Demetrious Johnson was the pound-for-pound king. (Photo: Jeff Bottari/Getty Images)
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It all started back in August, when after five hard-fought rounds in the UFC 227 co-headliner, the unthinkable happened: Demetrious Johnson lost his flyweight belt. For the first time since the division’s inception back in September 2012, the crown had a new home, wrapped around the bulbous dome of former Olympic gold medalist Henry Cejudo.
The immediate reaction was mixed. Many decried the judge’s scorecards, pointing out that “Mighty Mouse” had handily outstruck “The Messenger” and questioning how much weight the latter’s takedowns should have been given, with his lack of submission attempts or damage inflicted on the ground. Others reacted with enthusiasm, suggesting that the new champion, with his Mexican-American heritage and Olympic pedigree, could provide the perfect proxy for the Ultimate Fighting Championship to make inroads into the long-sought-after Latin American market. A very sizeable section of the MMA community set about clamoring for a rubber match, Johnson having won the first encounter in their series via a blitzkrieg of knees and elbows back at UFC 197.
As it turns out, one man who was not occupied by any of these rejoinders was Johnson himself, who admitted on Ariel Helwani’s MMA Show that after the loss he saw an opportunity to leave his torrid relationship with the UFC behind and set sail to greener pastures in Asia. The story goes that Johnson approached his management to see if they could inquire into getting a release from the Las Vegas promotion, and from there, the seeds of a historic “trade” -- whereby Johnson’s UFC contract was exchanged with One Championship for that of semi-retired Ben Askren -- were sown.
Ultimately, Johnson got his wish, and both he and Askren seem to be settling into their new digs just fine. However, it may also have set off a chain of events ultimately leading to the demise of his long-time haunt, the UFC 125-pound weight class. As has become customary with the UFC, the news hasn’t filtered through the official channels. Rather, the promotion simply began churning out release papers to fighters -- including the much-hyped Jose Torres, who signed with the organization earlier this year and has gone 1-1 since -- leaving fighters and media to put two and two together.
The fact that bantamweight champion T.J. Dillashaw will reportedly move down to 125 pounds to challenge Cejudo muddies the waters somewhat -- another staple of UFC decision-making these days -- but by most accounts, that’s just delaying the division’s execution. The fighters that currently call flyweight home are at best future bantamweights; at worst, they’re dead men walking.
How will the 125ers be remembered when all the blood has been let? What does it say about the state of MMA that the UFC wants out of the flyweight division? They are questions that are both inextricably linked to the now-departed Johnson, whose legend as a mixed martial artist with unparalleled skills and a record 11 title defenses was continuously dogged by an ostensible lack of interest from the casual fanbase.
First, let’s discuss the fights themselves, which, by any aesthetic metric, were joys to watch. From the very first flyweight pairing, which saw Johnson and the enigmatic Ian McCall trade an astonishing 136 significant strikes in Sydney en route to a controversial draw, to Cejudo’s sniper-like right hand that put Wilson Reis’ down in September 2017, to Johnson’s awe-inspiring suplex armbar over Ray Borg in Las Vegas the following month. To watch flyweights fight was -- and is -- to witness the most far-fetched fight sequence in the most outrageous Stallone film played at double speed. They move faster than physics should allow, and when there’s an exchange, it often resembles a looney tunes fight cloud -- all limbs and dust and exclamation marks. The things that flyweights do are outside the realm of possibility for their heavier counterparts, and it’s a blow for the sports side of “sports entertainment” that those feats will no longer be taking place in the Octagon.
What exactly is the reason for the dissolution? That ostensibly goes right back to when the division began, when then-middleweight contender Michael Bisping -- and no shortage of fans -- derided the flyweights as a proverbial “munchkin crew.” The argument back then was that seeing men 50 odd pounds below the United States average just didn’t interest the Casual Sports Fan, a stigma that many of the heavier fighters did little to dispel. Back in 2012, UFC President Dana White reacted to those criticisms with enmity, famously calling fans who weren’t interested in the flyweights “morons” and imploring them to never buy another UFC pay-per-view. In the years since and especially after the company was sold to WME-IMG in 2016, White’s ability to play the long game and his proselytizing-approach to fights that don’t translate into black ink, has faded away.
So the cards anchored by flyweights did poorly, almost all of them Johnson’s title defenses or the occasional main event featuring the likes of Cejudo or Sergio Pettis. The same tired bag of promotional tricks the UFC likes to use to prop up its product -- cookie cutter video packages, the 700th season of “The Ultimate Fighter” -- failed to produce solid or even mediocre ratings, and as the organization began to embrace a lowest-common-denominator approach to fight promotion, an understated guy like Johnson began to look more out of place. We got a glimpse at the disharmony last year when Johnson released a lengthy, impassioned statement accusing the UFC of bullying and mistreatment -- a complaint that White responded to by, in a new low even for him, questioning Johnson’s status as the pound-for-pound king. Now 18 months removed, the divorce papers have finally come through.
There are a lot of “what ifs” in this scenario -- MMAFighting’s Chuck Mindenhall set out a bunch of them in an essay last week -- but count me among those who think that it was not a foregone conclusion that the UFC’s flyweight division had to go the way of the dinosaurs. Even conceding Johnson’s lack of drawing power, or perhaps more accurately the UFC’s inability to modify its boiler-plate approach to fight promotion, it seems awfully short-sighted to swing the axe without giving Cejudo and his ilk a chance to reinvigorate the weight class. After all, it took Conor McGregor all of two years to breathe life into the then (financially) stagnant featherweight division after he debuted in 2013; and Cody Garbrandt went some way to doing a similar thing for the bantamweights over 2015-2016. What’s to say Jose Torres, or some kid just making his professional debut, couldn’t have done the same for flyweight sometime soon?
Ultimately, we’ll likely never know, and that’s not necessarily all bad news. While the UFC had all but given up investing promotional muscle into the 125ers, One Championship is looking to put the little guys on center stage, and more competition for fighter services is never a bad thing vis-à-vis industry standards. In a lot of ways, it also really sucks. Vale 125.
Jacob Debets is a recent law graduate who lives in Melbourne, Australia. He has been an MMA fan for more than a decade and trains in muay Thai and boxing at DMDs MMA in Brunswick. He is currently writing a book analyzing the economics and politics of the MMA industry. You can view more of his writing at jacobdebets.com.