Demetrious Johnson has a tight grip on the flyweight division. | Photo: Dave Mandel/Sherdog.com
The first Ultimate Fighting Championship pay-per-view event headlined by flyweights touches down on Saturday in Vancouver, British Columbia, Canada. A band of local Canadian fighters plays host to a UFC 174 card with plenty of international flavor, though there is nothing like an American champion defending his title against a Russian in Canada on Flag Day.
HOW WE GOT HERE: Flyweight champion Demetrious Johnson and Team Alpha Male’s Joseph Benavidez were supposed to give us a highly technical and action-packed five round fight at UFC on Fox 9 in December. Instead, “Mighty Mouse” blasted Benavidez with a right hand two minutes into the opening frame, cementing his status as the sport’s top flyweight. Johnson’s latest challenger, Ali Bagautinov, has quietly put together a 3-0 run since joining the promotion, emerging as the default No. 1 contender ... Welterweights Rory MacDonald and Tyron Woodley enter their potential title eliminator with only two career losses each. Georges St. Pierre shuffled the deck when he took a leave of absence and vacated the welterweight throne in November, resulting in a division that was wide open for fighters who could string together a few good wins. The MacDonald-Woodley winner should be no more than one victory away from a title shot ... Three of Ryan Bader’s four losses have come against current or former UFC champions: Lyoto Machida, Tito Ortiz and Jon Jones. He is the best fighter at 205 pounds in terms of separating real contenders from non-contenders, so it made sense to book the two-time NCAA All-American wrestler against former Strikeforce titleholder Rafael Cavalcante. “Feijao” has shown glimpses of greatness in dispatching Muhammed Lawal and Yoel Romero, but he has also failed a drug test and stumbled against Thiago Silva and Dan Henderson.
PSA: Remember the FX network? The UFC 174 prelims will be televised there. Apparently, NASCAR on Fox Sports 1 and coverage of the 24 Hours of Le Mans on Fox Sports 2 trump the UFC’s warm-up fights. For those of you who do not have Fox Sports 2 (there are many) or do not have Fox Sports 2 in high-definition (me), this is not a bad development. However, UFC Fight Nights are consistently some of the highest-rated programs on Fox Sports 1. It is a shame that audiences have to go on an Easter egg hunt to find regular UFC programming.
ON DECK: The winner of the Robbie Lawler-Matt Brown battle at UFC on Fox 12 on July 26 will be next in line for reigning welterweight champion Johny Hendricks, according to UFC President Dana White. Lawler’s fantastic five-round knucklefest with Hendricks in a UFC 171 phone booth was close and engaging, and it left everyone yearning for rounds six through 10. It is no wonder then that the Lawler-Brown winner gets first dibs, once the champion returns from biceps surgery. However, guaranteed title shots are anything but guaranteed in the UFC. Woodley’s vocal jihad has racked up text message surcharges on White’s phone. He wants a title shot, but one has to wonder whether or not there is anything he or MacDonald can do inside the Octagon in Vancouver to trump Lawler or Brown. Still, it should be fun to watch them try.
OLD FANGS: When the UFC announced on April 24 that it had re-signed Andrei Arlovski following his World Series of Fighting release, the news was greeted with mixed responses. The former heavyweight champion went 8-5 after exiting the Ultimate Fighting Championship six years ago, leaving many to wonder why the UFC would move to acquire his services again. Arlovski, 35, is far removed from his heyday, as his last significant win came against Roy Nelson in 2008. The Belarusian will likely never wear UFC gold again, so why sign him? In the heavyweight division, well-rounded talents fans know do not grow on trees. Arlovski holds victories over the aforementioned Nelson and Fabricio Werdum. With still-anonymous heavyweights like Carlos Augusto Filho, Derrick Lewis and Ruan Potts on the roster, why not add the man with vampire fang mouthpiece?
TAKE TWO: Johnson has fought six times against four different opponents since dropping to 125 pounds. He faced a rematch with Ian McCall after a judging scandal in Australia and fought Benavidez again after a close decision for the inaugural flyweight championship. In both rematches, the champion was decidedly more dominant than he was in the previous meeting. Another rematch is likely in store for Johnson should he defeat Bagautinov. John Dodson ended John Moraga’s night in violent fashion with a knee to the nose on June 7 in Albuquerque, N.M., solidifying himself as the No. 1 contender. Out of all of Johnson’s flyweight bouts, that is the rematch I want to see most. Dodson hurt and hunted “Mighty Mouse” for two rounds at UFC on Fox 6 before Johnson made his ingenious mid-fight adjustments and retained his title. While the young flyweight division fills out, rematches will remain common occurrences. We can all look forward to Johnson-Dodson 2.
RACE TO THE FINISH: “Mighty Mouse” had already made his mark as an incredibly talented flyweight, and he had also started to gain the reputation as a champion with a knack for hearing the final bell. The 27-year-old started his UFC career with seven consecutive decisions, including three of the five-round variety. A fifth-round submission win over Moraga in July was a pleasant change but was written off as an outlier against a rushed prospect. Johnson’s knockout of Benavidez five months later made the trend seem less fluky. The champion will enter the cage against Bagautinov as a 6-to-1 favorite. If he can continue to knock off and finish top contenders, we are looking a real potential increase in star power.
AWARDS WATCH: Johnson wrapped up the Triple Crown of Post-Fight Bonuses in his last three fights, winning “Fight of the Night,” “Submission of the Night” and “Knockout of the Night” honors. That pattern should continue against Bagautinov. Check off the flyweight championship as “Fight of the Night” at UFC 147 … Cavalcante is a boom-or-bust fighter. The Brazilian’s power makes him capable of fantastic finishes, but his recklessness often leaves him open to equally brutal counters. Bader should be smart enough to navigate his power and deliver a bonus-level performance ... Daniel Sarafian is a better fighter than his 1-2 UFC record indicates, while Kiichi Kunimoto is not as good as his five-fight winning streak suggests. The UFC is bringing in a Japanese fighter with no Western Hemisphere fighting experience to give Sarafian the chance to look good -- and he will.