The former Shooto 123-pound champion has his work cut out for him in his UFC debut. Finished only once in an outstanding career that spans more than a decade, Urushitani has avenged three of his four professional defeats. The 35-year-old Japanese stalwart has rattled off five consecutive victories, equaling the longest such streak of his career. With wins over “The Ultimate Fighter” Season 14 winner John Dodson, former two-division Shooto champion Mamoru Yamaguchi and the world-ranked Yuki Shojo already in his back pocket, Urushitani’s place in the tournament can only be described as well-deserved. However, his counter-heavy style lends itself to few finishes -- 17 of his 23 bouts have gone the distance -- and one has to wonder how that methodical approach will play against an opponent as gifted offensively as Benavidez.
A 5-foot-3 ball of fury, the diminutive Johnson, aptly nicknamed “Mighty Mouse,” has become one of MMA’s most dynamic performers. Successful in his bantamweight incarnation, the 25-year-old Kentucky native used wins over former Ring of Combat champion Nick Pace, Jackson’s Mixed Martial Arts representative Damacio Page, 2005 K-1 Hero’s lightweight grand prix winner Norifumi “Kid” Yamamoto and Torres as a springboard to a shot at bantamweight titleholder Cruz at UFC Live 6 in October. Though Johnson fell short on the scorecards and wound up on the wrong side of a unanimous decision, he caused Cruz plenty of problems with his otherworldly quickness and agility. Now, the Matt Hume protégé gets a chance to showcase his skills at his natural weight class. Only one rule applies when watching Johnson compete: do not blink.
Voted Sherdog.com “Comeback Fighter of the Year” for 2011, McCall has emerged as one of the sport’s most compelling figures, with his signature handlebar mustache, affinity for Chihuahuas and rebirth at 125 pounds. After a failed run as a World Extreme Cagefighting bantamweight, which included an embarrassing submission loss to Charlie Valencia in 2007, “Uncle Creepy” cut 10 pounds and has yet to feel the sting of defeat since. The colorful, complex and, at times, seemingly haunted 27-year-old Californian has made enormous strides with his striking and grappling under Colin Oyama and Giva Santana. McCall -- whose battles with addiction outside of the cage are as well-chronicled as his exploits inside it -- burst on the global scene with a memorable 2011 campaign, as he captured the Tachi Palace Fights crown and scored wins over the previously unbeaten Jussier da Silva, Dustin Ortiz and Darrell Montague, all three of whom figure to follow the trail he blazes into the Octagon. The world’s top-ranked flyweight will find himself in deep waters in his first Octagon appearance, as he locks horns with Johnson in the semifinals. Anyone with a straight face willing to count him out?